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Private sector should beware of blinkered approach to public sector hires

According to a survey of 500 companies carried out by Barclays Corporate and the Financial Times (February 2011), more than half (57%) of private sector companies in the UK say they are not interested in hiring people who have lost their jobs in the public sector.

Reason? They say they simply do not believe public sector employees are equipped to join their businesses.

Why is it these perceptions are held? Negative media headlines don't help. '£1m public money paid to "migrant shambles" boss' (criticising a previous head head of the UK border agency) or 'Midwife banned for blunders' (following a tragic mistake which led to the death of a newborn child) give the impression that the public sector is inefficient and ineffective.

Having conducted a quick straw poll myself, it also seems there is some reluctance in recruiting from the public sector because it is believed these individuals are less likely to put in the hours, more likely to take time off sick and less likely to be flexible when it comes to doing what it takes to reach the goals.

As a private sector employer, I firmly believe that talent is talent and there are high-performers and low-performers in both private and public sectors and at every level. The all-important factors are cultural fit and willingness to adapt.

There are similarities here with the need some years ago to change perceptions among employers within London's Square Mile about recruiting only from the Home Counties (and/or via word of mouth), as opposed to from Hackney, Islington and other boroughs on their doorstep.

I am a founder trustee of employment charity The Brokerage, where we found that there is an extremely rich and untapped seam of talent within inner London boroughs. However, employment barriers existed in the form of a cultural mismatch and a lack of confidence from both parties that they could make things work. Two decades on, we know that to make the project the great success it became and continues to be, there was a need for re-education on both sides - cultural alignment, if you like.

So what can public sector workers do to make themselves more attractive to the private sector? It is important to show how skills, knowledge and attributes honed in the public sector can be translated to the private. For example, what innovations were introduced in the public environment and how would similar ideas benefit a private business? It is important to be aware of basic priorities, such as generating profit, taking risks and being creative, rather than always following a procedure. Applicants should also understand how private businesses work, swot up on basic commercial and entrepreneurial skills and demonstrate they are open and prepared to adapt and change to this very different environment - at the same time showing the value they could add.

For private sector employers, making it perfectly clear what is required and expected of the applicant ensures there are absolutely no surprises. Then it is their choice whether they wish to enter employment on this basis. It is also about having an open mind and being prepared to trade some time and effort in exchange for accessing new skills and good experience. A good start would be to follow the six points below:

  • Be aware of the business in terms of culture, values, rules and non-negotiables; providing total clarity as to 'how we do things around here'
  • State (1) very clearly at interview, checking whether, given guidance and support, an applicant is fully committed to working within these parameters
  • Ask situational questions to gauge how someone would react even if they've never been in a particular circumstance
  • Recruit for attitude and train for skill. At Learn Purple, this has served us well and we have a rich mix of backgrounds and cultures within our business. The common thread is that they're all 100% committed to our purpose and values and play by the rules when it comes to how we do things
  • Be prepared to develop, coach, support and always provide an in-house mentor
  • Review frequently, keeping the cultural alignment process firmly on track, providing any remedial support as soon as it is necessary, to help guide the new recruit towards a successful integration.

The public sector invests in its people; as a result, many are highly qualified and transferrable skills - think MBAs, for example - are common. By taking a blinkered approach, the private sector could be missing a real opportunity. The open-minded employer who is prepared to work on cultural alignment and invest in retraining will create competitive advantage.

Try it, you might like it.

Jane Sunley (pictured) is CEO of talent management consultancy Learn Purple