That issue of fairness is what gets people so riled up. If employees think they’re getting a rough deal, they won’t react well. There’s an experiment, conducted by Emory University primatologists Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal. Two capuchin monkeys are completing the same task, for the same reward—a piece of cucumber. But after a while, one monkey is given a tastier grape instead. The other monkey notices and reaches out for hers, but when she is passed another piece of cucumber, she goes berserk, chucks the cucumber out of the cage, and refuses to continue doing her work.

The same kind of tantrum happens when a toddler is given half a cookie, after seeing their brother get a whole one. And it doesn’t matter how old we get, we can’t stop our brains from firing when we feel we’ve suffered an injustice. But instead of throwing a tantrum, we retaliate in other ways.

At work, that can mean quitting. De Vesine isn’t the only one to have done so. “Google continues to assert that it is normal attrition, and I think you can make the numbers tell both stories,” she says. “But it seemed to be higher than usual and much more senior-oriented than I had previously seen when I was leaving, and I’ve seen a continuation of that.”

Even if people don’t quit, they can revolt in different ways. “If you feel like you’re being treated poorly by your employer, it’s just human nature to not work as hard,” says Brian Kropp, chief of HR research at consultancy Gartner. There’s a mindset shift, he explains, if people feel they’re not being paid fairly for their contributions, then why should they contribute more, or even at all? “Perhaps even worse than leaving,” he says, “they quit in place.”

A study by researchers at Columbia University found that employees reduced their output at work by 52 percent when they discovered their coworkers were paid more. They were also 13.5 percentage points less likely to even show up (compared to a base of 94 percent attendance). So even if employees do begrudgingly take pay cuts, they’re likely to respond by working half as hard.

The worst part of the fallout is arguably what it says about the companies implementing these pay cuts. Kendra, an information architect at Google’s Seattle campus, has seen firsthand how employee attitudes toward the company have changed. “I’ve talked to a number of different people who have just straight up left the company because they don’t see the opportunity for growth within our organization,” she says.

Kendra has decided to return to the office, rather than taking a pay cut equivalent to losing a recent pay bump that’s taken her years to get. “But I also have a manager who is incredibly flexible,” she says. Her manager has already told her that she won’t need to come into the office the full three days a week. But what if that hadn’t been an option? “I think it would have put a deadline on my participation,” she says. Simply put, she would have quit within a year.

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