Workforce.com

Dear Workforce How Is HR Different Between the Public and Private Sectors?

September 7, 2011

Dear Learning Curve:

Sure, there are differences between human resources in the public and private sectors. But the goal is the same—to enable our organizations to attract, develop and retain talent.

However, as we all know, the devil can be in the details, and that's where the differences—the nuances, as you describe them—are. One key difference is that, unlike the private sector, most public sector organizations are not at-will employers. Among other things, that means that employees can only be removed "for cause."

There are several reasons for that, including court rulings that government employees have property rights to their jobs and therefore this property—their jobs—can only be taken away for cause.

This legalistic approach also applies to your specific question about hiring. While there are variations among public sector organizations, government hiring typically must be merit-based, requiring "fair and open competition." This often means that hiring is more process-oriented than in the private sector.

In practice, fair and open competition means that:

• Hiring is preceded by, and based on, very detailed position descriptions.

• Application periods are specified in advance and have firm closing dates.

• Candidates often have to go through civil service "exams." However, these are often not what we think of as exams (e.g., with multiple-choice questions) but can be questionnaires, training and experience evaluations or even résumé reviews.

• Candidates are assessed, scored and ranked according to predetermined evaluation criteria.

• The evaluation process—and results—are thoroughly documented to ensure that all candidates receive equal consideration and the process is defensible if challenged.

• Candidate evaluations may require multiple levels of screening, often with rating panels.

• There are often preferences for veterans and member of underrepresented demographic groups.

• The hiring manager is usually given a list of the best-qualified candidates (the "certified list") and the manager then has to give each candidate equal consideration (usually an interview, often in a very structured fashion).

However, these steps don't mean that the hiring process has to be user-unfriendly or take forever, even though some government agencies can take the hiring process to unreasonable lengths. Here are some common myths you might come across:

• We can't recruit aggressively because that would give the recruited candidates an unfair advantage.

• We have to use multiple-choice exams.

• We always need long application periods to allow the maximum number of candidates to apply.

• Accepting applications online isn't fair because not everyone has a computer.

• Job ads have to mimic the language in position descriptions.

• We can't give hiring or referral bonuses.

And so on.

Government needs "outsiders" like you—with fresh perspectives—to push for more efficient and effective hiring processes. So, the best way to respond to steps or processes that don't seem to make sense is to push back by simply asking, "Why"—what is the basis for the process or requirement? Is it based on state law or city charter, collective bargaining agreement, administrative rule, policy, practice or "We always do it this way"? Be particularly skeptical about the last two reasons.

And, finally, there are many organizations in your area that offer training on government hiring and staffing processes.

SOURCE: Bob Lavigna, director of human resources, University of Wisconsin at Madison

LEARN MORE: Please read how the Office of Personnel Management won an Optimas Award for a far-reaching initiative that centralized HR operations for three dozen federal agencies.

Workforce Management Online, February 2011 -- Register Now!

The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.

Ask a Question

Dear Workforce Newsletter