Evidence is not the enemy

Mark Hendy reviews the arguments against evidence-based HR practice, and explains why it’s vital to the profession’s future

I’m on a journey with evidence-based practice. And I feel like I can be impartial about it, because I have nothing personally to gain from supporting evidence-based practice. Nor am I at significant personal risk from it, because I don’t work in a field where part of my business relies on the sale of a service or tool that evidence-based practice is questioning. I can afford to have my eyes wide open; to appreciate it, respect it, look honestly upon it, challenge it and question it.

But I do support it and strive to become an evidence-based practitioner. I believe evidence will give our profession a firm foundation on which to build sustainable and progressive practices that are more likely to be effective than some of the fads we’ve followed in the past. Evidence-based practice can enhance our credibility, and it can further empower us as business professionals.

I spend lots of time with other HR professionals, both online and at networking events, and it’s interesting to hear why others don’t feel the same about evidence-based practice. During these discussions the same concerns seem to arise and these need to be addressed. They are legitimate and often not without foundation, but some are born out of a lack of understanding of exactly what evidence-based practice is, and this can be remedied, but only if people are willing to take the time to learn and understand it. Here are my responses to the top five arguments against evidence-based HR that I encounter:

1. It sounds too confusing

Evidence-based HR has a bit of an image problem; it can be perceived as boring, confusing or too scientific. I get that. But it’s actually really simple once you get to grips with it. Once you know what constitutes evidence, where to find it, and how to factor it into your decision-making, it’s straightforward. You just need to invest a little time – check out this helpful infographic from the CIPD for a simple explanation of its principles.

2. It’s probably just another fad

I chuckle when I hear this because if evidence-based practice is a fad, it’s really an anti-fad fad. I recently read that the first known article about evidence-based HR, in an HR publication, was published 10 years ago. So it’s clearly not a fly-by-night concept. It also doesn’t make unsubstantiated promises, or come with lots of shine and sparkle. I don’t believe it is a fad – it’s here to stay.

3. It’s unhelpful – it tells me what I can’t do, not what I can do

I partly agree with this argument; many of the most popular case studies or examples that have become linked with using scientific research in the HR domain have refuted the legitimacy of well-known practices without offering an alternative that is more likely to be effective.

However, I don’t think it’s unhelpful to know when there is credible evidence available that calls into question a particular process or viewpoint. I’d love to be offered an alternative process or idea every time – or even some of the time – the effectiveness of a popular process is questioned, but I don’t expect that from evidence-based practice yet. Until more work-based research is conducted and presented in a way HR practitioners can understand and respect – such as the awesome stuff being produced by ScienceForWork – I have to be content with knowing what processes are less likely to work, focusing my energy and efforts on alternative solutions, and applying stronger consideration to the three other sources of evidence, including my professional judgement.

4. Academic papers are too difficult to understand

I’m not going to fight you on this – they definitely are. And it’s something that needs to be addressed for the evidence-based message to get out. Again, ScienceForWork is doing brilliant work that goes some way to bridging the gap on this front.

5. I don’t know where to find the scientific research

Relevant and appropriate scientific research may not always seem readily available, but the CIPD, the CEBMa and ScienceForWork are great places to start. As evidence-based HR becomes more widely used and accepted, more research will be more widely distributed. But we have to remember we are still at an early stage. I’m sympathetic to this concern, but just because we don’t know where to look for research, doesn’t mean the research doesn’t exist – it needs to be better publicised and made more widely available.

There’s work to be done here and many areas to focus on to help address these concerns and eradicate the myths, but it’s good work that’s worth the investment of time for the good of the HR profession.

It’s also important to remember that evidence-based practice is about using the best available evidence to allow a practitioner to reach a solution that is more likely to work. ‘Evidence isn’t answers,’ as the CEBMa’s scientific director professor, Rob Briner, often says. By recalibrating our expectations of evidence-based practice, and accepting what it can and can’t do for us, we can acknowledge it for what it is – an essential tool for making better decisions, not simply a stick with which to criticise HR practices with.

Mark Hendy is an HR practitioner, Chartered Member of the CIPD, Associate Member of CEBMa and Fellow of the RSA. Find him on Twitter @MarkSWHRF