The top six officials at the National Labor Relations Board, overseer of the nation's labor laws, this year will earn thousands of dollars less than 16 of their subordinates.

In a fit of what one NLRB employe called "commendable objectivity," the officials -- five board members and the agency's general counsel -- approved performance bonuses of $7,200 each for selected lower-ranking executives.

That action last month means that NLRB Chairman John Fanning will be paid $2,025 less this year than the bonus winners in his agency. The remaining four board members and NLRB general counsel William A. Lubbers each will be paid $4,562.50 less than their subordinates.

The topsy-turvy situation is a result of federal pay compression compounded by good intentions. It is, in the minds of federal officials familiar with it, a good example of the kinds of pay problems facing other government agencies, especially those that, like the NLRB, are headed by persons below Cabinet level (executive level 1) status.

In an attempt to spur productivity at the highest federal levels, Congress passed the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act, which created the Senior Executive Service. SES members, all career federal officials, agreed to trade away rights to regular pay raises and certain grievance procedures in return for a chance to be awarded cash bonuses of up to 20 percent of their annual base salaries.

At the NLRB, the average bonus recipient has 25 years of service and is paid a maximum SES base of $50,112.50 a year. Five of the winners' top six bosses are paid a maximum $52,750. The sixth, Fanning, gets $55,387.50. All six are presidential appointees and ineligible for bonuses under the 1978 law.

With the $7,200 bonuses, NLRB bonus recipients will be paid $57,312.50.

"This never would have happened in the private sector," said Ernest Russell, director of the NLRB's administrative division and a bonus winner.

"This doesn't make good sense for the top policy people of an agency to make less than their subordinates. . . . It's just not the way to run a government," said Russell, who, nonetheless, said he was quite happy with his award.

Other agencies use performance review boards (PRBs) to determine bonus recipients and amounts -- a practice that has come in for some criticism because review panel members, such as those at the Small Business Administration, often were the recipients of the awards they gave.

NLRB officials said they anticipated that pitfall in setting up their bonus system. So, they said, they chose to limit their review panel's authority to an advisory role. The top six officials, who had nothing to gain financially, were empowered to make the decisions.

Still, six of the 16 NLRB review panel members received awards, which sparked some intra-agency grumbling and at least one anonymous letter to The Washington Post alleging fiscal hanky-panky.

But the agency's bosses said in a prepared statement that their subordinates deserved the bonuses because they "exhibited a very high level of leadership" in increasing the NLRB's productivity (the number of labor cases disposed of versus the number presented to the agency in a given year).

"During the first year under the Senior Executive Service, [the Nlrb] succeeded in increasing its [productivity] rate at about the 9 percent level," the statement said.

This year's NLRB bonus winners, and the agency's reason for awarding the bonus:

William C. Baisinger, chief counsel to the chairman, ". . . excellent preparation of cases that are faithful to the chairman's position."

Norton Come, deputy associate general counsel, Supreme Court Branch, ". . . expert in handling cases with national impact."

Joseph DeSio, associate general counsel, division of operations management, "responsible for implementing SES program in the field . . . [fiscal year] 1979 best year for field productivity."

Bernard Gottfried, regional director, Detroit, "in almost every one of performance factors, region has exceeded national average (e.g., settlement agreements, union election agreements, post-election proceedings)."

Charles M. Henderson, regional director, Seattle, ". . . exceeded national rate in settlement agreements, etc."

John Higgins, deputy general counsel, ". . . viewed by the Bar, other federal agencies and agency staff as full alter ego to the general counsel . . . sound approach to administration of agency."

Donald Klenk, deputy chief counsel to a board meeting, ". . . maintained excellent working relationships with other staffs."

Henry M. Leet, chief counsel to board member, "achievement of excellent results in effective management of case workload of staff."

Bernard Levine, regional director, Cleveland, "achievement of 94.4 percent rate of settlements and adjustments is among the highest of all regions."

William T. Little, regional director, Indianapolis, "significantly exceeded national average on both settlement and election agreements."

Winifred Morio, regional director, New York, "substantial reduction in the murder" of backlog cases.

Milo Price, regional director, Phoenix, "[union] election agreement rate is almost 10 points higher than national average."

Ernest Russell, director, division of administration, "excellent performance . . . board's trusted adviser on administrative and managerial problems."

Henry Segal, chief counsel to board member, "demands and receives consistent high quality . . . excellent at the development of new and innovative theories for consideration by board member."

Joseph Solein, regional director, St. Louis, "bettered national [NLRB production] levels by a substantial margin."

Glenn Zipp, regional director, Peoria, Ill., "effectiveness of case processing at extremely high level."