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Corporate responsibility: Ten pros and cons of hiring from the public sector and academia

I don’t know about you, readers, but here at Ethical Corporation and in our parent company FC Business Intelligence (which I spend about half my time working in), we are getting a lot of C.V.’s from folks in the public sector and academia, looking for jobs.

That’s no surprise, of course, given all the public sector and university funding cuts.

(For international readers, in case the terminology is different elsewhere, when I say public sector I mean employed by government)

We’re advertising for research analysts, managers, conference organisers, marketers and so on.

At first I was really sceptical, I must admit. “What do public sector/academic folks know about business?” was the first thought that went through my head.

The C.V.’s you get are also often incredibly complex, written in UK government bureaucracy-speak or academic code-language.

(I imagine this is the modern public sector’s version of corporate management speak gobbledygook. Not worse than corporate-speak, just awful in a different way)

So the first few C.V.’s I got were filed for ‘later’.

But having now interviewed a couple of people with considerable public sector / academic experience, it occurs to me that the responsible business world can learn a few good lessons from folks with government-related experience, if they can adapt to the business world.

It’s worth noting, for example, that one of the few financial journalists to spot the credit crunch was Gillian Tett of the Financial Times, (now assistant editor!). Tett has a PHD in anthropology. That must have helped, and she has noted that it may have done so.

Here are some pros and cons of hiring public sector/academic folks for responsible business roles:

Pros of hiring from the public sector / academia:

1) They are used to dealing with complexity on issues beyond simply selling more widgets or following a set business process or standard. (many of which don’t work so well when it comes to tricky corporate responsibility issues)

2) They often have great experience negotiating with myriad stakeholders. If you can handle the demands of civil servants, parents, children/difficult clients at the same time, for example, that’s got to be useful experience applicable to CSR.

3) They are used to working hard for little money. As we know responsible business is not the best paid area in companies. Thankfully that is changing slowly, but most of us don’t do it for the money, it’s the intellectual work out and satisfaction that counts for more.

4) They know how to take a long view. Kind of essential for a corporate social responsibility professional making incremental progress, or aiming at 2015 targets.

5) They have had to innovate (some of them) with limited resources. Useful considering most sustainable business teams are very small, and will probably stay that way (and should do).

Cons of hiring from the public sector / academia:

1) Some have an inherent anti-business bias. This may be from reading the Guardian too much, or from left wing academic teaching, or just because of a sometimes-prevalent attitude in government departments, particularly in Europe.

2) Inflexibility can be a problem. Some are used to more rigid systems than business can bear, and may struggle to adapt fast, to changing circumstances much more common in business.

3) Speed of action: Some are used to targets that are perhaps too long term even for a sustainable business role.

4) Acceptance of risk. In the UK a culture of risk-aversion has become prevalent, particularly in the public sector. This may not help in faster-moving business areas.

5) Accepting trade-offs. When complex outcomes mean some stakeholders don’t get what they want, will limited progress cut the mustard for those used to expecting more equitable outcomes?

(In the vague interests of disclosure, I come from a family of half public sector / academic backgrounds and half business/heavy engineering, which is probably how I ended up working in the area of responsible business. I’n not that clear how relevant that is, but I’m throwing it into the mix anyhow, because I can)

There are no hard and fast rules on hiring for CR job roles from the public sector and academia, of course.

Some people will be excellent, others will be hopeless, it depends entirely on the individual.

It does strike me that more and more socially-aware experts in complex stakeholder engagement, social outcomes measurement, impact assessments etc, will be needed in the responsible business world.

Companies are starting to realise that social impact measurement by those with the requisite skills (not just environmental consultants with an engineering background!) will be key to getting expansion into emerging markets right.

If the academic and public sector experts can write C.V.’s that can be read by a business person, there could be significant opportunity for business in the current climate.

An opportunity to look wider than the usual niche consultancy or internal person for help on a socially-sensitive project or two.

When it comes to difficult stakeholder engagement, measurement of social impacts and appropriate target setting, there are lots of companies out there that will be needing help in the coming years of further globalisation.

Even in our office-based jobs at Ethical Corporation / FC Business Intelligence, involving complex project management (relatively) I am realising that someone who has juggled the projects some of those I have recently interviewed have managed, can easily turn their hand to our work.

In some ways (not all) our business is much simpler: We research product, make it, ship it, and make a margin.

That’s a much clearer outcome than in non-profit areas.

So here’s to hiring in a more diverse way in the coming few years.

I’m looking forward to it.

(For more on diversity and corporate responsibility, see:

Essay: ageing society – Grey skies thinking
David Grayson says that companies can benefit from recognising that society is ageing)

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous

    Having started my working life in the public service, I always longed to work for a private organisation as I was under the impression they do things better. When I did leave and worked for private organisations I realised that you acquire skills in the government most private organisations cannot give you. Now I am trying my hand at academia and it at times seems even more beauracratic than working for government. I think discounting someone as a possible job candidate because they have only worked in government/academia would be foolish for any employer. I am speaking from my Australian experience.

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