How to transfer between private and public sector HR

Written by
Martin Kirke

13 Nov 2015

13 Nov 2015 • by Martin Kirke

What key changes will you encounter?

Sadly many of the great places for new graduates to learn HR skills have scaled back or stopped recruiting. Generations of HR learnt their craft in the banks, oil companies and car industry but in recent years it has been the NHS and the Civil Service who have recruited new graduates to HR in large numbers.

These early stage career HR professionals are proving popular with private sector companies wanting high quality graduates with a few years’ experience. Heading in the other direction at the top of the ladder are senior private sector HR people whose commercial, change and programme management skills are attractive to the public sector. So if you are tempted what differences are you likely to find? 

Reward in the public/private sector

If reward is your thing, you’d better stay in the private sector preferably in a company which pays people salaries with numbers as long as your credit card number. There are simply whole areas of HR skills and knowledge in reward which do not exist in the public sector: stock options, share purchase schemes and others which are rare: rewards for international assignments into the UK and long term incentive plans.

Performance management

In performance management the differences between public and private sectors have reduced in the last few years. The last Government’s Civil Service Reforms introduced performance ratings with controls on the number of higher level performers and ended annual salary increments.

So you may not find the public sector performance management so different but you may find it harder to justify why every year only 20% of managers can be top rated regardless of the results of the organisation. Unlike the private sector distributions of performance ratings may not be varied with financial results.

Unions and employee relations

No surprise that it’s unions and employee relations next and not least because of the huge difference in the percentage of the workforce who are union members: 14% in the private sector and 54% in the public sector. You could now have a successful private sector career in HR without ever having met a union official. On the other hand if you aspire to some of the biggest private sector HR director jobs : BT, Post Office, British Airways or Ford I am certain you will continue to need successful experience in managing unionised employee relations.

On day-to-day practical experience the biggest difference is the need to consult union reps on a wide range of change management topics, but then the ability to manage these formal meetings and build effective informal relationships are core HR skills.

Recruitment and selection

Recruitment and selection as everyone knows is more structured and formal in the public sector, often with fewer interviews and more use of panels which make immediate decisions. One reason behind this is that the degree of scrutiny is high in the public sector.

For example in the Civil Service there are independent Civil Service Commissioners who regulate recruitment to the Civil Service, providing assurance that appointments are on merit after fair and open competition. They have significant powers to audit decisions and act on complaints from candidates. HR has to ensure that the recruitment process is well managed and selection is consistent. Of course, in both public and private sector HR must share accountability for mistakes in recruitment but the exposure to public scrutiny adds additional demands.


Politics and democracy

Politics and democracy is part of the interest and value which many see in a career of public service. The Freedom of Information Act and parliamentary questions from MPs, or equivalents in local authorities, has added unique demands. Many of those new to the public sector are surprised by how much time and effort is required to answer these questions against strict deadlines. The volume and unpredictable demand of this work is tough to manage and the questions are often left field. Still you may get to see a clip of parliament on the news with a Minister reading what you wrote that morning.

HR needs to be more flexible

One of the great attractions of a career in HR compared to many other choices is that it is relatively easy to move sectors. Bizarrely, only financial services seems to insist on recruiting people already working in that sector, even though it is one which would benefit most from fresh insight and change. As for moving in either direction between the public and private sector, I say the more the better. Both UK plc and the HR profession can only gain from such movement and it helps to breakdown stereotypes and prejudice.