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Sector Switching and Imprinting: A View beyond Sector Comparison
Conventional wisdom suggests that “sector matters.” Looking more deeply into the legal and political dimensions, one may find little evidence suggesting that the context of the public sector is akin to that of the private and nonprofit sectors. Public organizations, in contrast to both nonprofit and private organizations, face more complex political influences, political oversight, and legal constraints (Rainey, 2009). Therefore, public sector workers are subject to more formal bureaucratic structures and red tape (Baldwin, 1990; Rainey & Bozeman, 2000; Rainey, Pandey, & Bozeman, 1995). Overemphasized rules and red tape, in turn, often undermine work attitudes (e.g. job satisfaction, involvement, etc.) and increase the likelihood of work alienation for public managers (DeHart-Davis & Pandey, 2005; Pandey & Kingsley, 2000). With regard to worker attitudes and perceptions, social scientists also admit that environmental shaping does not occur immediately. Unfortunately, most organization studies related to sector comparison fall short of illuminating the decisive role of time because collecting cross-sectional and single-time-point data is much easier and more convenient than collecting longitudinal behavioral data. This short paper calls for more attention to the decisive role of time in organization and human resources studies. 
10/01/2011 - Chung-An Chen

 

My argument centers on the perspective of sector switching and theoretical backgrounds associated with this organizational phenomenon. Sector switching is when workers who have been in a given sector setting for a certain period of time change their career track to a new sector setting. For example, people can work in business enterprises for decades and switch to governmental agencies in their mid-life. If public organizations are genuinely distinctive for their pervasive red tape, political interference, and a risk-averse culture, the perceptions (of these cultural and structural features) of those switching into the public sector or from the public sector should be different from that of those having no switching experience. According to Boardman, Bozeman, and Ponomariov (2010), one’s biased perceptions originate from “sector imprinting.”  

 

Theories Endorsing Sector Imprinting

Two theories endorse the perspective of sector imprinting. The first theory is that of contrast effects (Louis, 1980; Sherif & Hovland, 1961). A contrast effect takes place when people are previously exposed to a stimulus of lesser or greater value. For example, people tend to feel that their contemporary work environment is pleasant if they had previously worked in a less satisfactory work environment. Psychologists have noticed this phenomenon and used it to interpret cognitive bias (Petty & Wegener, 1993; Schwarz & Bles, 1992). For newcomers in an organization, a contrast between the experiences accumulated in the previous sector and the contemporary work conditions perceived in the current sector is a critical input for their sense making, attribution, and behavioral response. 

The second theory is self-persuasion, which explains a non-switcher’s perceptions and attitudes. From the perspective of social psychology, the formation of attitudes and perceptions results from people’s spontaneous evaluation of an object/event, thereby generating beliefs about that object/event (Ajzen & Fishbein, 2000). However, beliefs tend to change in the long run due to an individual’s “persuasion,” which refers to a process of guiding people toward the adoption of ideas, attitudes, or actions. Social psychologists argue that it is necessary for organizational individuals to reduce cognitive dissonance—inconsistency among beliefs in one’s cognitive system (Festinger, 1957). A recent study of cognitive dissonance holds that individuals experience dissonance mainly due to discrepancy between their self-identity (i.e. original beliefs) and an adverse or unwanted event that they are responsible for (Cooper, 1992). Most likely, people may attempt to reduce dissonance and maintain their perceptional integrity by changing their self-identity or attitudes (Festinger, 1957; Simon, Greenberg, & Brehm, 1995).

Objective conditions alone cannot constitute the whole scenario of perceived features in the contemporary environment. Perceptions and attitudes reported by organizational individuals also reflect their prior experiences accumulated in the old sector setting or the new sector setting. Considering the self-persuasion effect, the contrast effect, and possible differences across the sectors simultaneously, we may infer that sector switchers and non-switchers in the same workplace have different sets of criteria in evaluating their current environment and accordingly they generate different perceptions.  

 

Empirical Evidence

Empirical studies regarding sector imprinting are scant in the literature. So far the only published article is by Boardman, Bozeman, and Ponomariov (2010). They compared switchers from the private sector to the public sector and public sector non-switchers with respect to their work attitudes, including job involvement and job satisfaction. According to their findings, those switching into government reported lower levels of job satisfaction, an indication of sector imprinting. In the research reported here, I extended the research scope of sector imprinting to a couple of new areas. First, I examined switchers’ perceptions of red tape and their current job tenure by hypothesizing that managers switching into the public sector from either private or nonprofit organizations should perceive a higher level of red tape as compared to non-switchers, and because of this, they may have a stronger intent to quit (i.e. shorter current job tenure). Second, I compared those switching from the public sector to the nonprofit sector with nonprofit sector non-switchers plus switchers from the private sector. I anticipated that switchers from the public sector may perceive less red tape and thus have a weaker intent to quit (i.e. longer current job tenure).

 

Figure 1  Sector Imprinting

 

The results were surprising. I found that sector imprinting existed (i.e. those switching into the public sector perceived higher levels of red tape and those switching from the public sector perceived lower levels of red tape, as compared to non-switchers), but the current job tenure of those switching into the public sector, despite their strong and negative perceptions of red tape, is longer than that of non-switchers. Does this imply that people switching into the public sector have special concerns about their current job selection? For example, are they “losers” in a competitive environment? If so, they may disregard the possibility of “switching out in the future.” Do they care about external attractions a lot more than the chance to serve the public? If so, do they have a stronger feeling of negative “career entrenchment” (Carson, Carson, & Bedeian, 1995)? All these are interesting questions waiting for scholars to answer in the future. In sum, both “sector” and “time” matter, but we know more about the effect of sector than the effect of time. Sector imprinting is one of the many angles for scholars to observe the impact of time. The author encourages public administration scholars to develop more cutting-edge research agendas to understand the dynamics of time in organization studies. 

 

Table 1  Regression Results

Red Tape

Current Job Tenure

 

B

p

 

B

p

Switching in the public sector

BUS & NPO – GOV

0.38*

0.08

2.01***

0.00

Switching in the nonprofit sector

BUS & NPO – NPO

-1.06***

0.00

0.04

0.95

GOV – NPO

-1.81***

0.00

3.86***

0.00

Controls

Size (log)

0.22***

0.00

-0.13

0.32

Georgia

-0.56***

0.00

-1.24***

0.00

Managerial trust

-0.94***

0.00

-0.10

0.68

Task clarity

-0.34***

0.00

0.49*

0.06

Public service motivation

0.05

0.44

-0.14

0.52

Feeling of underpayment

0.20***

0.00

-0.09

0.69

Age

-0.02**

0.01

0.25***

0.00

Managerial responsibility

0.03

0.85

-1.07**

0.02

Promotion

0.05

0.71

1.59***

0.00

Constant

9.16***

0.00

-4.63**

0.03

N

1057

1024

Adjusted R square

0.49

0.15

Post-regression Wald tests

 

B gaps

p

 

B gaps

p

Ho: GOV – NPO = BUS & NPO – NPO

0.75**

0.04

3.82***

0.00

 

 


Chung-An Chen is Assistant Professor at Nanyang Centre for Public Administration, College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University.

 

References

I., & Fishbein, M. (2000). Attitudes and the Attitude-Behavior Relation: Reasoned and Automatic Processes. European Review of Social Psychology, 11(1), 1-33.

Baldwin, J. N. (1990). Perceptions of Public versus Private Sector Personnel and Informal Red Tape: Their Impact on Motivation. American Review of Public Administration, 20(1), 7-28.

Boardman, C., Bozeman, B., & Ponomariov, B. (2010). Private Sector Imprinting: An Examination of the Impacts of Private Sector Job Experience on Public Managers' Work Attitudes. Public Administration Review, 70(1), 50-59.

Carson, K. D., Carson, P. P., & Bedeian, A. G. (1995). Development and Construct Validation of a Career Entrenchment Measure. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 68(4), 301-320.

Cooper, J. (1992). Dissonance and the Return of the Self-Concept. Psychological Inquiry, 3(4), 320-323.

DeHart-Davis, L., & Pandey, S. K. (2005). Red Tape and Public Employees: Does Perceived Rule Dysfunction Alienate Managers? Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 15(1), 133-148.

Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Louis, M. R. (1980). Surprise and Sense Making: What Newcomers Experience in Entering Unfamiliar Organizational Settings. Administrative Science Quarterly, 25(2), 226-251.

Pandey, S. K., & Kingsley, G. A. (2000). Examining Red Tape in Public and Private Organizations: Alternative Explanations from a Social Psychological Model. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 10(4), 779-799.

Petty, R. E., & Wegener, D. T. (1993). Flexible Correction Processes in Social Judgment: Correcting for Context-Induced Contrast. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 29(2), 137-165.

Rainey, H. G. (2009). Understanding and Managing Public Organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Rainey, H. G., & Bozeman, B. (2000). Comparing Public and Private Organizations: Empirical Research and the Power of the A Priori. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 10(2), 447-470.

Rainey, H. G., Pandey, S. K., & Bozeman, B. (1995). Research Note: Public and Private Managers' Perceptions of Red Tape. Public Administration Review, 55(6), 567-574.

Schwarz, N., & Bles, H. (1992). Scandals and the Public's Trust in Politicians: Assimilation and Contrast Effects. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 18(5), 574-579.

Sherif, M., & Hovland, C. I. (1961). Social Judgment: Assimilation and Contrast Effects in Communication and Attitude Change. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Simon, L., Greenberg, J., & Brehm, J. (1995). Trivialization: The Forgotten Mode of Dissonance Reduction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68(2), 247-260.

Ajzen,

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