The Rudest Question: “How Much Do You Make?”

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Let’s say you and I are at a party.


We ask the typical questions:

“Where are you from?”

“What do you do?”

“How much do you make?”

Oh, wait. We’re not supposed to ask that last question in polite company.

So why are we setting up expectations that citizens deserve to know this kind of information about public employees?

You know what I’m talking about – last week’s story coming out of Bell, CA, where it was discovered that the City Manager of a 38,000-person city in Los Angeles County makes $800,000.

I’m an avid open government advocate who believes in the power of transparency to hold government accountable.

However, I think that knowing what our neighbors earn fundamentally alters the nature of our relationship, especially if we had an expectation in our mind and the reality was far higher than what we deemed to be “fair.”

Yet there are examples of public salary search engines for Federal and state employees.

Does this make you uncomfortable?

Or should taxpayers be privy to such private information because you’re a public employee?

I, for one, don’t think we should be asking such a rude question.

UPDATE: I found this Sunshine Review link to all public employee data. So it’s all hangin’ out there.

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40 Comments

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Heather Krasna, MS

Unfortunately or not, the data is out there. I know my salary data is available as a (semi) state employee and I find it uncomfortable. However, such data does come in handy in one, and only one, situation: when negotiating a higher salary when you are offered a job. Even though salary info is extremely useful in that situation, I still think it can cause conflicts if and when you then work with people whose salaries you know. Aggregate data would be better on many levels.

The nonprofit sector has its own version of this in the form of salary info for the top-earning people which must be listed on the 990 tax return.

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Nichole Henley

Personally, as long as everyone’s salary is transparent, sure– I’m game. But if I’m working alongside a contractor and he or she knows I’m a GS-13 step 5; how come I can’t ask how much the contractor next to me is making? But I don’t dare ask because it is rude. I think the reason we see this question is rude is because of the assumptions one makes…..they’re not THAT valuable so how come they make THAT much? wow…they make THAT much and dress like THAT? how come that person makes more than me and I work much harder? It opens a load of uneasiness that is better left confidential. If it’s not going to benefit you, why do you need to know?

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Profile Photo GovLoop

It’s interesting I think b/c its one of those things where data is available but not widely used.

It’s kind of like how Congressional aides got really mad when someone made a site where it was really easy to find the salary data. But was always public.

I’ve used them for my g/f who is a professor to look at other state employee professor salary for comparables. Problem is data is usually out of data and hard to find.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Good example, Steve…and reminded me of another point I meant to make based on my non-profit background.

Why is it that the social and public sectors – the “do-gooders” – should be asked to reveal this data…and not the private sector?

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Harold (Hal) Good, CPPO

Interestingly, in local government it is not unusual to publish every employees current actual salary. Where I am now, a local newspaper’s website publishes everyone’s salary. in county government and the local school district. When I worked at a city in California, all of the management salaries were published. One gets used to it. It goes with the territory. That is not to implythat I think it is OK to ask in a social situation.

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Henry Brown

Would offer that if I work in the private sector those who pay my salary know what they are paying me. Why should it be any different in the public sector? And who pays my salary in the public sector?

Would also offer that if you are a “contractor” for the public sector that the amount of your compensation should also be rather transparent.

MY OPINION, if you feel uncomfortable, about how much you get compensated for doing your job, perhaps the possibility exists that maybe you are not being compensated properly

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Peter Sperry

@Andrew — I think part of the answer to your question is that many people have become sceptical as to whether the public and social sectors are really the “do gooders” they claim to be. Learning of city managers knocking down $800K a year and non-profit execs bringing in close to $1 million tends to do that.

Also, the social bar to discussing income has always been more to discourge unseemly status comparisons than out of respect for privacy. The whole keeping up with the Joneses (sic?) thing was always distastful and people who carried it to the “I make more than you do” extreem tended to not be invited to social gatherings (particularly if the “you” in question was the host). But most people usually had a rough idea of what their friends and neighbors were brining in. Union contracts, including hourly wages, were well known. Public payrolls have been public for a long while and lifestyle was often a clue.

Back in the day one of the attractions of organizations like the military and government was that rank in position broke the financial status line. A second liutenant or GS-7 with private money was still lower in social status than a general or cabinet secretary living on their salary. This actually helped recruit talented individuals across all social strata because the ones moving up could reach the top without the aid of family money and the ones with money could measure their individual worth against a different standard. Eisenhower and Patton being two classic examples.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Heather – Aggregate data…yes! Getting back to the non-profit sector, a website called Guidestar uses the percentage of overheard as a measure of operating efficiency. Could government create a similar metric such that it’s less about what the individuals make and more about the amount spent for a designated output…or something akin to that?

Nichole – great point about working side-by-side in a multi-sector office…makes it a little awkward, eh?

Hal – When I conducted a Google search for “public employee data”, here is what I found. Turns out that local newspapers can be hawks on this stuff.

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Dave Uejio

I actually don’t have a problem with the question.
Anybody even passingly versed with the pay scale can do a back of the envelope inference of your salary. I’m not sure why this question is so much more taboo than, “What grade are you?”. Maybe it’s just because I’m in HR, but once I figure out the grade I could eyeball the salary. Even if you are a higher step, that’s got more to do with longevity than anything else.

As a government employee, I see myself as a public resource; I’m an investment of everyone’s tax dollars in valuable work. I hear what you are saying about the compensation lens, but frankly, I have a Master’s degree from a top school and have invested in my education; there is nothing precluding friends or neighbors from making similar life decisions for similar (or superior) compensation.

The only reason I can think of to be embarrassed about public salary data is if you equate your salary with your self worth AND find yourself to be embarrassingly over compensated. If your neighbors see you as a 10,000 dollar toilet seat, you’ve probably got bigger problems than your salary. If you see yourself as outlandishly overpaid, then do more to earn your salary.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Peter – It’s true. As humans, we compare. Shortly after grad school, a really close friend and I tended to informally benchmark one another – not out of competition at first, more just to encourage each other as we climbed the ladder. But then one person made a significant leap, and it caused some awkwardness. Today, all’s well and that was a temporary weirdness, but something happens on a sociological and psychological level in the relationship between government employees and citizens when that data is known…that I’m not sure is completely healthy.

Dave – Good point. If you’re crushin’ it week after week, then you shouldn’t worry about people knowing what you make. In the case of Bell, CA, the compensation was outrageously incongruent with the job. Even if the City Manager was extremely effective, I’m not sure he could have ever earned it.

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Scott Horvath

I’m in agreeance with Dave. As government employees, our salary comes from tax payers. Tax payers have a right to see where their money is going…even if it’s for salary. I’m not against having that kind of information available. Granted, in some social situations it may make some people feel uncomfortable discussing salary, but that’s something that most people learn to handle on a case-by-case basis.

A little off topic, but many people worry about salary discussions and uncomfortableness, but what about your traffic violations and other criminal records? For example searching Virginia General District Court or Circuit Court information. I’m sure other states have something similar. Which makes you more uncomfortable now?

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Terrence (Terry) Hill PHR

I’m with Scott on this one. Sorry Andrew! As public servants, we are obliged to be transparent in all we do, including how much we make. I’m glad that the overpaid officials in Bell, California resigned out of shame. They ought to be ashamed of themselves for robbing their constituents. Unfortunately, some will continue to reap generous retirement benefits. It’s about time that we hold ourselves accountable.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

No sweat, Terry…just feel like public employees ought not be exposed to any more scrutiny than private counterparts. I mean, I’d love to know what some of the employees (and their supervisors) are making at companies where customer service is questionable…

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John Bordeaux

Andrew, I fully appreciate the discomfort. However, as someone alluded to earlier – those of us who wore the uniform literally wore our ‘salary’ on our sleeves.

You knew my rank because of international convention, and the time-in-grade, time-in-service told you the finer details of the (meager) base salary. Sorry, but I don’t see the justification for civilian employees to be granted this privacy, when our military can’t even conceive of the option.

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Marco Morales

Using Dave Uejio’s reference to the purchase by government entities of such items as $10,000 toilet seats brings to mind how we, as vigilant government workers (we are taxpayers, as well) should not let this sort of acquisition slip by the parameters of our responsibility. In other words, if that “toliet seat” was a sole-source vendor item (more or less a prototype) then, yes, it would likely cost a lot of money. Competitive bidding is just one example of how employees across our government entities should be monitoring so that costs are somewhat controlled. Just look at how the invasion of Iraq brought public scrutiny to the major contractor (Halliburton) there. What government employee (civilian or military) was monitoring them?

According to a WikiNews article dated June 28, 2005:

“The Democratic Party held a public committee, aired on C-SPAN 3, at which former civilian employees based in or administering operations in Iraq, testified to specific instances of waste, fraud, and other abuses and irregularities by Halliburton and its subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR).

Allegations of fraud by Halliburton, specifically with regard to its operations in Iraq, have persisted since before the Iraq War. The associations between U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and Halliburton, have been the basis for repeated speculation over possible political improprieties and business profiteering from the war.

Among the senators and representatives present at the hearing were Byron Dorgan (presiding), Henry Waxman, Frank Lautenberg, and Mark Dayton.

Among those testifying were Bunny Greenhouse, former Chief Contracting Officer of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Rory Mayberry, former Food Program Manager for Halliburton subsidiary, and Allan Waller, of the Lloyd-Owen International security and operations firm.

Greenhouse, who provided the bulk of testimony, spoke for several minutes about her involvement in the evaluation and crafting of government Army contracts, and how explaining how superiors undermined and dismissed her concerns of illegal business practices. “Ultimately my main concern was the repeated insistence that the Rio contract be awarded to KBR without competitive bidding,” Greenhouse said. She testified to have been given misinformation in answer to her complaints, and being “overtly misled” by KBR managers.

Mayberry, still in Iraq, testified by video from questions prepared by the committee. He said that KBR routinely sold expired food rations to the Army. The interviewer asked, “Are you saying that Halliburton deliberately falsified the number of meals they prepared and then submitted false claims for reimbursement and that they did this to make up for past amounts auditors had disallowed?” Mayberry firmly answered “Yes.” He said that serving expired food ration was “an everyday occurrence, sometimes every meal.” He explained that Halliburton systematically overcharged for the number of meals as well, saying, “they were charging for 20,000 meals and they were only serving 10,000 meals.” Dorgan later commented, “obviously there’s no honor here, by a company that would serve outdated food to our troops in Iraq.”

Mayberry also claimed would-be whistleblowers were threatened “to be sent to Falluja” and other “places under fire” if they talked to media or governmental oversight officials. In 2003 and 2004, Falluja had been well known as dangerous for foreign troops and civilians. “I personally was sent to Falluja for three weeks. The manager told me that I was being sent away until the auditors were gone, because I had talked to the auditors,” Mayberry said.

“The threat of being sent to a camp under fire was their way of keeping us quiet. The employees who talked to auditors were sent to camps under more fire than other camps, and Anaconda.” This report led Dorgan and others to voice considerable outrage that U.S. citizens would be personally threatened with harm for talking to oversight officials or media.

Allan Waller testified to specific examples of how KBR officials had conspired in blocking Lloyd-Owen fuel transports, and using other coercive means against its competitor. The British Lloyd-Owen has a direct contract with the Iraq government to provide fuel to various parts of the country.

In his introductory remarks, Dorgan explained that Senate Republicans had blocked or ignored any requests by Democrats to have a formal bipartisan hearing, resulting in the need for an independent committee.”

Interesting stuff to say the least.

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Christopher Parente

Used to discuss this with my father, who was a vice principal at high school. When taxes pay your salary, your salary can’t be private. Something you have to accept going in.

Doesn’t make it “right,” or any less a rude question IMO. I understand the feeling — I don’t really like people inside my company knowing my compensation.

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Bryan Conway JD, PMP

I think it is acceptable to disclose salaries of non-profit and government employees. I have the right to know how my donated and or tax dollars are spent. That should also include contractors, as they are funded from tax dollars as well.

Personally, I would never ask.

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Nina Adrianna

Change only happens when we push the boundaries of our own comfort zones.

My grandmother always asks me this question, and whenever I travel people pepper me with various versions of it. It can be annoying, but that’s just because I grew up in a culture that decided it was rude. In other cultures, it’s not rude at all.

If we are seriously committed to open info and open data, then definitely Yes, as public servants let us model the behaviour and step out of our comfort zones to allow taxpayers to be privy to how much we make.

btw in British Columbia Canada, we are pretty good at publishing most salaries in the entire public service. Kudos to a local newspaper for putting together an easily searchable database: http://www.vancouversun.com/business/public-sector-salaries/index.html

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Steve Radick

This question is only rude because no one asks it – it’s jarring to hear it because it’s so taboo. Asking someone what race they were used to be totally taboo as well, but that’s changing as people become more open about what race really means, to them, and to society at large. Some day, I envision that “how much do you make” will become a more socially acceptable question that our grandkids will get all the time, and they’ll look at us old fogeys and laugh when we tell them that we never talked about things like that. There’s nothing wrong with the question in and of itself – it’s just when it’s placed into our current cultural mores that it becomes an issue.

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Henry Brown

Sort of related, I remember a big “noise” about 10 years ago when a county government put on their internet site the current evaluation of everyone’s home, or at least the owners, and the amount of taxes due/paid. The biggest/loudest noise came from landlords who apparently did NOT want their tenants knowing how much of their rent was profit for the landlords, although there was a significant amount of concern expressed by people who were concerned about privacy issues.

My understanding that MOST county government now will post all real estate transactions on line, in fact there has been some concerned expressed recently that this data was posted in such a way that would put individuals at a significant risk of identity theft.

Not sure exactly how I feel about this perceived breech of privacy but would offer that it could be more significant than knowing what my salary is.

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Steve Radick

@Harlan – you were making some good points right up until your comment went off the rails a little bit there. I’m not sure I’ve seen any diatribes about race or political banter or anything even resembling chaos here. In fact, I always hold up GovLoop as a social network where we can have these open conversations and NOT worry about any of these types of issues. It’s kind of like we’re all on the same side here, and I really like that about being here. Is there another issue you’re driving at here or am I totally missing something?

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Christopher Whitaker

The Chicago Sun-Timea has a link to a whole database on what state workers make. So, people don’t have to ask – they can google it. Sometimes I wish they would so they can see that I don’t really make all that much money. Chiago newspapers blame our pensions for the budget crisis and so any shot they can take at us – they do.

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Sean Henry

Good job, Andrew. Your post has made it to GovExec: http://www.govexec.com/story_page.cfm?articleid=45764&dcn=e_gvet . My two cents fall in line with Dave Uijeo’s, that you should work to earn what you make, not work to make what you can. However, even though I am Government employee with no presumption of privacy about my salary, I’d still prefer not to discuss salary in a casual conversation. Besides, yearly salary tells you as much about a person and their professional worth as an initial tells you about their name.

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Rebecca Brown

I agree, that is a questions I don’t ever ask. Then again $800,000 is a lot of money. I believe the people in the town should be deciding if the City Manager has the experience and doing a job worth $800,000 and if he is then no judgment.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Thanks, Sean! Thought that was pretty cool, too!

Vlad – To be honest, I wouldn’t have a problem if the President made $800,000 or more…but a City Manager of a small town…even after 40 years of employment, that doesn’t make much sense. So in that situation, it’s been beneficial to bring compensation to light…but still queasy about it being super easy to find such information.

All – what if we could vote on the compensation of our elected officials?

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Ryan Link

Interesting topic to discuss. When it comes down to it though, isn’t salary info subject to FOIA anyway? So, in reality anyone could access if they wanted to. I really think it comes down to individual opinion – personally I really don’t care who knows how much I make, that doesn’t define me. That said, I can see how someone would not want that information disclosed. Rather than looking solely at the raw number (salary), perhaps we should be more interested in ROI for employees.

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Rachel Correll

It would be great if taxpayers didn’t have to know how much government employees make for the most part. However when problems arise like the one in Bell, CA at a time when so many people are losing jobs, how would the average person trust that injustice is not taking place? Perhaps there could be a limit to show only staff salaries over a certain amount? Not sure there is a simple solution that would satisfy the majority.

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Bryan Conway JD, PMP

@ Rebecca – I agree that the $800,000 salary is an issue for that city’s taxpayers, but if there are future budget shortfalls that effect vital services like fire/police or the education system, someone may be on the hook for breach of fiduciary duty due to this possible fiscal mismanagement!

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Peter Sperry

Check out the CRS report at the link below for an interesting perspective on the growth of federal salaries.

http://assets.opencrs.com/rpts/94-971_20100120.pdf

Their table indicates that between 1969 and 2010:

The average private sector wage increased by 732%

The average Social security payment increased by 725%

The average CSRS retriement payment increased by 595%

The Consumer Price Index increased by 577%

The average federal salary increased by 528%

Congressional pay increased by 409%

Looking at the year by year numbers, private sector wage rose much more rapidly than federal salaries in the early years so that even though federal salaries have rison more rapidly in the past 10 years, they still have not caught up with the Consumer price index, let alone the private sector.

And the growth in Congressional salaries has been the slowest of all. This may indiacte they are altruistic, scared of the voters or do not actually understand what happens to their standard of living when their salary increase trails the CPI by 168 points.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Thanks, guys, for getting it back on topic…hate to have folks going after each other more personally.

Yet, in the midst of that, I think there are some excellent nuggets from both Vlad and Harlan.

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Gadi Ben-Yehuda

Sorry to skip over all the comments (and there were many, so please forgive me if I’m repeating what someone else said), but it seems to me that people do have a right to know what public officials and nonprofit executives make.

In the private sector, I know how much a good or service costs and I can choose to purchase it or not. I don’t know how many other people buy it (though I can guess based on stock price or the traffic into and out of a storefront). But I can use my own judgement as to whether (a) it’s a good deal and (b) if the value is worth the cost and if I can afford the price.

But with government goods and services, I cannot choose. I can’t say “I don’t want to give an foreign assistance this year.” I am forced to ‘buy’ it, so I should know how much I’m paying for it. Every government worker is, to some extent, a “service” offered by the government. And I should know how much that service costs.

Nonprofits are in kind of the same boat, since giving money to them reduces my tax burden, in essence making them part of the government.

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Candace Riddle

I absolutely think that citizens have a right to know how much people in the private sector are making.

Even if you work in the private sector, and may be uncomfortable with it, it can work to our advantage. I recently heard a story out of South Carolina of an entire division’s budget being cut. That division is now having to lay off, decrease pay etc. because the budget for payroll has been reallocated. Wouldn’t you want the public to know this information? If they’re calling your office wondering why service is taking longer than expected, I would want the information to be available to them so that they could see the department was experiencing a resource crunch due to decreased workforce and budget.
This issues may be uncomfortable for some in the public sector, but it can also be beneficial.

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Anita Arile

UGH!! I really hate that.. the least our “leaders” could have done is use our “employee ID number” instead of our full name!!

let us expose ourselves needlessly online (heehee)…

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Bradley Martin

I think having transparency is government is a good thing. Georgia has very liberal open records laws. For example, any e-mail or document can be requested via a Georgia Open Records Request. All state employee salaries are located at http://www.open.ga.gov. As a taxpayer its great to see what state employees make. However, that doesn’t tell the whole story. For example, according to the most recent workforce planning document the average salary for a State of Georgia employee is $38,000. So a “typical/average” employee would be 42 years of age with 9 years of experience with the State making $38,000. That statistic seemed to show many citizens of our state that not every government employee receives a large paycheck. Transparency for public money is a great thing. I think as other posters have noted, the private sector is a different animal.

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