HR Management & Compliance

Government Employers: Are you Nordstroms or Wal-Mart?

By BLR Founder and Publisher Bob Brady

Just as in private industry, government HR managers need to understand their organization’s core strategy, and then hire people and build policies that match.

Several weeks ago, I wrote about how strategic HR decisions flow from what kind of company you are.

If you depend on product creativity to accomplish your mission, you need policies that encourage and reward creativity. HR policies that emphasize efficiency—which would be great for, say, production operations—may be counterproductive for you.

That column prompted a reader to ask how government employers should be classified. Are they “operations-oriented” (Wal-Mart), “Customer-oriented” (Nordstroms), or “product-oriented” (Let me think of an example … um… BLR!)?

I’d never seriously considered just what government is, though many of BLR’s loyal customers are government employers, and government is one of the largest and fastest growing sectors of the American economy. That makes it a place where HR managers can have great impact.

So how does government sit in this model?

In fact, “government” shows all three of these orientations, with different branches, offices, and programs categorized according to their missions and cultures.

A public works department, for example, is charged with accomplishing its mission (building and maintaining roads and highways, etc.) at the least cost to the taxpayers. That equals “operations.”

On the other hand, a parks and recreation department has to come up with innovative programs that will appeal to the citizenry. That equals “products.”

Hospitals are an interesting case. You’d think they cater to patients, making them “customer,” and they are. But the customers are not who you think, according to Carol Callahan, a colleague who specializes in organization and management consulting, and who had a long-term assignment working with a hospital. After considerable study, she concluded that a hospital’s “customers” are not patients, but rather the doctors who refer their patients to hospitals.

Customer-Oriented Leaders in an Operations Agency

The situation in government agencies is not all that pure, however. Even in an operations-oriented branch, the elected official who leads it is going to have a customer orientation. Why? Because he or she depends on a long-term relationship with the voters, and particularly key supporters, for reelection.

The bottom line is that, just as in the private sector, government HR people should be looking at their organizations, trying to discover the “secret sauce” that brings success. Understanding that core will help in deciding what kind of people to hire and evaluating whether specific policies are beneficial.

Architects hew to the expression, “form follows function.” It’s also true in HR, and not just in the private sector. The form of an organization’s HR has to follow the function of its strategy.

Comments? Please e-mail me at And have a great HR week!

Note: I’m indebted to several books for these theories on organization (which are not original to me). See The Talent Solution, by Edward L. Gubman, and Profit from the Core, by Chris Zook. BLR, of course, has numerous resources designed to help formulate your policies and practices strategically. Three examples worth your consideration: our comprehensive website,, the What to do About Personnel Problems [In Your State] series, and the Handbook of Prewritten Personnel Policies.

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