You show me yours and I'll show you mine

It isn't just the money - it's whether you get more or less than those around you. Paul Vallely on wage envy, an old sin coming back into fashion

There was something delightfully old-fashioned about the claim in court this week that the goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar took bribes to throw matches because he was jealous of his colleagues whose earnings were rising faster than his.

It sounds so Seventies. Surely that was the last time we had the leisure to envy our peers at work. Come the Eighties we were too busy being consumed with loathing for Donald Trump and the other super-rich of the Thatcher/Reagan boom. In the Nineties there has been enough to fulfil our envy quotient without looking round the office, Nicola Horlick's pounds 1m a year being but the latest example.

For all that, the workplace is still where envy is at its most acidic, according to Helen Fisher at the business psychology consultancy Nicholson- McBride. However elevated the business, there are some things which will reduce us all to the level of children competing in the playground over who has the most fashionable Reeboks. "It is the comparative that people mind about most," she says. "And managers can find it difficult to justify why some people are paid more than others - valuations of skill, flexibility or being a good team player can be hard to explain."

It is not just the cash. "Often it's the way the money reflects your perceived status in the organisation," says Neil Crawford, a psychotherapist at the Tavistock Clinic in London who specialises in organisational psychology. Which is why, he finds, envy can be more rampant in a small charity than in a merchant bank. "People in organisations that deal with money as part of their day-to-day business are less screwed-up. Where people work with altruistic motives, emotions can be much more complex."

Money can be a symbol for other things, too, Crawford says. "When others earn more than you, especially younger people who have arrived after you, it is an unpleasant reminder of your growing obsolescence."

But there is also the question of deserts. Could the former British Rail staff who bought out Porterbrook Leasing from the Government and sold it at a pounds 84m profit only months later really be said to merit that sum? In what sense have the public-spirited National Lottery directors earned their substantial salaries? Given the envy and resentment generated by such figures as the gas man Cedric Brown, it is small wonder that some companies now make it a stipulation in your contract that you cannot reveal your salary to colleagues. "It is a sacking offence," says Neil Crawford, "designed to ensure that people are rewarded on ability, not on their role, but with a divide-and-rule aspect which gives great power to the employer."

By contrast, others are all too keen to pin up the list of differing bonuses each year-end. "Some firms use envy as the motivating force to get people to work harder," Crawford says. But it can backfire. Responses to envy vary, he says, "from slagging people off, to sabotage, to stealing from the firm".

Envy works at all levels. I once read an interview with the industrialist Lord White on the west coast of America. He had everything - an attractive third wife, a stunning house in the Hollywood Hills, a Rolls-Royce and a plane. Not bad for a chap who had arrived in the US with only a few thousand pounds.

He did it all by inventing the leveraged buyout. Trouble was he did it all on behalf of what was then the Hanson Trust. As a result, his fortune of about $100m is probably a 10th of what it would have been. Lord White, the interviewer concluded, felt that $100m was not quite enough reward for his sterling achievements. I think I know how he feels.

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