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The Public versus the Private Sector

There are many differences between jobs in the public and private sectors. Certainly, ideology plays a part in job choice. Some people declare that for socio-political reasons they would never work for a particular organization, such as an international bank, a pharmaceutical company or a fast-food manufacturer. They argue that their personal values conflict with those of the organization. While there are many inaccurate stereotypes about the differences between these different types of organizations (e.g., people in the public sector have less well paid but more secure jobs and enjoy many more fringe benefits) studies have explored differences between those working in the two sectors. The assumption is that these differences are, in part, responsible for their attraction to and choice of an organization in different sectors.

Public service motivation (PSM) is defined as ‘an individual’s predisposition to respond to motives grounded primarily or uniquely in public institutions and organizations’ (Perry & Wise, 1990, p. 368). PSM is related to organizational commitment, job satisfaction and task performance (Hilliard, Doverspike & Carpenter, 2010). Individuals with high PSM scores tend to be female, managers and obtain higher education qualifications (Bright, 2005). A very interesting finding is that PSM is more related to the perceptions of fit with the public sector than with attraction to it. Thus, an individual’s attraction to a company depends on perception of fit with the company’s values and culture. They also show that PSM overlaps with agreeableness. As a consequence, people attracted to public service tend to be more compassionate, friendly, cooperative, caring and willing to make sacrifices for others.

Some have looked at personal values, while others have concentrated on personality traits and motivation (Carpenter, Doverspike & Miguel, 2012). Solomon (1986) compared 240 Israeli managers from the two sectors and found private sector managers reported greater job satisfaction. Flynn and Tannenbaum (1993), two US psychologists, found private sector managers showed higher organizational commitment, as well as a sense of autonomy and challenge, than public sector managers. Lyons, Duxbury and Higgins (2006), in their study of 549 private, public and ‘para-public’ knowledge workers, found that private sectors workers expressed more organizational commitment. However there were few differences between them on general or work values. Bourantas and Papal- exandris (1999) compared 778 public and 139 private sector Greek managers on nine measures, including locus of control, a Protestant work ethic (PWE) and tolerance of ambiguity. All but three showed significant differences from private sector managers, with higher needs for growth and clarity, as well as a sense of competence and general activity level. In a review of 34 studies comparing managers in public and private sector jobs, Boyne (2002) examined 13 hypotheses, most of which showed no significant differences. He did, however, find that public sector managers are less materialistic and organizationally committed than their private sector counterparts. Buelens and Van den Broeck (2007) studied 3,314 Belgian private and 409 public sector employees and found the former much more extrinsically oriented than the latter. They found the choice of work-life balance the most powerful motivational difference, accounting for people choosing the sector. Also, by looking at other, potentially confounding factors such as gender, age, education and job level, they showed that most of the observed differences in motivation (intrinsic/extrinsic) were explained by differences in job content rather than sector. In a study of motivational differences of 1,220 American managers, Lee and Wilkins (2011) concluded that the difference between the two sectors creates discrete organizational cultures, which affect their ability to attract potential employees.

In a recent study, Furnham, Hyde and Trickey (2014) looked at the ‘dark side’ of employees in the two sectors. They found that public sector employees tend to be more cautious, socially anxious, withdrawn and acquiescent than those in the private sector. Further, public sector employees were less likely to display the same levels of persuasive, influential, self-confident and innovative behavioural styles than those in the private sector. On the other hand, people in the private sector were more likely to be cynical about others’ motives and to suspect others of organizational politicking and other machinations. Private sector employees tended to be more outgoing, optimistic, charming and innovative and have enhanced communication skills. They were also more likely to involve others in work activities and have a stronger social presence than those in the public sector. The job attraction literature appears not to have taken much interest in this difference, which merits more research.

One interesting question is whether these results are replicable across countries and cultures, particularly if the country has a long history of socialism versus capitalism.

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