Don’t Trust HR: A Response

Dave Crisp posted a discussion on a piece that disparaged much of what HR does for organizations. As you might expect, several members of HRM Today took issue with how their profession was characterized. Rather than clog HRM’s website with my own, lengthy analysis, I thought I would address this topic here. I have quite a bit to say about this, but I will limit myself to three points that were particularly salient to me.

1. Richard Beatty states that HR is largely unable to provide the metrics that enable organizations to make sound, economic decisions. He is both lamentably correct and profoundly incorrect in this belief.

I have spent the better part of my adult life learning and applying the knowledge and skills necessary to quantify the impact of human performance on various organizational endeavors. I am not alone. Thousands of I/O Psychologists world-wide share this training and experience. About half of them are embedded in HR departments of larger organizations, or with consulting firms that service them. So, Beatty is dead wrong in saying HR can’t do this. However, his argument has legitimacy in that not too many HR departments engage in this type of analysis.

The “why” of this situation is quite frankly beyond me. I, along with many of my colleagues are virtually tripping over ourselves to make just this contribution to organizations. Hell, even those of my colleagues that chose to pursue academic careers are al too happy to do these analyses as well. For reasons too numerous to get into, organizations hesitate to move forward with this type of analysis.

2. Beatty cites employee surveys conducted at IBM and Gallup indicating an absence of a relationship between job satisfaction and performance ratings. I am willing to bet that Gallup isn’t all too fond of Beatty’s characterizations of their work- they are the “big dogs” in this type of research.

I have personally read dozens of peer-reviewed research reports demonstrating a statistically significant relationship between these two constructs. I have also personally analyzed surey data from several “flesh and blood” organizations and have found reliable relationships between job satisfaction and a wide range of organizationally-relevant variables. I am not suggesting that the impact is always overwhelming, but it is certainly far from negligible.

This is really a case of Beatty not understanding the limits of his knowledge. Just because you don’t know of it, doesn’t mean it isn’t real.

So how is Beatty right in this case? Well, sadly the relationship between job satisfaction and job performance doesn’t always show up. Most of the time I am willing to bet that the fault lies with the study methodology. For example, in many cases performance evaluations are not what I would call “scientifically developed.” Come to think of it, I can’t think of a single instance where I have seen an organization use a performance evaluation that was developed as the result of a job analysis and comprehensive performance evaluation system. For shame!!! Performance evaluations are also too often administered by people that don’t really know how to use them, or avoid the many biases that can assail a human rater (leniency bias and halo effect, anyone?).

Beatty also talked about top quartile this and bottom quartile that. Anyone with a little bit of statistical training probably cringed a little bit when they read that report summary. I know I died a little bit inside. Breaking up datasets into categories like that, be they quartiles, thirds, or top and bottom is one of the most effective ways of burying a statistically significant relationship (don’t ask me how, unless you want a 2 hour long stats lesson) even when one exists.

3. The final point I wish to address here, though far from the last that could be made, is that Beatty speaks of selection as an alternative to training. This dichotomous thinking about these very related processes betrays a lack of knowledge about organizational dynamic. These two processes are not discrete systems; rather they are components of a larger human capital strategy. You can’t select your way into performance any more than you can slash costs into profitability. Training and selection are part of a larger complex of organizational interventions that include retention, compensation, leadership, development, cultural change, and performance management.

Look folks; I know this person’s words are hurtful and at times downright ignorant. I can’t blame anyone for taking offense at these statements. Let’s just say I won’t be reading any of Beatty’s tweets any time soon. But we need to understand his words as a challenge. Corporate America is demanding hard numbers from HR for years now. We not only have the responsibility to deliver those numbers, but we also have the know-how to fill this need. Continuing to fail in this presents us with the risk of being just as useless as Beatty thinks we are.

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~ by George Guajardo on August 14, 2009.

2 Responses to “Don’t Trust HR: A Response”

  1. Great article, George. I think we all agree there’s still lots of work to be done in HR and not all are attempting, let alone doing it. As the profession matures, we can all keep pushing. It’s just sad that Beatty can’t seem to acknowledge that.

  2. @Dave- Thanks for your feedback. It can be a bit frustrating to know that the answers are out there to be had, yet we continue to realize that they are there.

    I am not sure how to fix this situation. Perhaps I/O psychology and HR should learn more about each other during undergraduate training. Since managers usually make decisions about performance management and selection, perhaps our nations management schools would also benefit from learning how we can measure the “intangibles.”

    Sadly, until decision-makers acknowledge they don’t have all the answers, there is no way we can move forward.

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