It’s been a good week for supermarket bosses… or has it? On Tuesday, it was revealed that former M&S CEO Steve Rowe bagged a £1.6m bonus for his work during his final year at the helm as part of a total pay package of £2.6m. Meanwhile, Sainsbury’s said CEO Simon Roberts took a total of £2.8m in bonuses and incentives for the year to 5 March. This comes on the heels of Tesco awarding CEO Ken Murphy a total yearly pay of nearly £5m, including a £3.2m bonus.

These punchy pay packages have raised many an eyebrow, considering millions of households across the country are currently struggling to make ends meet and even having to skip meals, according to The Food Foundation – but is the criticism of supermarket bosses really justified?

The reality is that grocery bosses have worked really hard to feed the nation during the coronavirus pandemic, and overcome a whole host of problems. What’s more, in doing so they have delivered significantly improved performances. Tesco’s FY pre-tax profits jumped to £2.03bn, up from £636m the previous year. Sainsbury’s too were up 25% to £730m, and even M&S was back in the black after its food transformation strategy started yielding improved results.

So it’s not that retailers’ executive teams are making any more than they normally would as per their bonus plans. But because profits (and other more complex metrics) have exploded in the past year, performance compensations tied to those financial metrics ultimately grew at a higher rate too.

It’s also worth pointing out that Roberts waived his bonus last year in light of the pandemic, and Rowe only received two bonus packages during his six-year tenure at the high street behemoth.

And while Murphy’s large bonus has drawn attention, with many still believing Tesco’s excellent performance in the past couple of years was down to the work of former CEO Dave Lewis, Tesco has been transparent about how it calculated the bonus. No smoke and mirrors here. Tesco admitted it achieved a strong performance “against a backdrop of significant change” in retail. 

So if anything the bigger question should be centred on the way big corporations – especially those in advantageous positions during a financial crisis – decide to reward not only those at the helm but also those at the lower end of the ladder.

Business performance for each grocer is a group-wide effort, with thousands of staff working together to keep the ball rolling. Yet a recent report from retail and HR workforce management tech provider Fourth showed that retail workers were unhappy with the current level of financial support from their employers as living costs surge.

Sainsbury’s itself recently rejected calls from investor coalition ShareAction to become an accredited Living Wage employer (though it did raise staff wages following ShareAction’s calls to be in line with the different living wage brackets throughout the country). But its reticence in paying the so-called real living wage is probably why news of Roberts’ compensation may leave a bit of a sour taste, regardless of whether he really deserved it.

In the end, perceptions around executive remuneration are more about optics – and morals – than business. This is particularly significant in the case of the aforementioned retailers, because their bosses have all at one point or another been very vocal about grocery’s role in helping tackle the UK’s food poverty crisis.

How much they really care about public opinion over finance though will become clear next year, when the real effects of the cost of living crisis creep up on financial sheets, and the gap between those in the lower socio-economic brackets and those in the higher ones will undoubtedly widen.