It was the pay raise heard 'round the world.
Earlier this year, Gravity Payments CEO Dan Price announced he would be cutting his own $1.1 million salary and phasing in a $70,000 annual minimum wage for his employees. He invited major media outlets to cover the announcement, and glowing reports of his decision ricocheted around the Internet, leading to multiple magazine covers, a book deal and lucrative speaking gigs for Price. Despite being relatively unknown -- Gravity Payments is a credit card payments processor with $150 million in 2014 revenues (and a profit of $2.2 million) -- the news exploded online, receiving 500 million interactions on social media, according to Inc.com.
Price is back in the news this week -- but this time with a more controversial narrative. Bloomberg Businessweek published a story Tuesday that not only reported allegations he had abused his ex-wife, but raised questions about what was really behind his generous move. It reported that Price was actually served with a lawsuit from his brother over his high compensation before he announced the big raise. The article posed this question about the wage hike for employees: "Was it altruism or a costly lawsuit that motivated it?"
Then on Friday, Inc.com added to the debate, responding with its own analysis and calling the scenario Bloomberg Businessweek presented as one it "considered and rejected as far-fetched" when reporting its own story about Price.
On Twitter, Price called the allegations false. Gravity Payments spokesperson Ryan Pirkle provided a lengthy emailed statement in response to the article, which has been published in full by The Guardian and Business Insider and others.
A Bloomberg Businessweek spokesperson said the magazine stands by its reporting.
Whatever the reason for Price's big wage hike, what remains unambiguous -- as the magazine points out -- is that dozens of employees at Gravity Payments are making more money. (The raises are being phased in over three years.) But what also remains glaringly clear about Price's story -- as the viral tale continues to draw interest months later -- is the massive appetite we have to want to hear stories about do-good bosses.
His isn't the only one, after all. Mark Zuckerberg's decision to give away 99 percent of his Facebook shares has been leading the news this week. The story last year about the ousted CEO of the Northeastern grocery store Market Basket who paid employees well and took care of their families was one of the most viral business stories of last summer. When Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey gave back $200 million in stock for his employees' bonus pool, it generated headline after headline.
Why are we so taken by stories of CEO generosity -- whatever motives may be behind them? The obvious answer would be simple novelty. Such stories stand in contrast to the stereotype we continue to have of the money-driven, job-cutting, shareholders-first CEO.
Another explanation is some kind of reverse workplace-version of schadenfreude, where we feel good about someone else's good luck rather than about their misfortune. Or, rather, perhaps we're envious of it, wishing we too were getting some of our CEO's stock or salary rather than yet another tchotchke this Christmas.
But the best explanation for why stories like Price's go so viral may be that it hits on many of the nerve centers marketers say prompt us to share. These include being part of the zeitgeist (think of all the discussion going on about income inequality), a benefit to the social good (lower-paid people getting more money) and simply a great conversation starter (there's just enough controversy over the concept of a $70,000 minimum wage to spark a heated debate).
Perhaps most of all, however, researchers have found people simply like to share things that evoke positive emotions. Professors at the University of Pennsylvania, for instance, found in an analysis of thousands of New York Times articles that just two things determined how popular a news article might be: How positive the story's message was and how much it excited the reader. We really, really like sharing good news, apparently. Doubtful? Think about the success of Upworthy.
Knowing all that, it seems likely more CEOs -- whatever their motivations -- will try to generate good news when they do generous things for their employees. When they do, one thing seems certain. It's sure to get retweeted -- and liked, and shared and emailed -- over and over again.