Embracing evidence-based HR: How to distinguish trends from true impact | Forward Thinkers

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Rob Briner, professor of organizational psychology at Queen Mary, University of London and a leading voice in evidence-based HR explores the critical importance of adopting a more analytical and evidence-based approach within HR practices, highlighting the potential pitfalls of following trends without scrutinising their impact

Rob Briner

In HR it's not uncommon to encounter the latest buzzword or trend claiming to revolutionise the workplace. From agile methodologies to wellbeing programmes the HR landscape is continually shifting under the weight of new theories and tools. However, not all that glitters is gold, and in the quest for impact it’s crucial to distinguish between genuine advancements and fleeting fads. 

In our latest Forward Thinkers series Rob Briner, professor of organizational psychology at Queen Mary, University of London and associate research director at Corporate Research Forum, unpacks evidence-based HR (EBHR), discusses the challenges in implementing EBHR and offers three tips to get you started on your EBHR journey.

The fad fallacy: unpacking the kitchen drawer of HR 

Briner begins by drawing an analogy between kitchen gadgets and HR fads, noting: "I think fads are fantastically corrosive. They are really damaging to the profession." Just as many of us have drawers filled with seldom-used juicers and blenders, purchased in the hope of life-altering benefits, HR departments can become cluttered with practices and policies that have little real-world application or benefit. These fads, according to Briner, serve as distractions, pulling focus from the core objectives of HR functions.

Beyond the ‘what’: the essential quest for ‘why’ in HR practices

The obsession with the ‘what’ – the latest policy, practice, or programme – often overshadows the more critical question of ‘why’. Briner stresses the importance of stepping back to consider the purpose behind HR initiatives, arguing that without understanding the underlying problems or opportunities solutions are likely to miss the mark. "It's not what you do that's so important; it's the way you go about deciding what the ‘what’ is," he states. This perspective challenges HR professionals to delve deeper into the rationale behind their actions, ensuring that their efforts align with the organisation's broader goals.

Decoding evidence-based HR: a recipe for rational decision-making

At the heart of Briner’s message is the advocacy for evidence-based HR. This approach, which may sound straightforward, is surprisingly underutilised in practice. Evidence-based HR involves a thorough examination of multiple sources of evidence – including organisational data, professional expertise, stakeholder input and scientific research – to inform decision-making. Briner emphasises the importance of assessing the quality of evidence and adopting a structured approach to addressing workplace issues. "Everybody uses evidence, but that isn't what evidence-based practice means," he explains, advocating for a more deliberate and analytical method to tackle HR challenges.

Overcoming obstacles: making room for evidence in the HR agenda

Despite the clear benefits of an evidence-based approach Briner acknowledges the barriers that often hinder its adoption within HR functions. He points out that HR professionals are typically overwhelmed with day-to-day tasks and incentives that focus on action over analysis. This, combined with a historic concern over HR’s strategic value, leads to a culture of "HR theatre," where the appearance of busyness substitutes for genuine impact. Briner calls for a shift in mindset, encouraging HR teams to critically evaluate their practices and be willing to abandon those that do not contribute to organisational success.

Actionable steps towards an evidence-informed HR future

For HR functions looking to embrace a more evidence-based approach Briner offers practical advice. He suggests starting by seeking out resources and education on EBHR, reflecting on current decision-making processes and making a conscious decision to change. "It's just deciding to change the way you decide what it is you're going to do," Briner asserts. This shift towards evidence-based decision-making not only promises to enhance the effectiveness of HR interventions but also to align HR more closely with the strategic needs of the business.


About Rob Briner

Rob is professor of organizational psychology at Queen Mary, University of London and associate research director at Corporate Research Forum (CRF). He is also currently a visiting professor of evidence-based HRM at Birkbeck (University of London) and professor at Oslo Nye Høyskole. He was previously co-founder and scientific director of the Center for Evidence-Based Management and has held positions at the Institute for Employment Studies, London School of Economics, King’s College (University of London), Bath University and University of Edinburgh. For more information on his recent work with the Corporate Research Forum on evidence-based HR please check out this Evidence-Based HR Knowledge Hub

Download a transcript of the video interview. Subscribe to the Work's Not Working... Let's Fix It podcast to hear all our podcasts. Listen to Rob's deeper delve into EBHR on this episode

Published 27 March 2024
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