Does HR primarily look for 'sector specific experience' and if so, why?

In relation to recent posts here, it seems to be especially difficult to make such a lateral career move as from being an HR Advisor in the NHS to working as an HR Advisor for ASDA Supermarkets, although still slightly easier to go the other way around from the private sector to the public sector. Why is that? 

And more to the point, why is also that as thinking in terms of pure practicality and logic, HR experience is HR experience and the job role is the same. The only real difference is the employer and a slight change in the environment that you are working in. Whether or not you are an HRBP for TGI Friday's, BP, Stena Line, Amnesty International, West Midlands Police or Manchester City Council, you still need to perform the same functions, attend similar types of meetings and make similar types of decisions at the end of the day. 

Are the employers concerned being over selective, rigid, too picky and possibly unrealistic in their expectations, or do they essentially want the full package, the best possible experience match and fit, and primarily feel that one can come in, hit the ground running and perform the very best having done exactly the same type and level of job at an identikit organisation, just in a different location?    

What then happens if someone wishes to change from being an HR Advisor in the public sector to becoming an HRBP in a company such as The Boston Consulting Group, or an organisation such as Tearfund?

Impossible again with a capital 'I'?      


  • I think you have asked this before.

    It is possible to change sectors (I have worked in Retail, Utilities, Leisure, Finance, NHS, Outsourcing, Private Health) but its not necessarily easy and it wont just "happen" you have to work at it.

    Fundamentally it may well be an 80/20 thing - 80% of the job may well be very similar using similar skills but 20% of the job is very different down to speed, culture, specific rules, presence or otherwise of TUs, work ethic, commerciality etc etc.

    Some of these differences are real and some are perception.

    Its one of the reasons staff from the NHS find it very hard to break into other sectors as that 20% is deemed to count against them in "faster paced" more "commercial" more "pragmatic" environments.

    I think there is definitely a good argument for bringing people in from different sectors - it broadens the thinking and gene pool. But it does add risk and therefore its more often down from adjacent sectors (banking to legal say) rather than what are perceived as very different ones.
  • It can be done - I've worked in Fashion Retail, Charity Sector (Art Gallery), Corporate IT and now Kitchen Equipment retail. I've also had applications turned down for Fashion Retail, Charity Sector, Corporate IT and a whole heap of other sectors and companies.

    At the end of the day it largely comes down to whether your c.v. demonstrates the skills/ experience that they are looking for, and do you fit in with what they want for their team. Some companies only want a straightforward replacement for what they had before, others are interested in bringing in skills from other sectors. If there are 20 applications for the role, sometimes it's an easy way of breaking it down to look for previous sector experience. Sometimes I've found it's less about sector, but more about the size of an organisation that you've come from that matters - are you used to dealing with a large number of employees/ business partners, working in a large HR team, or used to being somewhere smaller where you are it and the decisions are largely yours.

    As Keith says, it's often most difficult to move from public to private sector - pace, commercial approach, flexibility of approach etc. but not always.

    None of the changes I made were quick or easy and it really was down the role being right for me and me being right for the role.
  • Many HR skills and competencies are eminently transferable across different sectors. Over the years I've worked in companies doing civil engineering and building, oil exploration, production and development, designing and running the Channel Tunnel, providing water (and waste) services to municipalities and countries, commodities trading, telecomms networks, building services (making the Shard run properly, for example), Liquified Natural Gas shipping, running nuclear, gas, hydro or wind power stations.........
    Provided you are able to understand the business model and how HR can add value to this, then the transfer is entirely achievable - you also need to be able to convince the management and recruiter on front of you that this is the case.......
    Equally, not everyone is suited to every business culture, and I would not have been fulfilled in an environment of heavy operational HR in a single country - equally, others would have been frustrated with my environment of office politics in major multinationals......
    Yes it's possible - but horses for courses!

  • In reply to Ray:

    I think Ray has summed it up in one line: Ability to understand the business model, and that includes the subtle but significant differences between how people relate to that model, and how (and why) they choose to work within it.

    We do not manage people; we manage HOW people are managed, and that "HOW" varies significantly from sector to sector, both in matters of practicality, and in areas of approach; so no matter how well qualified we are; no matter how many years of service we have (in sector or overall) it is we who have to adapt to the PEOPLE whose management we will be tailoring to fit both their functional relationships with the business, and their choices (to work in those occupations).

    HR is NOT a "one size fits all" mechanistic system and however impressive our academic understanding of its systematic practicalities and objectives, it is our ability to bring those to bear on the roles played "in context" by PEOPLE that will succeed, or fail, to impress.

    Put simply; if we cannot convince our interviewer that we have something relevant in situ to offer their business, their sector, and their people... (even if that means a different way of managing people and getting things done...) and instead are merely a new face offering the same old way of ticking the same old systematic boxes, then we will likely get no further (and rightly so).

    HR Management motivates and engages people to willingly offer their "productive effort" (the quantifiable "human resource" then applied by LMs to the businesses objectives) consistently, reliably and to the maximum available. That requires understanding of both what they need to function in their roles in practical terms (e.g. light, pay, and annual leave), and what drives them to do so in their individual roles and circumstances. The former factors are common to most occupations, the latter, very definitely not.

    At interview we have to convince that we can offer understanding of BOTH.

  • In reply to Peter:

    Although the same employment law applies overall to every employer in every sector of business and industry. ASDA in Hunts Cross cannot treat anyone with a disability any more or less favourably than can Merseyside Police. The law is the same and a similar process with regards to the ACAS Code of Practice must also be followed.
  • In reply to Andre:

    BUT, the "reasonable adjustments" that will be needed (and wanted) to enable an ASDA till-assistant to function effectively will be very different from those needed (and requested) by a Merseyside policeman. Treating people "equally" does not mean treating them "the same".

    ...and that is something we as professionals need to understand and adapt to, in all aspects of our practice.

    The ACAS Codes of practice are not law. The reason for that being that by using statutory Codes adaptation is possible, so long as the net effect is equally responsive to the framework the law demands, so the objectives of equality, or fair discipline, or satisfactory resolution of grievance, etc. can be achieved flexibly to suit differing situations, circumstances, and personal choices. Within a legally specific system no such variation is possible. The perfect example being the Statutory Dispute Resolution Procedures that the ACAS Code1 replaced; which within an matter of months of their promulgation had become prescriptive, distorted to become frequently anomalous (creating self-evident unfairness and at times near-irrational outcomes by their rigid interpretation) and counter-productive as a means of creating the natural justice being sought and which had been their objective.

    The evidence of Ray's point, and mine, being right there in front of us in the repealing of that systematic, statutory, approach.

    I believe you need to focus more on the relationship between your extensive academic success and how that amassed knowledge can be applied to the people and their motivation within sectors, then making that overall flexibility of your thinking recognisable to your interviewer(s), to succeed.


  • In reply to Peter:

    Hera, hear Peter.
    I thank Ronnie Poppe, an excellent Belgian business professor and consultant, for an expression that I use massively in my own HR teaching:


    The same broad good practice principles and legal guidance/constraints apply everywhere, but HOW they are applied in different contexts calls for the positive exercise of professional judgement if they are to achieve success in each specific businss context. Forget "best practice" and look for the "best fit".....