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Posted by on Mar 6, 2012

Transitioning Private Sector Employees into the Government: Things to Remember

There’s an ancient proverb that says: “May you live in interesting times.” Given the turbulence of the economy, the changing demographics of the workforce and the overwhelming amount of talent that HR professionals now have to pick and choose from to fill their government jobs, our times are proving interesting, indeed.

One of the newer wrinkles emerging during our “interesting times” is the movement of many private sector employees into government positions. For many, government jobs may represent a sense of stability and job security that applicants feel they no longer can find in the private sector. They also potentially are positioned at a point in their careers where they’re able to pursue a career that’s more aligned with what they really want to do: to enable change, to make a tangible difference within their community, or to more directly serve their country. Regardless of the reasons (and there are a myriad more than I’ve listed here), many employees who have enjoyed successful careers in the private sector are now looking at a career in the government as a viable option.

What are the implications for the government HR professional? How do you provide someone coming in from the private sector with enough information to accurately set expectations (both theirs and your agency’s) of a government position? Here are a few tips:


Ensure your potential employees understand that direction coming from senior leadership is largely set by Presidential/Congressional agendas. In the private sector world of CEOs, Presidents, Vice Presidents, and Boards of Directors, direction for the company is set to align with shareholder dividends, Wall Street expectations, and increasing the bottom line. Not so in the public sector. The agendas of elected and/or appointed officials are the overriding principles that govern the activities of the agency. Of course everyone wants to ensure that, as tax payers, our voices are heard when federal and state budgets are formulated. However, the ultimate direction comes from a set of governing bodies (GAO, GSA, OPM, OMB) that interrelate, interact, and sometimes, have different goals.

Top leaders in agencies are typically appointed by the President (or elected), and based on the duration of the administration, top leaders may change several times. Many large private sector companies have had the same person at the helm for several years. Steve Jobs at Apple, Bill Gates at Microsoft, and countless others have founded the company, instilled their personal values into the culture of the company, and led the companies for decades. This phenomenon isn’t necessarily so in the public sector. Agency chiefs, deputy chiefs, and other senior leaders may migrate from agency to agency, much more rapidly than what you’d find in the private sector. For anyone coming into a government position, this seemingly rapid change in senior leadership may prove confusing or frustrating. A full understanding of how your agency is governed, the rate at which senior leadership changes, and a tolerance for ambiguity are differences in public and private sector employment that you should explain.

Finally, you should also discuss how the public sector typically handles compensation and promotions. If you’re vetting a former private sector employee who’s accustomed to getting promoted every year or two and getting substantial increases in salary, you’ll need to offer an explanation of how that occurs in the federal space. Explanation of the GS schedule, the SES or FWS process, and how the advantages and disadvantages of being promoted from within occur in your agency may help ensure alignment with your potential employees expectations and the reality they’d face once hired into the Federal Government.

We’ve just tapped a few of the differences between employment in the private sector and the public sector. As HR professionals, we always want to ensure that we paint an accurate picture of what the job descriptions say and what the work will be; moreover, it’s also important to educate your potential employees on how your agency is governed, how your leadership may evolve a little more rapidly than they’re accustomed to, and how compensation and promotions typically occur in your agency. Making sure you point out some of these differences will better educate your potential employees, and increase your effectiveness as a Federal HR professional.

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