The study of differences between the public

Craig Boardman Ohio State University Barry Bozeman University of Georgia Branco Ponomariov University of Texas at San Antonio Current Trends in Publi...
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Craig Boardman Ohio State University Barry Bozeman University of Georgia Branco Ponomariov University of Texas at San Antonio

Current Trends in Public Personnel Administration

Private Sector Imprinting: An Examination of the Impacts of Private Sector Job Experience on Public Managers’ Work Attitudes

Craig Boardman is an assistant professor in the John Glenn School of Public Affairs at the Ohio State University. E-mail: [email protected]

What are the attitudes of public managers who have had full-time private sector work experience? Public managers with private sector work experience report different perspectives when compared to their counterparts who have spent their entire careers in the public sector. Though private sector work experience negatively correlates with job satisfaction, it only does so for the “new switcher,” whose last job was in the private sector. As careers advance, the negative impact seems to wane, leaving a public sector workforce that, in part as a result of their private sector work experience, are relatively more intrinsically motivated and involved in their jobs. We conclude with discussion of implications for human resources management.

Barry Bozeman is Regents Professor and Ander Crenshaw Professor of Public Policy at the University of Georgia. His research focuses on public management, organization theory, and science and technology policy. E-mail: [email protected]

Branco Ponomariov is an assistant professor in public administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio. His research interests are in the fields of science and technology policy, contracting out, and public management. E-mail: [email protected]


he study of differences between the public and private sectors spans various organizational and managerial dimensions, including measures of organizational structure, organizational innovativeness, leadership, incentives and motivation, attitudes and perceptions, as well as behaviors such as absenteeism and outcomes such as turnover, job performance, and organizational commitment (Bozeman and Rainey 2000; Hall and Tolbert 2005; Judge et al. 2001; Moon and Bretschneider 2002; Rainey 2003). Most studies of these differences employ the standard public–private and, in fewer instances, public–private–nonprofit threshold(s); some use more gradated measures of “publicness” (Bozeman 1987). While studies comparing public and private sector attributes often arrive at diverse and even conflicting conclusions regarding the types and significance of public–private differences, one area of considerable convergence is differences between public and private managers (Rainey 2003). Compared to private sector managers, public managers have been found to be less responsive to pecuniary


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incentives (Buchanan 1975; Wittmer 1991), more risk averse (Bellante and Link 1981; Bozeman and Kingsley 1998), and more oriented to social goals and public interest (Perry 1996, 1997), and they have lower expectations that good job performance will be rewarded (Rainey 1983). Most of the foregoing studies are based on crosssectional assessment of employees working in either the public or private sectors. While quite useful in many respects, these studies have some obvious limitations for understanding the impacts of the “boundaryless career,” characterized by employment with numerous organizations (Arthur and Rousseau 2001), often moving back and forth across the sectors (Light 1999). While there is reason to believe from case study and biographical evidence (Perry and Kraemer 1983) that private sector experience affects public employees, currently, there is a dearth of systematic work documenting these effects.

Our study is part of an emerging public management research agenda focused on “sector switchers” (Light 1999)—here operationalized as public managers who have spent some part of their careers in the private sector.1 This research agenda differs from most prior examinations of sector switchers in that the latter have been limited to historical analysis or anecdotes (Blumenthal 1983; Hunt 1999; Rumsfeld 1983), in part because the few widely available public management databases While studies comparing public do not include sufficient career and private sector attributes data to permit examination of often arrive at diverse and career trajectories, especially when there is an interest in even conflicting conclusions simultaneously examining regarding the types and work-related attitudes. Paul significance of public–private Light (1999), whose work is differences, one area of discussed at numerous points in considerable convergence is this essay, was perhaps the first differences between public and to examine private-to-public sector switchers, as we do here, private managers. identifying sector switching as

“the defining characteristic of the new public service.” Light found younger generations of public servants having more diverse career paths than their predecessors, with the former experiencing “multisector public service as their career reality” (1999, 76).2 The key questions of this paper relate past work experience in the private sector to some of the most widely studied outcomes in the field of organizational behavior: job satisfaction (for overviews, see Locke 1976; Staw and Cohen-Carash 2005) and job involvement. We find job satisfaction a natural place to begin our inquiry into sector switching, insofar as employees’ satisfaction with their jobs has been of considerable concern for public (and private) managers (Schneider and Vaught 1993), having been studied since at least the Western Electric studies of the 1930s (Lawler 1981). Since then, various studies (e.g., Boardman and Sundquist 2009; George and Jones 1996; Judge et al. 2001; Shore and Martin 1989; Tett and Meyer 1993) have demonstrated absenteeism, turnover, job performance, the provision of effective public service, and organizational commitment to be directly related to job satisfaction. In addition to job satisfaction, we also assess the impact of private sector work experience on the job involvement of public employees, which is conceptually distinct from job satisfaction (Brooke, Price, and Russell 1988; Brown 1996; Mathieu and Farr 1991). Job involvement is a proxy for intrinsic work motivation (Cook et al. 1981) that has demonstrated public–private differences (Buchanan 1975). We compare the effects of private sector work experience on job involvement versus job satisfaction, expecting that differences in career trajectory constitute different reference points from which public managers perceive their current work environments (Bozeman and Rainey 2000). With the analysis of sector switchers comes numerous challenges. First, there are potential selection effects per a number of attitudinal, human and social capital, and stratification variables. Moreover, needed is longitudinal data rich enough to control for cohort effects, including data for sector switchers who have moved from the public to the private sector, in addition to data for the switchers we examine in this paper, who have moved from the private sector to the public. With new career trajectory data from the most recent National Administrative Studies Project (NASP-III), we feel we can speak at least provisionally to whether private sector work experience affects the job satisfaction and job involvement of public sector workers.

that the proclivity to be satisfied by and/or to become involved in one’s public sector job is partly determined by the work experiences an individual has accrued. The norms and expectations and experiences of the private sector are in many ways different from those of the public sector (for summaries, see Perry and Rainey 1988; Rainey and Bozeman 2000). Our paper rests on the premise that private sector work experiences have residual effects that are not nullified upon departure for the public sector, or even after having spent some years employed outside the private sector. Accordingly, our analysis of public managers’ career trajectories is informed by explanations from applied psychology, especially the operations of attitude formation, which explain how individuals’ past experiences (Petty and Krosnick 1995; SongerNocks 1976) and current beliefs and perceptions (Fishbein and Middlestadt 1995) converge to form new attitudes, including satisfaction with and/or involvement in one’s job. Additionally, this study is informed by explanations of workplace socialization from occupational psychology emphasizing the emotive effects of career transitions (Louis 1980; West and Rushton 1989). Together, these approaches help to consider systematically past work experiences in addition to contemporaneous factors in discussion of antecedents to public managers’ workaday attitudes. Data Data from our study come from the most recent edition of the National Administrative Studies Project (NASP-III). The data were derived from 787 responses to mailed questionnaires sent to a random sample of 1,853 state-level public managers, upper-level professionals, and technicians in Georgia and Illinois. The response rate was 43 percent, with 431 respondents from Georgia and 356 from Illinois. In addition to the demographic, attitudinal, and motivational questions, the survey asked respondents to provide information about their recent career history (last four jobs, including the current one). Gathering data on individuals’ full employment history would have been ideal, but doing this in a survey would be infeasible. Even with this limitation, for 303 of the respondents (39 percent), the span of the current job plus three prior jobs was broad enough to cover the entirety of their career histories. Questions about past jobs included start and end dates, number of employees supervised, type of job (managerial, professional, or technical), and type of organization (public sector, private sector, nonprofit sector).

We focus on private sector career experience not only because it is Of 787 respondents, 216 (28 percent) reported that one or more underresearched in the study of public personnel, but also because of their prior three jobs was in the private sector.3 Ninety-two (12 the issues examined pertain to fundamental percent) reported that the job they held questions in the social psychology of work. immediately prior to the current one was in We focus on private sector Much current work using measures for cognithe private sector. These descriptive numbers tive phenomena such as perceptions of the alone imply that individuals with private seccareer experience not only work environment presumes that attitudes tor work experience are fairly common in the because it is underresearched such as satisfaction and involvement emerge public sector workforce. in the study of public more or less spontaneously, as products of personnel, but also because current beliefs and immediate contexts (e.g., The models in the analysis here consider three the issues examined pertain to Tracey, Tannenbaum, and Kavanagh 1995). measures of private sector work experience: fundamental questions in the By controlling for private sector work experiwhether the job immediately before the curence in our assessment of job satisfaction and rent job was in the private sector, the quansocial psychology of work. job involvement, we consider the possibility tity of reported private sector jobs, and the Private Sector Imprinting 51

Table 1 Descriptive Statistics Variable



Std. Dev.



Private sector tenure: last job was in the private sector






Private sector tenure: number of jobs in the private sector






Private sector tenure: percentage of years in the private sector






Current job tenure: number of years in current job






Prior job tenure: number of years in last job






Current job perception: red tape






Current job perception: risk averse





4 4

Current job perception: trust





























percentage of reported years spent in private sector jobs. We assume respondents’ job satisfaction and job involvement to be a function of numerous other factors as well, including length of tenure in the current job, length of tenure in the previous job, and also of perceptual measures demonstrated to be different across the sectors and to have an impact on satisfaction and involvement.

the attitude “job satisfaction” along the range “I am satisfied with my job–I am not satisfied with my job,” using a Likert-type scale. Operative to this conceptualization of attitude is the evaluation of beliefs. Explanations from applied psychology of how attitudes develop emphasize the spontaneous evaluation of an object (e.g., a job) along multiple attribute dimensions (e.g., satisfying–not satisfying, involving–not involving) which, in turn, gives rise to beliefs about that object (e.g., unsatisfying but involving, satisfying and involving) (Ajzen and Fishbein 2000). Further, upon subconscious consideration of numerous beliefs in aggregate, one arrives at an attitude toward the object (e.g., I am satisfied by the job, I am not involved with the job). Of course, this is a simplification of highly developed and nuanced psychological theory that has been evolving from its beginnings 50 years ago (Osgood, Suci, and Tannenbaum 1957). The fundamental point is that some scholars consider this process of belief evaluation to explain the totality of attitude formation. Specifically, Fishbein and Middlestadt (1995) have asserted that beliefs are the sole predictors of attitude formation and change. While we acknowledge the relevance of perceptions and beliefs to attitude formation and change, we are influenced by assertions and demonstrations that beliefs and their simultaneous and subconscious evaluation constitute but just one component of a larger equation explaining attitudes (Haugtvedt 1997; Miniard and Barone 1997; Priester and Fleming 1997). This approach emphasizes the importance of noncognitive processes by which attitudes may develop and differentiate (Azjen 2000). Past experiences, including but not limited to past job experiences, may play a significant role in the formation of attitudes (Petty and Krosnick 1995; SongerNocks 1976), including attitudes toward one’s current occupational position. This reasoning constitutes the rationale that underlay our hypotheses about the effects of private sector work experiences on the job satisfaction and job involvement of public managers.

Literature and Hypotheses The hypotheses regarding the effects of past career experience in the private sector on public managers’ reported levels of job satisfaction and job involvement are informed not only by prior study of sector differences at the individual level and, more generally, of antecedents to job satisfaction and job involvement, but also by studies from applied and occupational psychology concerned with the operations of attitude formation and workplace socialization, respectively. We present a rudimentary Workplace Socialization overview of the latter areas of study before In occupational psychology, there is additional After presentation of the presenting the hypotheses. After presentation evidence that prior job experiences affect hypotheses, we address in of the hypotheses, we address in more detail perceptions and attitudes toward current more detail the expectation the expectation of divergent effects of private employment. Louis (1980) observed that of divergent effects of private sector job experience on job satisfaction and transitioning to a job that expects roles and job involvement. Because it is more familiar, behaviors that are inconsistent with prior sector job experience on we review prior study of sector differences, work experiences has negative emotional job satisfaction and job sector switchers, and of antecedents to job effects. Such “person–role mismatch” may involvement. satisfaction and job involvement in the conoccur when individuals do not experience in text of the hypotheses only. their current position “confirmations” of their past work experiences; it may also occur as a result of “surprises” Past Experiences, Present Perceptions and Beliefs, and concerning the current work environment and expectations (West Attitude Formation and Change and Rushton 1989). Other studies addressing the duration of such The study of attitude formation—how individuals arrive at a parexperiences suggest that they are a function not only of a mismatch ticular attitude, not simple identification of antecedents to that attibetween past and present work experiences, but also of the length of tude (which characterizes much of the work in public administration time spent in past jobs (Reichers, Wanous, and Steele 1994). outlets)—influences our thinking in this paper about the effects of past private sector work experiences. In applied psychology, the con- Reichers, Wanous, and Steele (1994) consider person–role mismatch ceptualization of “attitude” is an individual’s “summary evaluation of as well as the immediacy and duration of previous work experia psychological object” captured in attribute dimensions with ranges ences that define the mismatch to develop a typology of workers, such as “good–bad,” “harmful–beneficial,” “pleasant–unpleasant” including “neophytes” with no prior career experiences, “initiates” (Azjen 2000). For the attitudes we are interested in, one can isolate with some but not extensive career experiences similar to current an attribute dimension per survey item. For instance, we measure occupation, “veterans” who have worked for an extended period in 52

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their current position or in positions quite similar to their current ones in terms of expectations and work environment, and “converts” whose prior job experiences were quite different in work role expectations and/or work environment. Converts require more “proactive” socialization strategies. The absence of such strategies may explain in part the negative relationship between private sector work experience and length of public service (Nigro and Meier 1975).

reduced job satisfaction as a result of misalignment between past experiences and current workplace.6 This explanation takes a new step toward making sense of the findings by Light regarding the job satisfaction of private-to-public sector switchers, which as a career trajectory cohort Light demonstrates to have the second-lowest level of being “very satisfied” with their current public sector jobs (1999, 89).7

Hypotheses for Job Satisfaction

We remain tentative in this expectation because those who have made the private-to-public sector transition perhaps were highly motivated to do so. Typically, when sector switching occurs, it is the reverse, whereby one leaves the public sector for the private sector because of wage differentials and/or more challenging work (SousaPoza and Henneberger 2004). A move from private to public sector work could be for reasons such as promotion (Bozeman and Ponomariov 2008), or perhaps for reasons that are related to intrinsic motivations and mission valence (e.g., public service motivation). In these cases, one would expect a positive impact of recent private sector work experience on affective measures like job satisfaction.

The theoretical and empirical studies of attitude formation and change and workplace socialization discussed earlier suggest that the immediacy and length of exposure to such variation may affect personal assessments (e.g., satisfaction, involvement) of the contemporaneous workplace.4 Accordingly, we use three operationalizations of private sector work experience. The first addresses whether the respondent’s previous job was in the private sector. H1: Having worked in the private sector immediately prior to one’s current public sector employment, all else equal, is associated with lower reported levels of job satisfaction. We suggest that public managers with private sector work experience will have internalized, to an extent, private sector “norms and expectations.”5 Accordingly, those with more immediate work experiences in the private sector are more likely to have “residual internalization” than those who have had a series of public sector jobs. A public manager whose previous job was with a private company will be less satisfied by his or her job than counterparts who are further removed from their private sector work experiences or who have not worked in the private sector (for their last four positions).

However, it is important to recognize that a positive impact on job satisfaction is not necessary. First, the “voluntary turnover” literature demonstrates numerous decision paths for changing jobs. Griffeth, Hom, and Gaertner (2000) suggest that attitudinal variables, including dissatisfaction with the job an individual plans to vacate (therefore implying an increase in job satisfaction upon occupation of a new position), explain just 4 percent to 5 percent of the variation in reports of intention to turn over. Moreover, an intrinsic motivation to switch from private to public sector employment need not correlate positively with reports of job satisfaction (Janssen 2003; Weissenberg and Gruenfeld 1968). Last, even if a desire for increased job satisfaction motivates job change, this does not guarantee that such an increase will occur after changing jobs (as suggested by the literature on workplace socialization reviewed earlier).8

Extant research and commentary regarding differences between public and private organizations constitute a starting point for considering how the norms and expectations of public and private firms may differ. While Extant research and recent empirical research demonstrates that public agencies do not differ from private We also operationalize private sector work commentary regarding firms in all of the ways that stereotypes of experience in terms of the reported number differences between public and government suggest (Rainey and Bozeman of private sector jobs the respondent has private organizations constitute 2000), government organizations and agencies occupied and the percentage of reported work a starting point for considering are distinct from private firms primarily in years the respondent has spent in private how the norms and expectations sector jobs. The number of jobs, as an indicaways related to higher levels of centralization of public and private firms may and formalization (Bozeman 2000; Bretschtor of the “degree” of private sector work neider 1990; Marsden, Cook, and Kalleberg experience, has its limitations. An individual differ. 1994), which may beget variable norms and can have numerous jobs over a relatively short expectations for workplace attitudes and time span. Because of this shortcoming, we behavior across the sectors. also include a measure of the percentage of work years spent in the private sector. Thus, individuals who are professionally socialized in the private sector may experience dissonance between the norms and expectations H2: The higher the number of private sector jobs, the lower they have already internalized and the norms and expectations of the the reported level of job satisfaction, all else equal. new workplace—possibly experiencing professional discomfort that could be at least partially manifested in their job satisfaction levels H3: The higher the percentage of reported work years spent in (Louis 1980; Reichers, Wanous, and Steele 1994; West and Rushton private sector jobs, the lower the reported level of job satisfac1989). For example, transitioning from an organizational environtion. ment characterized by relatively few rules and regulations, particuThe rationale and qualifications from hypothesis 1 apply here. The larly in relation to personnel and purchasing decisions (Rainey and Bozeman 2000), to an environment with a greater level of perceived greater the number of jobs (H2) and the percentage of time spent (H3) in the private sector, the more internalized private sector red tape provides one scenario, among many possible scenarios, for Private Sector Imprinting 53

norms and expectations become. Accordingly, a public manager with a relatively high number of private sector experiences will be less satisfied by his or her public sector job. The reverse assumption, that private-to-public sector switching correlates with increased job satisfaction, is inconsistent with theories of attitude formation and change (Azjen 2000; Petty and Krosnick 1995; Songer-Nocks 1976) and with research findings demonstrating numerous paths to career change not explained by job satisfaction (Griffeth, Hom, and Gaertner 2000; Janssen 2003; Weissenberg and Gruenfeld 1968). As with hypothesis 1, the direction of effect proposed by hypotheses 2 and 3 is tentative. It is perhaps more tentative for the count variable than for the percentage time operationalization of private sector work experience, insofar as a high number private sector jobs may signify a lack of satisfaction with private sector jobs more generally (i.e., an employee may move around a lot because of job dissatisfaction). Therefore, public managers who have had numerous private sector jobs may not have internalized private sector norms and expectations—for instance, in comparison to those with private sector work experience who spent most of their private sector tenure with a single firm. The possibility of a reverse finding (i.e., a positive correlation between private sector work experience and job satisfaction) seems greatest for the variable counting the private sector positions held per respondent. Hypotheses for Job Involvement

The foregoing hypotheses propose a negative relationship between private sector work experiences and job satisfaction, based on the idea that the private sector and public sector differ in ways that affect job satisfaction. The public sector, for instance, has been demonstrated to be perceived to have more red tape (Pandey and Kingsley 2000; Pandey and Scott 2002) and to be more risk averse than the private sector (see Bozeman and Kingsley 1998 for an overview). We control for these and other measures in our model specification. The hypotheses also are consistent with formal theories of attitude formation and change (suggesting that variable work experiences result in variable attitudes), as well as with studies of workplace socialization (demonstrating career transitions to result in negative emotive responses, at least initially). Our thinking about the effects of “residual” norms and expectations from private sector work experience is quite different regarding job involvement, a concept reflecting a cognitive belief state indicating the degree of psychological identification with one’s job (Cook et al. 1981; Locke 1976; Kanungo 1983) and formally shown to be distinct from job satisfaction (Brooke, Price, and Russell 1988; Mathieu and Farr 1991). Changing sector of employment involves barriers, which, whether concrete (e.g., certification requirements) or perceptual (e.g., differences in organizational cultures), will discourage sector switching unless the payoff is high—for instance, in terms of new and challenging work (Light 1999), satisfaction of public service motives (Crewson 1997; Perry 1996; Perry and Wise 1990), and/or promotion (Bozeman and Ponomariov, 2009). Because job involvement is tied to 54

intrinsic work motives (Rainey 2003), we expect a positive relationship between private sector work experiences and reports of being involved in one’s job. H4: Having worked in the private sector immediately prior to one’s current public sector employment, all else equal, is associated with higher reported levels of job involvement. H5: The higher the number of public sector jobs, the higher the reported level of job involvement. H6: The higher the percentage of total reported work years spent in private sector jobs, the higher the reported level of job involvement. For instance, sector switchers moving from the private to the public sector, faced with (in addition to the aforementioned barriers) the likelihood of lower pay, more perceived red tape, and more riskaverse colleagues than they experienced in the private sector (Bozeman and Kingsley 1998; Pandey and Kingsley 2000; Pandey and Scott 2002), may be motivated to make the switch by the inherent qualities of the work. This reasoning is consistent with the ideas of public service motivation and mission valence (Crewson 1997; Perry 1996; Perry and Wise 1990) whereby private-to-public sector switchers “make the switch” because they value work that helps others and benefits society (Rainey 2003). Perhaps Light summed it up best: “[T]hose coming to government from the private sector are seeking a kind of redemption from their past, giving up the higher salaries . . . to make a difference in the world” (1999, 91). This type of intrinsic motivation is not necessarily mitigated in the face of the negative emotive effects predicted by theories attitude formation and workplace socialization (see H1–H3). Divergence in the Effects of Private Sector Work Experience on Job Satisfaction and Job Involvement

We have proposed that private sector work experience negatively affects reports of job satisfaction but positively affects reports of job involvement. These expectations deserve elaboration given that job satisfaction and job involvement have been found to be highly correlated (e.g., Weissenberg and Gruenfeld 1968). However, studies have explicitly assessed the discriminant validity of measures of job involvement versus job satisfaction, showing that such measures indeed capture different constructs, and that job-related variables have different effects on these concepts (Brooke, Price, and Russell 1988; Mathieu and Farr 1991).

The divergence between job satisfaction and job involvement that we propose is plausible insofar as people become more involved in a particular activity The divergence between job when they perceive its potential for satisfying satisfaction and job involvement salient psychological needs (Kanungo 1983). While job involvement is widely used as a ... is plausible insofar as people proxy for such intrinsic motivations, job satbecome more involved in isfaction is merely the summative assessment a particular activity when of contemporaneous circumstances. Although they perceive its potential for the two constructs are often correlated satisfying salient psychological (Brown 1996), there is no necessary connection between the fulfillment of such psychoneeds. logical needs (by being involved in a job) and

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satisfaction with an overall employment situation (particularly given that these two attitudes have different referents; see Brooke, Price, and Russell 1988). Perhaps the best-known articulation of the possible disconnect between satisfaction and involvement is Herzberg’s (1968) “two-factor” theory. Although empirically inconclusive in its original form, the theory suggests that satisfaction and motivation are explained by different factors—reasoning supported by research demonstrating that workers may be “highly satisfied but not involved” or “highly involved but not satisfied.” For instance, Weissenberg and Gruenfeld (1968) report that “motivator” but not “hygiene” variables correlate with job involvement. They also articulate the need to keep the concepts of involvement and satisfaction conceptually distinct. Similar, Gechman and Weiner (1975) observe that devoting personal time to work-related activities is positively associated with job involvement, but unrelated to job satisfaction. Janssen (2003), moreover, shows that employees with higher job involvement also engage in more innovative behaviors and as a result are more likely to report dissatisfaction with their coworker relations. Control Variables

In addition to variables measuring private sector work experiences, we control for a number of additional variables. Particularly important, we control for time effects, specifically public managers’ length of tenure in the current job as well as that for the job they had immediately prior to the current job. We also control for the “activation” of residual private sector norms and expectations by including a measure determining if respondents’ current jobs require that they interact with private companies. Mentioned earlier, we control for perceptions of the work environment that have been shown to diverge across the sectors, including perceptions of organizational rules and procedures as red tape, of public sector managers as risk averse, and of public sector managers as trusting. Finally, we control for stratification variables including gender, age, level of education, and whether the respondent works for the state of Georgia or for Illinois. Results Because the dependent variables are ordinal (Likert-type) responses, we estimate two ordered logit models. Model 1 uses “job satisfaction,” a single-item indicator based on responses to “All in all, I am satisfied with my job” (4 = strongly agree, 3 = agree somewhat, 2 = disagree somewhat, 1 = strongly disagree). Single-item measures of job satisfaction have been demonstrated to correlate quite highly with multiple-item indicators while avoiding the latter’s face validity problems (Nagy 2002; Wanous, Reichers, and Hudy 1997). Model 2 similarly uses a single-item indicator for “job involvement,” based on responses to “It has been hard for me to get involved in my current job” (using the same Likert-type response scale as used for job satisfaction). We ran this model with both the single-item and with a scale indicator (created using principal components factor analysis with a varimax rotation). The results for both versions were the same in terms of statistical significance and direction of effects, so for consistency with the job satisfaction model, we use the single-item indicator. Job involvement was reverse-coded because of the negative wording of the item. The dependent variables constitute the only distinction between model 1 and model 2. Each model includes three independent

variables operationalizing private sector work experience: a binary indicator coded 1 if the respondent’s last job (the one immediately preceding her current job) was a private sector job, 0 otherwise; a variable indicating the number of private sector jobs the respondent has held, with a range of 0–3 (the survey asks only about the current job plus the previous three jobs); and another variable indicating the percentage of time spent working in private companies, based on the years spent in private firms divided by the total years encompassed by the respondent’s current job and (up to) three previous jobs. The results for the two ordered logit models are presented in table 2.9 The results show that private sector work experience decreases reports of job satisfaction and increases reports of job involvement. Among the statistically significant control variables, years spent in the job immediately preceding the current job increase job satisfaction, the perception of red tape decreases job satisfaction, the perception of coworkers being risk averse decreases job satisfaction and also job involvement, and the perception of management displaying high levels of trust increases both job satisfaction and involvement. Model 1 demonstrates that having had one’s last job in the private sector lowers reported job satisfaction, while neither the number of private sector jobs nor the percentage of the work years spent in the private sector demonstrates a statistically significant effect. The amount of time respondents worked at their previous job has a positive, though much smaller, effect. We could find no discernible reversal effect for the negative impact of having had one’s last job in the private sector on job satisfaction—for instance, one with an extended stay in the private sector workforce (e.g., as approximated by number of private sector jobs) increases job satisfaction. In model 2, the effect of private sector work experience on job involvement is examined. Here, we again see a statistically significant effect, but this time regarding the percentage of years spent working in the private sector rather than for the “immediacy” of private sector work experience. Therefore, private sector work experience seems to operate variably to affect public sector workers’ attitudes toward their jobs, depending on the nature of those attitudes. For attitudes such as job satisfaction that encompass a broad range of facets both intrinsic and extrinsic (Nagy 2002), past experiences such as occupying a private sector job may have an impact, but one that is relatively short-lived when compared to its effect on attitudes that involve more exclusively intrinsic motivational facets. For these types of attitudes, like job involvement, the relative proportion of total experiences represented by said past experiences—here private sector work experience—seems more important. The residual norms and expectations left over from private sector careers seem to affect job involvement more than they affect job satisfaction. The human resource management implications of these findings are not straightforward. Though private sector work experience negatively correlates with job satisfaction, it only does so for the “new switcher,” whose last job was in the private sector. As careers advance and this type of worker gets promoted, which is likely (Bozeman and Ponomariov, 2009), the negative impact seems to wane, leaving a public sector workforce that, because of managers’ private sector experiences, are relatively intrinsically motivated and “involved” in Private Sector Imprinting 55

Table 2 Ordered Logit Regression Outputs (1)


All in all, I am satisfied with my job

It has been hard for me to get very involved in my current job†

Private sector tenure: last job was in the private sector

–0.779** (0.353)

–0.374 (0.348)

Private sector tenure: number of jobs in the private sector

–0.051 (0.170)

–0.197 (0.174)

Private sector tenure: percentage of years in the private sector

0.114 (0.102)

0.321** (0.160)

Current job tenure: number of years in current job

0.003 (0.015)

Prior job tenure: number of years in last job

0.039** (0.018)

–0.001 (0.021)

0.004 (0.018)

Private sector activation: Percentage private (above) *on-the-job communication with private firms

0.006 (0.009)

–0.003 (0.010)

Current job perception: red tape

–0.136*** (0.045)

–0.009 (0.052)

Current job perception: risk averse

–0.338*** (0.127)

–0.275** (0.126)

Current job perception: trust

0.973*** (0.119)


0.439*** (0.114)

–0.142 (0.162)

Age Education State

–0.367** (0.179)

0.015 (0.011)

0.014 (0.012)

–0.080 (0.065)

–0.005 (0.075)

0.050 (0.181)

0.030 (0.189)




Robust standard errors in parentheses. *Significant at 10%; **significant at 5%; ***significant at 1%. † This variable was reverse-coded, so that positive estimators signify increases in job involvement, and negative estimators signify decreases.

their jobs, no matter their satisfaction levels. This represents an extension of the work begun by Light (1999), one that accounts for the changing effects of private sector work experience throughout one’s career.

Much work remains to account for the impact of career trajectory factors in explaining public managers’ attitudes.… Most important for present purposes, not all private sector experiences are the same.

Discussion and Conclusions The results for our hypotheses, for the most part, are aligned with our initial expectations. Despite some limitations, this paper seems to hold some promise for providing systematic understanding of the effects of private sector work experience on public sector workers. What we understand, so far, is that public managers with private sector work experiences are, at least upon switching to the public sector, less satisfied with their public sector jobs relative to their public sector colleagues with no private sector work experience. More generally, public sector managers with private sector work experiences are more involved with their jobs, potentially because, among other probable intrinsic reasons (insofar as job involvement signifies intrinsic interest and motivation), their current public sector jobs were promotions (Bozeman and Ponomariov, 2009).

More broadly, what we additionally understand is that perceptual measures continue to have strong effects on public managers’ attitudes, but that they are not the only predictors. This differs sharply from strong currents of public administration research that presume that work attitudes such as job commitment and involvement are first and foremost products of current beliefs and immediate contextual factors. (Studies have urged the importance of the individual’s social and work experience on related concepts such as public service motivation; see Perry 2000). Many of these previous studies may have failed to emphasize the life course components of work attitudes because such studies generally have included no historical 56

Public Administration Review • January | February 2010

or longitudinal data, with Light (1999) being a notable exception.

Much work remains to account for the impact of career trajectory factors in explaining public managers’ attitudes. In this study, for instance, we account for only simple quantifications of private sector experience and do not provide insight into the doubtless richer qualitative components of these experiences. Most important for present purposes, not all private sector experiences are the same. Working for a large multinational firm surely entails a different work life experience than working for a small, family-owned business such as a dry cleaner or an automobile body shop. However, the fact that there is discernible private sector imprinting in what is surely a highly diverse set of private sector experiences, necessarily treated by us in an undifferentiated statistical aggregation, seems to say much about the possible benefits of future and more detailed research on this topic.

An unavoidable limitation of our research design points the way to a potentially interesting avenue for future research. We cannot by this design and in the absence of comparable private sector data determine selection effects. That is, even though it certainly appears that private sector imprinting occurs, it is important to remember that the people who have entered public sector employment from the private sector are not a random set. They are likely to differ from those who have elected to stay in the private sector in a number of ways ranging from interest in public service to lack of job opportunities in market-based organizations. It is only with a longitudinal design including career trajectory and life course data from both public and private sector workers that it will be possible to develop a truly satisfactory theory of private (and public) sector imprinting.

Notes 1. 2.






8. 9.

Workers may also “switch” from the public sector to the private. We discuss this at numerous points later. Specifically, Light (1999) found that graduates of public administration and public policy programs in 1993 were four times as likely to switch sectors as graduates in 1973. As one reviewer pointed out, for the purpose of comparing the attitudes of switchers versus nonswitchers, a balanced sample featuring 50 percent of each would be ideal and could possibly strengthen the observed differences (if any). However, given that the sample is representative, there was no way to identify switchers a priori. Unfortunately, the data used for this paper do not include observations of individuals who switched from public sector careers to private sector jobs. Even if the data did include these “inverse” observations, the theoretical argument that workers must be socialized into their current workplaces and that the socialization process takes time would remain unchanged. Therefore, for the “inverse” observations that the data do not include, we would expect private sector workers with past experience in public sector jobs to be less satisfied with their jobs than their counterparts without public sector work experience—at least until they have spent a sufficient amount of time in the private sector to become socialized into the norms and expectations of the private sector. Organizational “norms and expectations” are considered a function of organizational context and climate. Specifically, organizational contexts pose for individual workers unique sets of “opportunities and constraints” that affect workaday behaviors in ways that depend on contextual attributes (Hall 2002; Mowday and Sutton 1993). Because organizations can differ from one another, the organizational contexts they pose differ, providing alternate sets of constraints and opportunities. Private sector affiliation represents a contextual feature characteristic of some, but not all, organizations that may facilitate particular activities but hinder others on the part of workers. The concept of organizational climate helps to explain how contextual attributes such as sector affiliation operate to affect worker attitudes. Organizational climate is essentially the collective norms and expectations for individual behavior that emerge over time in an organization as a result of the opportunities and constraints posed by an organizational context (Glick 1985). These norms and expectations develop because of organizational members’ common and prolonged exposure to the same organizational context, the selection and exclusion of members based respectively on adherence to and defiance of norms and expectations—resulting in a homogenous set of workers, and social interaction among “selected” workers that result in shared experiences and meanings (Schneider and Reichers 1983). Accordingly, it is plausible that public servants with private sector work experience will hold different attitudes than career public servants. We acknowledge that there is nothing inherently “bad” about rules and regulations. However, transitioning from a context with less rules and regulations to one with more may require workplace socialization, and, until such socialization occurs, the result may be a negative emotive response. Importantly, the percentage of respondents in Light’s study who stayed in government for the entirety of their careers and reported being “very satisfied” with their current jobs was higher than that for private-to-public sector switchers. This is important because the former cohort is similar in career trajectory to the reference group for the regression analyses later. We address further the role of intrinsic motivation with the hypotheses for job involvement later. The design used in this study is a variation of the nonequivalent group, posttest only quasi-experimental design (Campbell and Fiske 1959). Admittedly imperfect, this is one of the most common quasi-experimental designs in the social sciences (Trochim 2001). In this design, predefined groups (e.g., classes, participants in different programs, etc.) are used that the researchers believe are similar enough to warrant comparisons relative to the “intervention.” This design

can be strengthened by ensuring that the two groups under comparison are as similar as possible except for the treatment. The data used in this study represent a random sample of public managers and provides a representative snapshot of the managerial workforce in the two states’ public agencies. In this group, some individuals have had prior work experience in the private sector while others have not. Additionally, the models control for many variables that correlate with worker attitudes, including age, education level, motivation, type of agency of current job, and so on. Keeping these alternate factors constant allows for assessment of whether work experience in private companies is associated with particular attitudes.

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