Public vs Private Sector HR
It is the best of times, it is the worst of times and it certainly is the most challenging of times to be working in HR in the public sector in Canada. The political climate is polarized, the economic climate still uncertain and the demographic trend forcing a rethink of conventional recruiting practices. Public sector employees are more stressed, scrutinized and micro managed than ever before. While leaders within play musical departments, leaders from without are recruited to fill the positions they vacate in spite of their lack of familiarity with and track record in public sector management. And although this is an opportunity to introduce best practices from the private sector, the level of cynicism of the tenured employees cannot be underestimated. They have seen it all before and have learned to keep their heads down because “this too will pass”. New boss, new ideas, new projects. Rush, rush and wait.
At all levels and departments, employees are counting the days left to retirement. Waiting in the wings are college and university graduates with little work experience, and internationally educated professionals not quite ready to step in and fill the vacuum. The latter group in particular are held back by a lack of credential recognition, sometimes insufficient language proficiency in both official languages and strict security clearance procedures. This is the environment awaiting the HR practitioner. So ask yourself, to what extent does your CHRP designation prepare your for the public sector? Are the skills, knowledge and abilities acquired in one environment transferable to the other?
Let’s start by considering the most critical issues facing public sector HR. Media reports inform us that their jobs are not simple. Like all employees, HR wants to do a good job, but oftentimes the strict rules and their dynamic legislative, political and financial landscape create barriers. So, instead of being able to deliver a good service product to the manager, be it for staffing, human rights, management policies, resource changes or collective agreements, HR finds themselves becoming “informers rather than removers of barriers.”
Tony Boettger, CHRP, who consults as a strategic HR/LR advisor in the public sector, suggests that the big challenge of public sector HR practitioners is “to really show their worth as professionals and not just followers of the rules… recognize that while the structure does not allow wide open freedoms, particularly because it is a very complicated and regulated working environment, there is still plenty of latitude to effect change. Well developed skill sets and perseverance are required to make changes: relationship building, communications, creativity, consulting, salesmanship.” He advises HR practitioners to “be strategic about how they use their knowledge and skills. Apply your critical thinking, understand the client’s business, show managers the latitudes available to them notwithstanding their regulated environments, and work towards becoming part of the management team.”
This is a familiar tune for the private sector HR practitioner. But while private sector HR supports the vision to ensure profitability, public sector HR supports management to ensure efficient service to the Canadian public. Judy Charles, a retired Director General and now a professional coach and consultant in strategic HR for senior managers in the public sector, sees in her work that the most critical challenge for HR is to “ find a senior level mentor or coach to (help them) understand how to balance the often times conflicting requirements of rigour vs flexibility. (Someone coming in from the) private sector will need a hefty dose of patience because things move very slowly through the system. “
That cannot be easy. There is a dearth of HR mentors and role models in the public sector to learn from about public service intricacies. Specifically, many in HR move through the ranks quickly and as a result, do not stay in one place long enough to go through a cycle and see the consequences of their decisions. If they do not give the best advice to managers, it is because they have not acquired the basic knowledge. Bottom line, if the public sector cannot to do a good job of training HR juniors, they supplement with consultants.
In the crown corporations, HR has more latitude to make decisions and target their recruiting, for example, without the strict oversight of the Treasury Board. And where it is not unionized, HR can emphasize pay for performance and accountability for performance to ensure the best people are recruited and retained in the right positions at the right time. Talent management and not legislation becomes the focus.
So what do we know so far? That public sector HR works in a volatile environment where they are required to know the legislation, provide service to managers and guide them through the labyrinth of obstacles presented by the rules, regulations and policies. For example, in recruitment, legislation and policies severely impacts the hiring processes. We can rest assured that the academic technical preparation for the CHRP designation creates an excellent foundation piece for the entry level HR practitioner, but perhaps it is a little weak on the experiential. To guide and influence managers in the public sector, and assist them in managing their employees requires more of the skills in change management and organizational culture.
Kathryn Elliot, CHRP , a retired senior executive in HR who currently consults on organizational change and HR in the public sector, suggests that “people are people and problems faced in organizations are universal. The public service is not a monolithic structure: each department has its own culture and different departments are in different businesses. “ But sometimes employees jump too fast and too far so they never do learn how to understand the business.
Public service HR is not unique . The practitioner has many of the same problems such as non performance of employees that show up in the private sector. The 80-20 rule still applies. Whether it is public or private, crown or agency, the same technical skills are indispensable. But what seems to be missing in the public sector are the HR mentors and role models, but that could be also true of many private sector employees.
Our contributors agree on the following advice for HR professionals eyeing the public sector:
- Study and understand the legislative framework and how it will constrain and guide the way HR is practiced in the public sector. Be prepared to deal with the various pieces of legislation and rules and regulations. They need not be limiting to you as an HR practitioner once they are well understood.
- Learn to work within the bureaucratic framework. Some departments have initiated development programs, competency models, targeted transfers amongst the various disciplines. Departments such as Industry Canada and Public Works are two examples one can learn from.
- Develop and keep your change management expertise and skills fresh and current. Check out those professional development seminars available through schools and consultants.
- Reflect seriously on your motivation. The practice of HR is to be of service to management but keep in mind that HR are the people that management loves to hate. Not yet appreciated as a business partner but rather as a service provider, often HR doesn’t have the resources or support to do so well and in spite of the appeal of benefits and job security, the job can become frustrating.
An HR career in the public sector pretty much mirrors the private sector in most ways. In particular, if you are a senior practitioner, consider how you can help to bring innovative ideas to the public sector. You see the big picture and have already learned to move decisions through the system using effective communications and influence. In fact, the higher your position in HR, the easier the transition between private and public sectors.