Is “Evidence Based HR” the latest HR fad?

Lots of people criticise HR.

Actually I could just stop there, but the point of this post is that lots of people criticise HR for jumping on the latest workplace fad without any evidence that it works. “Netflix have dropped performance reviews – we should too” “Employee engagement is a big issue – we need to do something about it” Too often we adopt some new initiative more because it creates the impression that we are doing something about something, regardless of whether it will actually solve the problem.

So the increasing trend for evidence-based HR is something that generally I welcome – the concept that we should be able to prove, using properly constructed evidence, that doing A leads to B. And I particularly enjoy academic Rob Briner’s frequent challenges to the profession to consider the evidence for our various HR sacred cows.

But (and you sensed there was a but coming…) there are four reasons why I think we should be as cautious about evidence-based HR as we should be about anything else in the profession.

  1. Organisations are dynamic and different. A might lead to B (our preferred outcome) in one organisations but it might lead to C or D in others. Taking an overly academic approach would lead us to say that there’s no evidence that A works, because its results can’t be replicated outside  one organisation.
  2. There’s a danger of paralysis. “Should we drop or change our performance reviews?” “Well there’s no evidence that that would work” “Ok, better not do it then” – If someone doesn’t sometimes back a hunch, without evidence to support it, then we’ll always be stuck where we are.
  3. In the business world, we don’t always need to know the middle step of why A leads to B. It can just be enough to know that it happens. It’s a little like the fact that scientists know (from observation) that if you split a magnet in half, the two resulting magnets will have a north and south pole. They don’t know why (currently) but they know what will happen and can then plan accordingly.
  4. We might just end up with one size fits all “Best Practice” under a different name. If doing A leads to B, and we have evidence that this is the case, then if we want to achieve B then we must always do A. A may not fit with our own organisation, its culture and business context, but the evidence says this is what we should do.

The danger is that Evidence Based HR might fall victim to the very thing it seeks to challenge – becoming the latest bandwagon and seeing HR practitioners uncritically misapplying it. After all, we’ve already seen Dave Ulrich’s model feted then condemned, people with only a modicum of knowledge parading neuroscience as the future, and a nonsensical obsession with millennials, as flavours of the month in the last few years.

One thought on “Is “Evidence Based HR” the latest HR fad?

  1. This piece captures a lot of my challenge and issue with evidence based HR. Similarly, I support the essence of what this approach advocates – that if A leads to B, and there’s evidence to support it, that’s something worth considering. Where it falls down almost immediately is that context piece. No two organisations are the same, and Intervention A will only ever be relevant to Organisation A because that’s the context it happened in.

    Where I also feel that the approach isn’t helpful is in suggesting alternatives. It’s all well and good saying “Oh but the evidence doesn’t support that approach”, but without an alternative, it becomes rather pointless. If there’s no evidence to support taking an approach, do we therefore just do nothing? Or do we do something because doing something is better than nothing? And what something do we do if there is little evidence for very little available?

    I think there’s a fair way to go with evidence based HR before we can start to adopt the methodology and mindset it asks of us.

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