HR Leadership Column and Fake News

Some HR professionals are practicing HR based on hearsay or what's been done before -- which may be the equivalent of "fake news." Turning this around requires more diligent recruiting and questioning about practices that are in place.

Monday, January 16, 2017
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While I hate to bring up the subject of last year's presidential campaign (something I think most of us don't want to relive anytime soon) I can't stop thinking about "fake news," and the fact that it may have had some impact on the outcome of a presidential election.

Before last fall, I had never even heard of the term "fake news," let alone considered how fake news could go viral. I never thought about how fake news could be seen and potentially believed by millions of people.

I hadn't considered how fake news could create false premises upon which decisions were being made, and actions taken.

But now I also wonder: How many HR practitioners have, in some way, been relying on the equivalent of fake news, leading to false premises, upon which bad decisions are made or upon which HR practices and procedures are built?

I know there are lots of HR practitioners who enter the field through other functional areas, and without any special HR education or certification. Many get on-the-job training from supervisors who may have themselves been trained years earlier by another supervisor. Many get no other training at all.

I also know that some HR practitioners view professional development or continuing education as unnecessary ("I already have the job. . .") or rely on consultants with varying degrees of expertise to guide or train them on some aspect of the job. Some follow websites, bloggers and social media to keep up with "thought leadership" in the field. Some just read the latest trendy business book, searching for a list of do's and don'ts to follow.

And along the way, I fear that many of these HR professionals rely on the equivalent of "fake news," rather than what research has taught us, in developing their HR management practices.

They'll opt for a test that measures conscientiousness instead of intelligence, because they don't know that research shows intelligence predicts job performance better than conscientiousness -- and they'll use the test simply because they were assured it was good by a consultant. They'll send candidates on to hiring mangers without coaching the manager that a structured interview will provide a better outcome than a seat-of-the-pants interview, because they don't want to impose on the manager and it's how the company has always done it. They don't realize that goal-setting is more effective for improving performance than employee participation in decision-making, so they never suggest including employees in goal-setting. They emphasize the importance of managers in employee retention, but fail to acknowledge that pay is much more important to employees than what employees imply in surveys.

In short, some HR professionals are practicing HR based on hearsay or what's been done before -- all or some of which may be the equivalent of "fake news." They don't follow evidence-based principles that might drive greater success for their organization. They simply follow the old status quo when it comes to processes and procedures, because they've been told that's just how it's done. They don't bother to investigate to determine if there's evidence to support the value of the practice.

It's pretty easy to understand how it happens. What HR professional has the time to research, identify, and then read through all of the academic articles that may provide useful insight and information to each HR dilemma? And even if he or she is able to do so, how many of the academic research articles are written in an accessible way – that is, understandable to the non-academic?

And it can be hard to know what you don't know. If people land in HR through chance, without any professional background or valuable experience, they're more likely to just do whatever their predecessor did.  

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I think this is something HR leaders should keep in mind when recruiting new members to the HR team. What's the basis for the candidate's HR knowledge and experience?  What type of education and training do the candidates have?  Where did they gain their HR experience?  Someone with an HR, HR-related or business degree is more likely to understand the importance of evidence-based decision making, as is someone who has experience in an HR department that relied heavily on metrics and researched-based decision-making.

If the person didn't get a business or HR/HR-related degree, are they certified?  While certification is valuable because it demonstrates a grasp of the HR competencies and body of knowledge, as well as the importance of evidence-based decision making, I think certification's greater value is the requirement for recertification. It means a certified candidate has continued to professionally develop, and is more likely to have a deeper understanding and knowledge of the profession – and what has been learned with new research.

HR professionals already in the trenches need to be vigilant in understanding why they do what they do, and find out why if they don't know. They have to always question whether all of the practices they use are based on solid evidence of effectiveness, and recognize if the practice is premised  on the equivalent of fake news.  

I'm afraid that fake news is here to stay. My hope is that HR professionals will be able to recognize what's fake, and focus on what's factual.

Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, is an author, speaker and consultant on human resource management. She is on the board of directors of the National Academy of Human Resources.


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