Employment Secrets of the Civil Service

It came as a surprise to me that age discrimination in the civil service resembles that in the private sector. I had assumed that older workers in Whitehall, protected as all of us are by the Age and Employment Act, would be sheltered by the extra measure of political correctness commonly associated with the public sector. When I met with Peter Davies (not his real name) I learned that age-related prejudice exists, even if outright discrimination would be hard to prove in court. That said, he told me there are many positives about working in the public sector, in terms of job satisfaction, working with dedicated people who are also great managers, and in understanding of personal and health issues, even if there are fewer job opportunities these days.

In order for Davies to improve his pay grade, he’s discovered reliable ways to secure a new position. He says many of his colleagues have found success using his techniques. He offers invaluable advice for those who wish to remain in public service beyond the age of 50.

Here’s his first tip: don’t rely on getting a position in the area or department in which you currently work. That was a shock. Shouldn’t people go where they’re known, where an internal network already recognises and appreciates their achievements? “No,” says Davies, “because they may have perceptions about your age, and it’s quite likely they will already have a ‘winning’ candidate in mind.” He adds: “I have had most success where I have applied for jobs outside my department where, apart from my application form, they have had no prior knowledge or pre-conceptions of me. I have used this to work in my favour in selling my services – by presenting an unmissable offer.”

His comment points in the direction of merit, and his next bit of advice: choose a position where you know you can bring value. On the application form, include 300 words that demonstrate competencies, such as evidence gathering, stakeholder management, risk-assessment, or financial acumen. Make sure you describe two key competencies, which are clearly indicated and stand out at the top of your list. At interview, be ready to discuss several examples of times where you’ve used those skills to achieve results.

Another tip: be outcome focussed. Many civil servants are keen to demonstrate their understanding of process and procedure, forgetting to describe the results of their labours. Bringing a project in under budget, completing it ahead of schedule, and improving efficiencies are examples of positive outcomes that stand out on an application.

To help overcome the age issue, and the perception that older workers are “dead wood”, he says you should upgrade your professional qualifications – he’s done that several times – and become a volunteer outside your place of employment. Join working groups, do community service, become a school governor – these are all hands-on activities that show you’re active and able. Include them in your application.

Davies says you can apply for a position if you have 70 per cent of the skills and experience found in the job advertisement. (This is the same advice we give private sector jobseekers in FINDING WORK AFTER 40.) Adverts describe the perfect candidate – it’s core competencies that matter the most. He says, “Even if you don’t think you’ll get the job, apply anyway. Put on a good show – you might be the answer to their next problem.”

Once you’ve been invited to interview, Davies maintains that, with thorough preparation, you can control 80 per cent of what happens by knowing your subject matter and being able to describe your experience. He suggests you choose two reasons why they won’t want to employ you. Be prepared to answer the worst questions they can ask around those two reasons. For the remaining 20 per cent of the interview you will need to think on your feet. There will be questions that come out of the blue. Davies says, “The interview starts a long time before it occurs formally. All communication regarding the job is part of the interview.” He adds, “Once you’re in the room, treat the interview as if you are already doing the job.”

His final words of advice: don’t piss anyone off, form alliances and always support your allies. This applies to everyone in all sectors: public, private and charitable. Your network is invaluable.

I think Peter Davies is bright, hard-working, dedicated, and helpful with his colleagues – all in all, an asset to his country. What a pity I can’t tell you his real name so we can all sing his praises. Age discrimination – and the official denial of its existence – forbids it.


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