Thought Leadership

Advice for private sector people seeking public sector jobs

Landing jobs in the public and not for profit sectors – a road map through their ‘Masonic-like’ recruitment processes

 [Hamish Davidson considers why it is that private sector candidates typically and dramatically undersell themselves when responding to ads for public sector jobs, and suggests an alternate methodology]

  1. Failure to do enough research on the role and organisation in the first place – be this through failing to obtain/download the briefing/information pack that is almost invariably offered, or failing to bother to do any additional research. This leads to…
  2. Failure to put together a sufficiently comprehensive application. A one page covering letter and two page CV just won’t do. It is not how the public and not for profit sector recruit
  3. Failure to follow the response instructions contained in the briefing pack, but then, if you were daft enough to fail to access or read the briefing pack in the first place ….
  4. Failure to appreciate that you have until the closing date to submit your application. Getting it in within the first few days just simply will not help you, and indeed, will not allow you to do the prior research that is needed, or allocate the time needed to prepare a sufficiently comprehensive application
  5. Failure to convey the human dimension of why you are interested in a role in the public/not for profit sector, or have a real, genuine and personal interest in the type of organisation/activity that this role would involve. It’s the type of stuff that you might well not normally include in your private sector style application – but you do need to in this instance
  6. Failure to include in the CV where you have been involved in socially minded/community type activities, be these voluntary, Non-Exec or community related. And yes, this is still more of the type of stuff that you would not normally feel minded to include in your private sector CV
  7. Failure to address all the appointment criteria noted in the person spec and noted in the briefing pack, but then if you never got the briefing pack in the first place …
  8. Even if you got the briefing pack, failure to do as they requested and address each of the appointment criteria in turn – either because you are too stubborn, or you just cannot believe that they are serious and actually do want you to do as they have requested, preferring instead to submit your one page covering letter and your two page CV
  9. Failure to put yourself in their position and wonder why, if you really are that good, would you want to work in the public sector in the first place. Honestly, they will be curious
  10. Failure to remember that prejudice works both ways. After all, if I, as a lifelong public sector employee applied out of the blue to work for your private sector organisation, what would your instant reaction be? How hard would I have to work (both in my application and on meeting) to prove that I could make the switch in sectors? So, why shouldn’t public sector react the same when you apply to work for them?
  11. Failure to appreciate that talent exists everywhere – even in the public sector. So don’t patronise them in your application, and don’t assume that everyone in the public/not for profit sectors are useless, and that they desperately need people like you, don’t they?
  12. Failure, if invited for an initial interview, to appreciate that this is the real thing and you need to do extra research and prepare now, not after the initial interview, as might be more typical in the private sector

So, here are some hints and tips

  • Get the briefing pack
  • Don’t be put off by poor briefing packs. So what if it’s poorly put together or seems to go on forever. At least its something – which is better than the big fat zero that the private sector typically gives you up front
  • Always, but always ring up for an informal discussion if offered, but…
  • Never ring up and say something naff like ‘can you tell me more about the job please’. Rather say ‘I’ve seen the ad, got the pack, had a read and think I might be interested. If I tell you a bit about myself, can you tell me if I might be of interest’. ie Do a trade
  • Follow the response instructions – point by point. If they want you to fill in a 17 page application form, do it. If they want you to write a 500 word essay before you’ve even been longlisted, do it. Get the job – and then change the rules
  • Address the appointment criteria in the person spec, point by point, REPEAT, point by point. Even if there are 32 of them, half of which appear to duplicate each other – just do it. Assume that there will be a matrix grid used to assess you application
  • With the latter in mind, give ‘evidence’ against each of the key appointment criteria that you are asked to address – preferably from different phases of your career
  • In your supporting letter, bring some breadth, depth, and metaphorically speaking, colour to you application. Turn what will otherwise be a boring, workmanlike application into a three dimensional person. Make me want to see you
  • And one more thing as regards your supporting letter/statement. Imagine yourself on the receiving end of the application. Say to yourself ‘fairly or unfairly, reasonably or unreasonably, might there be, could there be any potential anxieties that they might have about your application, and if there might be, tackle them, not aggressively, but assertively. Don’t let the reviewer of your application raise questions that you haven’t addressed. Spike their guns.

You should now have produced a series of documents:

  • A covering letter saying please find attached the following docs:
  • A supporting/motivation statement. This is the place for your emotion and passion, why you are interested, why you are available, and why you are the right person etc
  • A document that addresses all the appointment criteria, point by point
  • A CV, that you have just re-written to fit and align itself with all the documents that you have just written above
  • A monitoring or equal opportunities form, if they asked you to complete one to capture all the base data like gender, disability, where you saw the ad etc
  • Finally, but only if they required it, an application form

Bottom line is this:

  • There are some fantastic, amazing, challenging and hugely rewarding roles in the public and not for profit sectors
  • They really need many of the skill sets that are more prevalent in the private sector
  • The recruitment process may feel overly bureaucratic, but remember that given it’s public money (ie. yours and my money), there is a need ensure some rigour in the process and justify the decisions taken
  • If you really want to break into this sector, play by their rules and not your own (at least, until you have got the job)
  • Producing this quality and breadth of application is obviously much more time consuming than would be the case in the private sector – so do fewer applications but make them count
  • Produce an application of such focus and power and quality that it dares them not to see you
  • Follow the hints and tips above, and you’ll stand a very good chance of getting through for an interview

Good luck

Hamish Davidson is Chairman and Senior Partner at Davidson & Partners. He is also Chairman on Entrepreneurs in Action, Iris Consulting and MJI Business Solutions

Contact him at or 07932 698 807

July 2014

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