Considering the application and relevance of evidence-based HR

As interest in evidence-based practice in the people profession intensifies, Susan Reid Elder and Moira Nikodem look at the extent to which practitioners are using the method in their decision making


In recent decades, the HR profession has been subject to some criticism. A particular concern has been the perceived lack of strategic judgement and business acumen. Frequently portrayed as chasing fads, the degree of professional rigour exercised in decision making has been under increasing scrutiny.

The HR remit is broad, comprising but not restricted to workforce planning, recruitment, diversity and inclusion, engagement, performance management and learning and development. Decision making is a crucial function at both strategic and transactional levels.  

This takes place in an increasingly volatile organisational environment characterised by relentless change, predictable and unpredictable, and underpinned by complex political-economic dynamics, technological advance and shifting social trends and expectations. Simultaneously, there appears to be rising unease among workers, ranging from industrial action to disengagement and so-called ‘quiet quitting’. All have implications for organisational productivity, morale, reputation and economic output.  

EBP meets HR

How is HR faring in delivering and adding meaningful value? Indeed, how can it approach delivery? Evidence-based practice (EBP) is currently advanced as the appropriate means to develop effective and sustainable solutions that bring benefits for organisations and employees alike, thereby also improving the profession’s credibility. 

With a longer history in wider disciplines including healthcare, education and policing, EBP is now gaining traction in management and HR circles. It is now at the forefront of the revised CIPD Profession Map introduced in June 2021. One of three key values, it also represents an area of core knowledge.

Simply put, EBP promotes critical thinking in decision making based on best available evidence. This is achieved through a systematic six-step evaluation process (ask, acquire, appraise, aggregate, apply, assess) applied to four evidence sources: organisational data, expertise, stakeholder perspectives and academic literature. An illustrative model has been developed by Barends, Rousseau and Briner, leading academics in the management field. 

Recognising the inherent weakness of relying on single-source evidence and/or personal judgement, a wider evidence base is deemed to result in better-quality decisions, strengthening solutions and in turn strategic success. Moreover, this enables the profession to attract a higher degree of trust and credibility.  

Based on our review of literature alongside our academic and professional experience, we explore three important questions.

1. Does the evidence stack for HR?

There is an obvious commitment across the profession to formulating meaningful responses to often complex problems. For example, in September People Management reported thoughtful recommendations for eliminating workplace sexual harassment made by more than 300 practitioners; these included CCTV, fines for organisations and compulsory training. Such expert opinion is highly valuable, but the wider evidence base is less clear. 

Indeed, evidence for a range of broad-scale initiatives is often mixed, if not entirely absent. There is growing awareness that some once widespread approaches are in fact ineffectual. For example, employee empowerment, popularised in the 1990s, has since been condemned as being exploitative, intensifying work strain. More recently, various organisations including key government departments discontinued unconscious bias training. The Equality and Human Rights Commission highlights “back-firing effects”, reporting only short-term influence, if any, in challenging deeply ingrained attitudes.  

There is perhaps less awareness of academic evidence into more contemporary initiatives. The effectiveness of mental health first aid training is now contested.  A Health and Safety Executive report finds “no evidence its introduction has improved the management of mental health in workplaces” and “limited evidence [for] improvement in the ability of those trained to help colleagues experiencing mental ill health”.  

Similarly, evidence on employee network groups in nurturing more inclusive organisational cultures is decidedly mixed. With positive outcomes including increasing awareness and celebrating diverse contributions, there is also evidence that suggests they reinforce privilege and social hierarchies and marginalise members with intersectional disadvantaged identities. 

Overall, what appears is a significant gap between academic research and practice, a gap that is well documented. Organisations cannot afford to waste effort and resources on practices that may not work; instead, practices must be strongly rooted in evidence on what works best. 

2. Is there capability?

Professionally and organisationally, the capability to apply EBP is unclear. Some studies highlight the ways in which – in comparison to other professions such as law and medicine – the varied educational level and discipline and professional area of expertise can lead to inconsistent, divergent approaches. Less is known in the UK, although select studies have shown that EBP is not applied widely nor consistently.  

But this is to overlook potential organisational constraints such as limited resources including time and training and, perhaps more significantly, a lack of power and influence. Furthermore, academic research as a source of evidence appears impenetrable, physically inaccessible, but also often abstract in nature and/or written principally for academic communities in a distinct style.         

3. Is EBP relevant in HR? 

The first two questions are now subject to more debate. However, this is perhaps to leapfrog a more significant point. Before considering the application of EBP, should we evaluate more critically its relevance and role? The profession may well be falling into old traps in peddling yet another fad. Current debate in wider disciplines, principally healthcare, illuminates areas that require deeper consideration in particular its relevance and role at strategic and/or transactional functions and how any process is delineated.  

What is essential is more understanding around how decision making is currently approached. The feasibility of applying EBP requires analysis of enablers and barriers, including any learning gaps across the profession. This needs to be contextualised as it is very likely influenced by the wide-ranging environmental and organisational factors at play. But, most significantly, what role should EBP play at strategic and transactional levels and across remit areas?     

These are questions we will further interrogate through our current research. We explore the relevance and application of EBP in HR-related decision making with quantitative and qualitative data collection from HR leaders and managers across Scotland in progress. Watch this space for an update on our findings.

Susan Reid Elder and Moira Nikodem are HRM lecturers and researchers at Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen

Read the CIPD’s guide to evidence-based HR here