Letter to the Editor

It is about the money/it's not about the money. Probably, it is wrong to generalize too broadly.

Frederick Herzberg's widely cited study on pay and working conditions says that it's only about the money when a job's salary is so low that it is perceived as a negative. In other words, more pay won't help people stay, so much as inadequate pay will make them go. That sounds as though it is saying the same thing, but it isn't.

Herzberg cited several factors that were more important in creating job satisfaction: Recognition and relationships and the nature of the work were the top ones; but few things create dissatisfaction as quickly as pay that is perceived as poor. Pay ranks higher as a negative factor than it does as a positive factor.

From this stems the warning that all leaders are wise to observe: You don't screw with a man's pay.

My belief is that poor pay is seen as an expression of disrespect and as a lack of recognition. Pay is a form of recognition, and a small bonus is significantly better than no bonus at all because of this.

Where the work is interesting, the team and leaders are engaging, and credit is readily passed along to those who accomplish the work, where such dynamics are observed, pay usually is not that much of an issue. I'm told that Microsoft Corp. is notorious for lackluster pay scales, but they have had no trouble, at least until recently, in attracting some of the very best minds to their work.

I wrote a letter Feb. 21 and apparently marked it to withhold my name, by mistake. I cited some of my experiences in the State Department and teaching night classes. I know I'm worth higher pay, because I earn it in my part-time work. Until recently, I had little desire to make my part-time work full-time work.

Some of us do not mind giving something up to get something that we feel is more valuable. The notion that we might actually be contributing to something meaningful with our lives — as opposed to putting networks into casinos, as I once did, thereby helping them to make chumps poorer — is worth something more than money. Our rights, our liberties and the opportunity to help others in other countries pursue similar values — such things are priceless, and the opportunity to advance them is a rare privilege.

The problem is, with inadequate leaders, we come to see our efforts as somewhat wasted. A soldier can tolerate many indignities in the trenches, but when incompetence causes him to suffer fire from his own side, his rage is unconsolable.

It is hard to believe that our high-tech work is advancing the cause of liberty when our highest supervisors, who are responsible for tens of millions of dollars in the information technology budget, fail to understand the nature of work being done in the way they show appreciation and respect for their high-tech workforce.

How would you feel if you were part of the team that worked for two years to ensure that the Y2K bug was defanged, then, at the subsequent award ceremony, your got to watch as people who stood eating doughnuts received letters of appreciation, and the IT team was ignored?

I can do without a thousand dollars that the government owes me. If it was another person who owed it to me, or simply a clerk who had made a mistake, I could probably forget it. Having given up $50,000 a year in salary, what's another $1,000? What I cannot let go of, however, is the notion that the folks upstairs, some of whom get paid six-figure incomes and travel around the world on taxpayers' dollars, have a cavalier attitude about my pay, promise to help, then let weeks slip by and do not return polite calls and e-mail. That is when pay becomes a negative factor.

George Washington did not lose the loyalty of his troops when he could not pay them, primarily because he was there with them and communicated in many ways how he cared and that he was doing what he could.

The reason pay seems to matter more today is because government leaders are out of touch with their citizen-soldier workforce, and have forgotten to be respectful. In technology matters, this is a mistake that may prove fatal. Having employment options, the best of us need not be reticent in expressing our indignity, in words and with our feet.

As a citizen, when I encounter incompetence in those above me, I do not think that the ethical thing to do is to just take another job that pays more. My suspicion is that running from such problems will allow larger consequences to hunt me down.

So, it does not have to be noble. Choosing work that has meaning over work that pays may simply be a form of enlightened self-interest: a higher form of greed. If one can live with oneself, it follows that one may live longer, and thereby grow wealthier than someone who burns out sooner.

J.B. Fields
State Department


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