Robey’s Blog: The Common Denominator and the Human Factor


I remember when I was first attempting to break out from the public-sector background in which I cut my HR teeth, and push my way into a commercial or industrial role.  I found myself continually frustrated by the same response from company after company: “Looks good, but lacks sector experience”.

Surely, I thought – and it’s a refrain I’ve heard from many HR professionals over the years – humans are humans regardless of your sector?  In any business, in any country, in any industry, the common denominator is that we all rely on our people and the needs of people are, if not universally the same, at least universally predictable.

If you put a large enough group of people into one place, the same general trends will always emerge for HR people to deal with.  Some people won’t get on with other people.  Some managers will be less than competent.  Some people will be unhappy with their pay or hours or their pay and their hours.  A handful will be awful.  A (larger) handful will be amazing.  People will arrive and need teaching how to do their job.  People will leave, under a range of circumstances, and will need a gentle, humane but decisive push out of the door.  Still others will hang around – sometimes whether you want them to or not…

Surely, the logic goes, the role of the HR team will be the same.  Their work will be more or less similar to that of every other HR team.

Over the last few years, I have begun to suspect that this simply isn’t true.  My arrival at the Sprint Group has now cemented this suspicion.  Different sectors genuinely do demand different things from their HR staff, and now I think I understand why.


  1. Different people are attracted by different money

This is one of those recruitment axioms: salary attracts but it’s the other stuff that retains.  However, we don’t spend long enough, I think, asking ourselves what, precisely, attracts about money.  Because it’s not just the figure on the paper that attracts: it’s what it means.  In the public sector, that figure is, almost literally, carved in stone.  You get what you get and what you get is what everyone else gets (who’s doing your job at your level of experience and seniority).  In the charitable sector, that figure is a stretch: charities offer what they can afford and, sometimes, a little bit more.  Every single payroll run is a painful experience for a charity as they watch donors’ money flow out in large, non-renewable chunks.

But in the private sector, the money is a starting point.  The assumption – whether it’s an SME or a multinational – is that the money is just your kicking off point.  There will be overtime or bonuses or commission or incentives or above-inflation pay rises or stock options…

Someone who is prepared to do a job at £30k for a charity is almost guaranteed to be a very different person to someone who is prepared to do the same job for the same salary in a private corporation.


  1. Different people respond differently to the same stimuli

Whatever you think about the government’s attitude to the public sector pay rise, you won’t be surprised by the reaction: union involvement, huffing and posturing on both sides, and a gradual movement towards compromise before an eventual return to business as usual.

If you were among those who thought the 1% offer (for the fourth year running) was derisory and a compromise well justified, then you might like to know that charity staff all over the country are enjoying an identical 1% pay rise this year.  Unlike their public sector counterparts, they are unlikely to threaten strike action, but will – in most cases – simply nod, shrug and get back to work.

Meanwhile, what of the private sector?  Well, here the largest worms go to the loudest fledglings in the nest: those with the biggest impact and the most visibility are the most likely to be rewarded.  And this feeds a culture of dramatic reactions – not only to issues of pay but to any sort of conflict.


  1. Different environments shape different behaviours

Very reasonably, you might say “but Robey – you started in the public sector, then went to the charity sector and now you’re in the private sector; and you haven’t changed!”

To which I say: give it time.  I’ve barely got my feet wet here.  The fact is that different sectors – and different industries within sectors – have different demands in terms of time, in terms of effort and in terms of the kinds of behaviours that are rewarded (or, indeed, punished).  So when you take into account that the expectations of those attracted to the private sector will be different, and that the responses to stimuli will be differently influenced, then it seems obvious that also having a different environment – some of those stimuli will not be the same as those experienced by those working in other sectors.

If we’ve already established that the response to stimuli that are the same are going to be different, then clearly the responses to entirely different stimuli are going to be even more radically outside the experience of newcomers to the sector.

All of which was a long-winded way of saying “Cor, they do things a bit differently around here!” and was an extended introduction to my next blog in which I’ll look, again, at priorities for a sole HR operator in a commercial SME.



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