The time has come for evidence-based HR

7 Jun 2019 By Dr Alejandro Martin Sposato

The lack of consensus over the concept of engagement shows we need to be better at evaluating our sources, says Dr Alejandro Martin Sposato

Every so often, I am approached by management consultants who want to partner with my university. This means they either want to promote their new book or want to sell their services to our Master’s students. Quite often, these consultants do not bring anything new to the table; their ideas are only based on intuitive deductions but not any real scientific research.

This has led me to reflect on the state of ideas, fads, and best practices that are currently circulating on management in general and HR in particular. Nobody in their right mind would dare take a medicine that has not been proven to work, yet in management, ideas are adopted just because they feel intuitively right.

I always make sure the ideas I bring to the classroom are based on evidence, and if they are not I make that clear in class. For instance, I teach a module on employee engagement, a relatively modern topic that attracts the attention of many consultants as well as HR managers. There is an implicit, intuitive understanding that an engaged employee is a more productive employee. And because of that, large amounts of resources are allocated to measure and increase engagement. But actually, researchers have had a hard time finding a link between engagement and productivity; the results are far from conclusive.

Let me give you an example; one employee is highly engaged in their work. They arrive early, identify with the organisation's goals and values, come to every meeting, have great relationships with co-workers and customers and truly believe in the product. However, this person can never really meet their sales targets because despite been highly engaged, they cannot close a sale. 

Our second salesperson is far from engaged, doesn’t care about the product but is quite good at closing deals and meets all their sales targets. Which of these two would you rather have in your organisation? How relevant is engagement when people’s jobs are assessed on sales? The second person is contributing much more to the bottom line, so how does engagement fit into this picture? If you think that in the long run the first person will bring more value because of their attitude, I would have to ask you for evidence. Just because something feels intuitively correct does not mean it is right.  

As an academic teaching engagement I do not have to sell any solution, I start my module by stating two main ideas, first, it is extremely difficult to define engagement because there are just too many factors (organisational culture, industry, national culture, composition of the workforce, among many others) to have a meaningful standard definition. Engagement has to be understood within the context of the specific organisation and its people. Secondly there is a dearth of evidence to state that engagement leads to higher productivity.

So how do you know if a management idea is based on evidence or if it is just another management fad? First of all, managers should have a critical view on the ideas that are presented to them. A good way to evaluate quality of information is to evaluate where it is coming from and to be clear that if something works in one context that does not mean it will work in any context.

It helps to be statistically literate, I know this sounds like a big statement, but HR managers should be able to evaluate basic surveys and conclusions that can be drawn from them. For example, there are a number of surveys dedicated to measuring engagement, often pushed by consultants whose real job is to sell the product rather than actually think what is best for the organisation. Some of these surveys have as little as seven questions: I wonder how many meaningful conclusions can be drawn from asking a small number of generic questions to your employees. 

Finally, managers should consider the agenda of the people who are pushing a new fad. Consultants need to sell solutions to problems, educators think that more education is the solution to everything, IT people think more technology will solve the current problems and general managers want to keep their overall cost down, quite often regardless of the consequences. 

Dr Alejandro Martin Sposato is senior lecturer in HRM at Middlesex University Dubai

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