Breaking the big taboo: How much do you make?

Your salary typically isn't a topic of polite conversation

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 assuming that people deserve to know that kind of information about public employees?

In late July, government salaries became big news when the Los Angeles Times reported on the exorbitant salaries of officials in Bell, Calif. I posted a blog on GovLoop titled “The Rudest Question: 'How Much Do You Make?'” The post touched a nerve, generating more than 50 comments. Here are some of them.

“Personally, as long as everyone's salary is transparent, sure, I'm game. But if I'm working alongside a contractor…how come I can't ask how much the contractor next to me is making?”
Nichole Henley, management and program analyst, Navy Department

“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.”
David Uejio, special assistant to the director of the National Institutes of Health's Office of Human Resources

Most people agreed that it’s fair for government salaries to be public, but it still makes them uncomfortable.

Two months later, the issue of government pay continues to spark spirited discussion. Just last week, Doris Tirone, a human resources specialist at the Agriculture Department’s Rural Development service, posted a short blog titled “Mandatory Unpaid Leave Proposed for Feds.” It highlights a bill (H.R. 6134) introduced by Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) that proposes cutting $5.5 billion from the federal budget by requiring two weeks of mandatory unpaid leave for federal employees so that “federal workers are not sheltered from the realities of life in today’s economy."

Reactions were mixed.

“Welcome to local government's world. Last year, we were mandated to take about nine unpaid days here at my municipality. They could have just decided to cut our pay without the days off, so I was happy.”
Kristy Fifelski, Web services manager, Reno, Nev.

"If you want to cut the federal budget, why not work to minimize the perverse incentives that encourage every office to dump/hide/spend money at the end of the fiscal year regardless of need? Punitive action against government employees won't improve the effectiveness of our work or lead us to sustainable governance.”
Anna Abbey, conflict resolution specialist, Environmental Protection Agency

“Freak-show outrageous! Coffman and his cronies need to bite that bullet for themselves if they want to show the public that the government ‘feels their pain’!”
Dean Johnson, network administrator, Air Force

Then there’s the solution proposed by Sterling Whitehead, a contract specialist at the Navy, who says, “Let’s Work on Columbus Day.” Whitehead explains: “The truth is we serve the public, and there's a popular perception that we are insulated from the Great Recession. Eliminating Columbus Day…doesn’t save $5.5 billion by furloughing most federal workers for two weeks. However, it shows the public that we're making sacrifices, too.”

Personally, I think we should just stop going to parties.


About the Author

Andy Krzmarzick is the community manager for GovLoop, a social network for people in and around government.


  • 2018 Fed 100

    The 2018 Federal 100

    This year's Fed 100 winners show just how much committed and talented individuals can accomplish in federal IT. Read their profiles to learn more!

  • Census
    How tech can save money for 2020 census

    Trump campaign taps census question as a fund-raising tool

    A fundraising email for the Trump-Pence reelection campaign is trying to get supporters behind a controversial change to the census -- asking respondents whether or not they are U.S. citizens.

  • Cloud
    DOD cloud

    DOD's latest cloud moves leave plenty of questions

    Speculation is still swirling about the implications of the draft solicitation for JEDI -- and about why a separate agreement for cloud-migration services was scaled back so dramatically.

Stay Connected

FCW Update

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.