Any tips for private sector HR professional interviewing for first public sector?

Hello all, 

I have worked in HR for 17 years, always in the private sector, mostly hospitality and retail, although I have spent the last 3 years heading the HR function in a medium-sized tech company, a business unit of a larger group. I now want to move into the Public Sector and have an interview on Tuesday for an HR department head role. I am very excited about this. My reasons for wanting to move after all these years are two-fold: 

1. I have had enough of the sometimes greedy mindset of our company's C-suite. I fully understand it is all about profit but there is often very little consideration for the people. Put it this way, they are constantly praising the staff, sending thank-you emails etc. but our benefits are minimal (i.e. statutory maternity / paternity pay, no 'death in service' - last time we asked we were told it was a 'no', as they did not offer this across the Group, and had no plans to). When I spoke about our current initiative to measure - and respond to - employee sentiment - the CEO called it 'bollocks'! Now seeing him rock up in his Porche SUV and doing the royal walk round (when I know he does not care for the people) is really rankling. In other words, I am looking for a greater sense of purpose. Something that is not all about money. Again, I get it, that is the nature of business but I have experienced many unethical businesses now and would like a change. 

2. I will be honest, the sense of job security also appeals to me. I am in my late 40's now with a family, and just want to settle somewhere long-term. 

So anyway, I have been sent a large interview pack. It is unlike anything I have ever seen in the Private Sector. Still, I feel having so much detail will help me to prepare properly and fully represent myself. I am preparing answers according to the 'STAR model' and their stated values, and experience as outlined in the Success Factors methodology. 

My question is about the general style of interview and expectations. Are they looking for lengthy, conversational answers? What type of person fits the culture? Indeed, how much is culture a deciding factor? How are these things scored? I appreciate these are broad, vague questions - I guess I am just after some generic advice as I am not entirely sure what to expect. It all looks quite different from what I am used to. I would be grateful for any feedback - thank you!

  • My honest advice (and know many will disagree) is that I would think very very carefully before jumping. Its a far bigger move than many imagine and the culture shock is huge. Your career is built in two of the faster/more dynamic sectors with often a JFDI attitude in retail / leisure and then a tech start up meaning that for you teh jump will be bigger.

    Clearly the public sector is a huge place and there are many different approaches and cultures there but I have seen many colleagues over the years try this move and last 6-12 months - I will declare an interest and a prejudice I trie dit earlier in my career and lasted 9 months. I also help out as a Board Member in 2 quasi public sector organisations so I have some current knowledge as well

    Also as I am sure you are aware many parts of teh public sector are in severe economic distress and this could well be worse after the general election. So do your diligence. 

    You will find the interview pack typical of the process. Expect a panel style interview with set questions that are individually scored. There is often less interaction or follow up than you would expect as they stick to a process ( which will become a feature). Your answers need to ensure you give them enough solid evidence to score against.

    Copying in  who may well give the other side of a successful public sector career for balance

  • I moved from a large manufacturing company to a local council and the culture shock was huge. However, I also moved from a FTSE100 to working for a construction company and the difference was equally as large.

    There is not a single 'public sector' way of doing things. Treat the interview as any other e.g. find out what the issues are, this tends to be much easier as the public sector tends to publish a huge amount.

    Good luck with the interview
  • In reply to Keith:

    Thanks, Keith, I appreciate the feedback and the insight. I am fully expecting a shock, definitely something to bear in mind. Before working in HR, I was in the military for 4 years - and experienced a massive culture shift as my first HR role on leaving was in a luxury hotel. Still, that was some time ago and I am no doubt more set in my ways now - so it may hit me harder this time, if I make the move
  • In reply to Steven :

    Thanks, Steven, I appreciate the tip. I will do more research on the challenges, great advice.
  • Hi Chris - I wish you all the best with achieving your goals. I am 60 this year and have worked for many different kinds of organisations in my career. Mostly these have been private sector from the largest to the smallest including startups and struggling businesses. Some of these have been organisations that were originally in the public sector or had employees who had worked mostly in the public sector. I have learned by a process of elimination what environment works best for me as a person and fits with my values so that I can thrive and add great value to the organisation. Once I realised what was the best fit for me I was able to be really selective with who I worked for and target those organisations. There are many fantastic private sector companies so perhaps you have been a bit unlucky. Go through the application process and if it feels right follow your heart :) Good luck!
  • In reply to Jackie Allen:

    Thanks, Jackie - that is very insightful advice, I appreciate it. I suppose I am likewise looking for organisations that align with my values. I am a bit judgmental about the private sector, probably my current experience colouring everything!
  • In reply to Keith:

    Not sure my career in the public sector counts as "successful".

    The main difference in HR is one of pace. Things happen slowly and compliance with policy and good practice are prioritised over the immediate needs of the institution or, indeed, its people in some respects. Relations with unions are very important so there is a lot of capitulation in their favour where a commercial enterprise - even a unionised one - would push back hard.

    For the purposes of your interview, first, bear in mind that your history in the private sector is likely a strength in their view. A lot of public sector institutions want a more commercial attitude, especially towards people management. Of course, once you're in the job this often conflicts with the cultural reality and getting traction is hard. But consider it a positive for the purposes of selection.

    What they will need to see at interview, though, is that you understand what the process should look like and how to resolve complex casework, including change management and staff engagement. The selection process will be competency based, as you've established, so if you score well you're likely to be a very credible candidate. Your preparation is a very good idea. You'd be amazed how many candidates don't bother.
  • In reply to Chris:

    You are welcome Chris. In case it helps I'm now a private sector business owner who has helped with a number of turnaround situations and been involved on the financial side of many too. Some of those people who appear wealthy and not to care about their people on the face of it may in fact be struggling to hold themselves, their families and their business together. I've made decisions and then economic situations have changed very fast and impacted those decisions suddenly. If a business doesn't make a profit it can't pay it's people. We've seen this with some really massive companies who appear solid. It's really tough saying no and there's a way to do it well of course but do spare a thought for the entrepreneurs who take the risk. It can be extremely scary being responsible for people's income and perhaps worried about your own too and there isn't always the financial return you would imagine :) ps I rock up in a 15 year old Mazda lol.
  • First of all, good luck with your interview and I hope that you find it useful and interesting.

    I've worked in a lot of different sectors (private, charity and public) and I would say there are big differences even between the same kinds of organisations in the public sector. So although, yes, I would agree there are some major cultural differences between private and public and being motivated by profits doesn't always equal great purpose, not all public sector places are the same.

    Some commonalities you may wish to consider:
    *Most public sector employers are unionised. Working with unions is really interesting but can require a different set of knowledge - if you haven't worked with one before, perhaps brush up on the basics via ACAS and think about work forums or similar you have worked about in your experience.
    *It is a time of bleak austerity. Most public sector orgs have had years (decades) of savings, redundancies, etc. There is not usually much budget for training, reward initiatives, etc. Morale can be very low. People are often stretched to their limits. Stress is common. I'd suggest you think about how you might operate in this kind of environment and how this might impact on the job.
    *TUPE is really common. If you haven't had to do a transfer in/out be prepared you may be asked about this.
    *I'd caution against assuming it is a stable environment - there are some organisations with steady reserves and others where job cuts are very common and often very wide reaching.

    I don't want to put you off! I had some great work experiences in public sector and worked with some fantastic motivated colleagues and teams who really wanted to "give back".
  • Steve Bridger

    | 0 Posts

    Community Manager

    20 Mar, 2024 17:11


    Good luck for your interview. You've received some very rounded and honest advice. 

  • In reply to Robey:

    Thanks, Robey - that is incredibly useful. I appreciate your advice!
  • In reply to Jackie Allen:

    Thanks, Jackie. You make a very good point, which I fully accept. However, in my current company this isn't the case. The owner is doing extremely well (I was in a meeting the other day where the CEO and COO were bragging about how many sports cars they owned). No bad thing in itself, we need successful people to create wealth. But for me, it is about the employee value proposition. They say over again (including on their website) how much they value their people, how they are the best, even using the old cliché 'our people are our greatest asset' - literally stating 'we go the extra mile for our people'. Yet the reality does not match this lofty rhetoric. And it is this gap that irritates me. It isn't just monetary benefits, when I spoke once about the value of establishing a staff forum, the CEO said 'why on earth would you want to know what they think? Just tell them what to do'. There is no sense of care for the people, financial or otherwise. I get it where the business model is one of cost-control. I have worked for such companies. The difference is the company I work for is trying to have it both ways. They talk a lot about how wonderful their staff are, and how much they do for them - while doing precisely nothing.

    Still, you do make a good point about the struggling business owners, trying to do the right thing. And I fully respect those people - unfortunately, in my situation, I am not dealing with such noble characters.
  • In reply to Gemma:

    Thanks, Gemma - this is great advice. I will give some thought to those topics, especially working with unions. I did in one role, but that was retail so likely a different dynamic. Also, I didn't realise job cuts can be common in some organisations! I had the idea that the public sector offer jobs for life (for those who are willing) - perhaps an outdated view. Still, I appreciate the input - thanks.
  • I am not sure which type of public sector you have applied for, so I give you just a few ideas based on my observations and experiences. I have been working in a local council for over 20 years and 8 years in civil service. Within councils each has its own unique cultures, some good and some quite awful. One of the lacking resources has been experienced HR professionals our team is stretched. Some of our agreement like pay are set on agreement with the LGA and union/s nationally, but the pay scales and grades are agreed locally. We have different pay agreements for general workers called NJC pay scales and HAY for senior management. The HR not only support council staff/managers but to schools (traded services) and council owned orgs. We have policies and processes for everything, some you should find on a general search of the organization and these vary council to council. TUPE is common place, along with secondments between other public sector organizations. We are all cash strapped, so redundancy is scarce as we are moving towards cheaper MARS scheme for severance, mainly due to the pension liabilities. Equally, training is becoming rare due to funding. High level of stress, with a lack of resources. However, it is more stable employment than private sector with good levels of flexible working options, pension that is worth having. Read up on the employer understand the demographics and clients, we have to be transparent so lots of info on line. Best of luck..
  • In reply to Chris:

    Ah, I can empathise with you. I once worked in a private sector (MD owned) set of companies which was a very poor fit for me. The MD was a narcissist and very convincing sociopath. This was the place where biometric fingerprints were used to track employees in and out and sold as a benefit! One of the lowest moments for me came when the MD (who similarly had a small fleet of luxury cars and motorbikes and was always telling us about his latest purchase for his stable, having dismissed a load of van drivers on trumped up charges to avoid making statutory redundancy payments) set up a management bonus scheme as an incentive for 8 of us. In itself this was not necessarily a bad idea but when I asked what share of profits or incentive the workers would receive if targets were met, he looked at me with complete incredulity and laughed.