Best of 2016: How to survive and thrive under a public sector hiring freeze

Navigating recruitment freezes.


External recruitment freezes have become a harsh reality of life for Australian public servants as governments seek to contain wages and make savings, but is it possible to turn a no-hire zone into something positive?

The usual rules are that when a freeze is on, jobs can only be filled internally, although there are often exemptions such as some frontline staff, fixed-term positions linked to specific projects and critical or revenue-raising positions that cannot be filled internally.

Responses to the hiring ban can include staff acting up or people being transferred or seconded, or the dreaded: hiring contractors.

The painful Australian Public Service hiring freeze began late in 2013 and lasted until mid-2015, after more than 10,000 jobs were shed. Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett announced a six-month halt to external recruitment in December last year, after forecasting a $3.1 billion hole in the state’s finances by the end of June 2016.

Karen Evans, Managing Director of talent management company Acendre, which has many public service clients, spoke to Government News about how to survive and thrive when non-essential hiring shuts down.

On paper a hiring freeze might appear grim and morale sapping but it can give also managers a chance to take stock of the people and range of skills that they have and to concentrate on training, developing and promoting them.

It can also force people to think more strategically and critically about how efficiently they are working and to streamline processes. Of course, it may also leave staff feeling overworked or fearful about losing their jobs in the future.

Ms Evans said human resources had an “absolutely critical role” to play – even in the short term – to support staff, explain the changes and manage them through it.

“HR needs to get itself geared up to support their organisation, particularly initially,” she said. “A lot of managers will be wanting to fill critical roles where they may not be able to. How does HR support them?

“There are changes but there are also huge opportunities with something like this. It’s a chance to think outside the box,” Ms Evans said. “Personally, I would be saying don’t try to sit tight and just wait it out.”

She suggested managers looked at the roles and skills of the staff that they do have and list the skills and roles needed within the organisation.

“Put development plans in place to revise or change roles that you actually need.”

The focus should then be on upskilling staff and giving them opportunities to take on different responsibilities, perform new tasks or accept leadership roles in order to drive their enthusiasm.

“People can get a lot of up and cross-skilling and their engagement really lifts. Put development plans in place for individuals. [Ask] can you merge or upskill roles?”

There is also the chance to work more closely with other departments and agencies and collaborate on projects or even share staff.

For example, the federal government’s hiring freeze, it set up a business centre made up of part-time staff and underused staff and funnelled excess work from various teams.

Ms Evans said it was also important to look at staff ready to redeploy and think about how to get them working in another department or agency.

It can also be useful to seek advice from other departments or the same department at a different level of government that have already been through a hiring freeze.

Brisbane City Council reduced the number of contracts it had and moved functions in-house.

“It was a huge saving and it really drove engagement from people within the organisation, being able to do different things and increase their capabilities. It also helped teams work together in a more effective way,” she said.

Despite the opportunities available, there is no point pretending that everyone will be happy about the freeze. It could lower morale, hit productivity or lead to employees walking out the door.

The key to preventing this situation is to engage staff early on, explain what the changes might mean to them and come up with a plan to mitigate the more harmful effects, said Ms Evans.

“Use this as an opportunity because I do think it is one.”

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