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Colborn’s Corner: Game, Set and Match?

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Quentin Colborn
Wimbledon is upon us once again and there is an interesting HR debate raging over the prizes awarded to men and women playing in the tournament. Quentin Colborn looks at the concept of equal pay, the role of HR in sport and what happens when a player becomes bigger then the game.


I was interested to hear the debate over prize money for female players at Wimbledon because it immediately brought to mind the concept of ‘equal pay for work of equal value.’ However how does one judge the concept of ‘equal’ in a situation such as this? Does it simply relate to the activity, that is playing tennis? In which case I guess the activity is pretty similar albeit not quite so fast. Perhaps the concept of equality should relate to the amount of tennis being played in this respect one of the arguments against harmonising payments is that men play more sets than women, and hence justify the larger financial rewards.

Another approach to take may be that people would not be prepared to pay so much to watch women play tennis and so the prize money should be lower – a market forces type argument. Now I cannot claim to be any form of tennis aficionado, but my gut feel is that a differential seems fair in that men do play more sets than women. I don’t know why that is, and perhaps it should be changed, but in the present situation it’s akin to a piecework system where those who are stronger earn more than those who are weaker and take longer to do a job. I think few would regard that as being discriminatory, so why not within tennis?

One of the differentials between tennis and some other sports is that participants are effectively self-employed competitors, whereas in other team games such as cricket and football, players are very much employees. This raises some interesting questions about how they are handled and rewarded. A recent red card incident involving an employee named ‘R’ raises interesting questions about how such actions might have been viewed within a work context.

Violent conduct at work would normally lead to an ending of the employment relationship, but does it ever in football? Perhaps self-interest rules too much for employers to take any form of serious disciplinary action. Even fining a player six weeks wages (potentially £100K or more) seems small beer compared with annual earnings and sponsorships arrangements and so in some situations the player becomes more important than the game or the rules.

It could never happen at work, could it? Well, yes I’m afraid to say there are occasions where it does. In one organisation I witnessed a situation where a highly successful Sales Director subjected an HR Manager to a form of sexual harassment. Very bravely, the HR Manager raised the issue with her boss who discussed it with the MD. The response? “He’s a very successful Sales Director, I wouldn’t want to do anything to lose him.” At one level I think can I believe this, but I know it was true. How many other situations do we find that the player becomes more important than the game? Do we ever sacrifice our corporate values for the sake of an individual who is seen to be indispensable? It does happen but in my experience they are rarely worth it!

What views to you have on the HR aspects of the way sport is managed? What would happen with a greater HR perspective on how situations are handled? What about employees being greater than the business they work for – tell us about situations you have seen where corporate values have been sacrificed for seemingly important employees.

Quentin Colborn is an independent HR consultant based in Essex who advises management teams on operations and strategic HR issues. To contact him T: 01376 571360 or e-mail him at [email protected]

Colborn’s Corner: series articles

One Response

  1. Equal pay for work of equal value
    A much more progressive approach is the concept of equal pay for work of equal value.

    This approach may beg the question what is the value of competing in a tennis match? And who assigns that value? Don’t think this is one that can be solved via the Hay method.

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