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Study reveals agreeable men earn £4,500 less than their ruthless colleagues

It is a phrase that millions of good-natured people around the world will consider so obvious that it hardly deserves to be questioned. Nonetheless, a team of business experts claims to have proved the pessimistic notion that "nice guys finish last" – at least where money is concerned.

A study has found that a person's "agreeableness" has a negative effect on their earnings. "Niceness", according to the research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, does not appear to pay.

"This issue isn't really about whether people are nasty or nice," said Richard Newton, business author and consultant. "A better way of putting it might be a willingness to fight your corner."

While agreeable traits such as compliance, modesty and altruism may seem conducive to a good working atmosphere, the study found that managers are more likely to fast-track for promotion and pay rises "disagreeable" people – those more likely to "aggressively advocate for their position".

The study, by Beth A Livingston of Cornell University, Timothy A Judge of the University of Notre Dame and Charlice Hurst of the University of Western Ontario, interviewed 9,000 people who entered the labour force in the past decade about their career, and gave personality tests which were then measured against income data.

The findings are bad news for nice guys, but worse still for women of all temperaments. They show that, regardless of their levels of agreeableness, women earned nearly 14 per cent less than men. Agreeable men earned an average of $7,000 (£4,490) less than their disagreeable peers.

"Nice guys do not necessarily finish last, but they do finish a distant second in terms of earnings," the study noted. "Our research provides strong evidence that men earn a substantial premium for being disagreeable while the same behaviour has little effect on women's income." Reasons offered for the difference include a better success rate for disagreeable types when negotiating pay rises, suggesting stubbornness is a key for success.

Horrible bosses: businesspeople with bite

Scott Rudin: The film producer has a reputation of being a difficult man to please with a nice sideline in Hollywood tantrums. He has produced films such as No Country for Old Men and The Social Network, but four years ago media blog Gawker named him one of New York's worst bosses.

Kenneth Lay: The former CEO of energy trader Enron was convicted of fraud and conspiracy in May 2006, in charges relating to the collapse of the company in 2001. Many employees felt bitter at their treatment by the executives. Lay died in July 2006, aged 64.

Steve Jobs: To the world he was a visionary, but Steve Jobs was renowned in Silicon Valley for his disagreeable nature. In 1981, Mactonish project founder Jef Raskin once complained to Apple president Mike Scott about Jobs' behaviour. When Jobs discovered the complaint, he fired Raskin. There are several accounts of Jobs firing employees on the spot for trivial reasons.

Carol Bartz: When she became head of Yahoo! in 2009, Bartz informed employees that she would "drop-kick to fucking Mars" anyone who was caught leaking company secrets. Known to staff as a "tough operator" Bartz was fired by Yahoo!'s board over the phone in September.

Don King: The boxing promoter has been involved in several court cases with fighters that he represented. Former world champion Mike Tyson said of him: "He would kill his own mother for a dollar ... He's deplorable, he's greedy, and he doesn't know how to love anybody." Because of this, King is the best-known promoter of his time.

Alan Sugar: Alan Sugar is perhaps less known for his business achievements than he is for The Apprentice, a show where contestants seemingly compete to see who can be the most willing to forgo civility to win. He was accused by the former Labour Party Treasurer Baroness Prosser as promoting "bullying and sexism" on his programme.

Don Arden: Described as the "most feared man in music" – Don Arden was said to have hung a rival out of a window, stubbed a cigar out on another's head, and not speak to his daughter Sharon Osbourne for 15 years over a contractual dispute. His methods appeared to work well for him – he found success managing the Small Faces, the Electric Light Orchestra and his son-in-law's band Black Sabbath.

Sir Fred Goodwin: "Fred the Shred" earned his soubriquet for his treatment of staff at the Royal Bank of Scotland. In a incident revealed in a book written about the financial crisis, he reportedly threatened staff with disciplinary action after someone placed the wrong type of biscuit in the boardroom.

Dov Charney: The chief executive of clothing label American Apparel has faced much negative publicity over his alleged behaviour, having faced lawsuits from female employees for sexual harassment which were settled out of court and allegedly masturbating in front of journalist Claudine Ko, from Jane magazine, in 2004, who was writing a profile about him.

Rupert Murdoch: The media baron has been both applauded and derided for his ruthlessness. Many argue that his often brutal business decisions – such the sacking of 5,000 workers in 1986 – are the key to his success. Others say he has fostered a fierce internal culture within his empire.

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