I-O, I-OOh, No!! It's Off to HR I Go!
Michael M. Harris
University of Missouri St. Louis
By the time you are reading this, spring will be quite close, if not already
here. Meanwhile, it reached 51 degrees in St. Louis yesterday and the weather
forecasters predict 60 degrees in a couple of days. And not far behind, if it
hasn't happened already, is Opening Day for, yes, BASEBALL! To add to the misery
of winter, I had to suffer through story after story about football and the
Rams. Oops, I just remembered this column is about I-O psychology, or is it? If
you noticed the title of this column, it is really about I-O psychologists
playing in different positions, namely, Human Resource Management (HRM). So,
what has prompted me, you wonder, to write a column about I-O psychologists who
venture into HRM positions? There are several reasons. First, and most
importantly, the need to fill Practice Network with something that
readers might look at. Second, natural curiosity. Third, further help from
friends and acquaintances who ask me why a psychologist would teach in a
Before I continue, however, I would like to point out that Tom Baker,
the founder of, and former columnist for, Practice Network (PN) is making
a "cameo appearance" in this column as a respondent. Tom and I have
continued to communicate about matters big and small since his
"retirement" from PN, and he was willing to share his insights
with me regarding this month's topic. I am pleased to inform you that Tom and I
spent some time together last fall at his home in Ohio. While I was elated to
find that there is life after PN, I am afraid that it is not quite as
exciting. Fortunately, Tom keeps quite busy in his job and has managed to fill
those free hours with productive tasks!
That being said, I contacted Tom and three other I-O psychologists who have
moved into HRM positions. I asked them the following questions:
What are the key differences between I-O psychology and HRM?
What led you to move into an HRM position?
What are the pros and cons of an I-O versus an HRM position?
What have you learned as a result of your move into HRM?
Key Differences Between I-O Psychology and HRM
Before I share the responses I received to this question, I think it is
interesting to note that SIOP views (in brief) the work of I-O practitioners as
"develop[ing] scientific knowledge and apply[ing] it to the solution of
problems at work" (see: www.siop.org/TIP/SIOP/brochure.html).
Compare this to the Society of Human Resource Management's (SHRM) explanation of
the goal of HRM, which is to help "organizations to meet their strategic
goals by attracting and retaining qualified employees, and managing them
effectively while ensuring that the organization complies with all appropriate
labor laws" (see: www.shrm.org/students/careers.html#hrm
). One obvious difference concerns the focusthe SIOP definition focuses on
problems at work, while the HRM goal focuses on an organization's strategic
goals. The SIOP approach reads like a goal of a psychologist, while the SHRM
perspective reads like a goal developed by a businessperson.
So, what did my respondents say? Several interesting differences emerged.
Transactional versus project-based work. HRM work is primarily
transactional in nature. That is, decisions are made and actions are taken on a
regular basis. I-O work is primarily project-based whereby procedures and
practices are designed and implemented. This difference has a number of
implications, particularly the one described next.
Fire-fighting versus strategic. I was somewhat surprised to
learn that HRM work was characterized more by "fire-fighting" tasks,
while I-O work was characterized as being more "strategic" in nature.
Of course, that is in part due to the transactional basis of HRM work versus the
project nature of I-O work. As one respondent nevertheless indicated, while a
great deal of HRM work may be "fire fighting," it is critical that one
keep a "strategic perspective." I kept wondering how I-O projects
could be characterized as being "strategic." I think the answer is
found in the next distinction: breadth versus depth.
Breadth versus depth. This is my own term to express a
distinction made by several respondents. The HRM approach aims for breadth; the
I-O approach focuses on depth. Instead of the term "breadth," one
could use the term "systemic." But I'm not sure what term to use for
the opposite of "systemic." The thesaurus that comes as part of WORD97
provided only one antonym for systematic: narrow. But I do not think that
"narrow" really conveys the complete meaning of a non-systemic
approach. Thus, the expression breadth versus depth. To illustrate the
difference in approaches, consider an organization that is having difficulty
retaining employees. The I-O psychologist may focus on a highly sophisticated
examination of a smaller set of explanations (e.g., poor selection practices or
perhaps unsatisfyingwork); the HR manager may consider a less sophisticated, but
wider array, of interconnected possibilities (e.g., poor compensation
leading to relatively inexperienced applicants who view the job as an chance to
gain experience and move to another company).
Degree of training. One respondent pointed out that HR
staff typically have a lower level of education (i.e., very few have a PhD) and
often come from different fields (i.e., many are not from an HR educational or
career background). I-O psychologists, by comparison, have a higher level of
education (e.g., either a master's degree or PhD) and have a far more homogenous
educational background. One implication is that the I-O psychologist who has
switched to an HRM function is likely to work with peers who are much different
in background and perspective than would be encountered in other settings (e.g.,
a consulting firm).
Moving from I-O to HRM
Each of my respondents provided somewhat different, and often multiple,
reasons for moving from an I-O position to an HRM position. At the risk of
oversimplifying, I will divide these reasons into two categories: nature of the
work and pay/job opportunities.
Nature of the work. A key reason for moving to an HRM position
was to be able to have a significant amount of influence with senior management
when major decisions are being made. The implication, of course, is that most
I-O psychologists have a limited effect on major decisions in their
organizations. A second key reason was to have more direct contact with line
managers on an ongoing basis. This also makes good sense to me; from my
I-O psychologists really enjoy contact with line managers, while others seem
somewhat less interested in that aspect of the job. A third reason offered was
the desire for more direct involvement in business decisions. Recalling my
earlier statement, it is noteworthy that one apparently significant difference
between I-O and HRM is that the former focuses on "problems at work"
while the latter focuses on strategic goals. Related to several of these points,
it was observed that the I-O psychologist may recommend a new program or
practice, but generally does not get involved in implementing the new program or
practice. At least one respondent enjoyed the opportunity to implement as well
as recommend and develop new programs and practices.
Pay/Job opportunities. One reason for moving to an HRM position
that at first surprised me was the opportunity to earn a much higher salary.
But, after all, isn't that a primary reason some I-O psychologists in academia
have joined business schools instead of psychology departments? Not that I know
anyone in that category! A second reason was that, as one respondent observed,
I-O psychologists have limited promotion opportunities as a member of an
organization (with the exception of consulting firms of course). The only way to
move up (and still stay in a related field), then, is to move into an HRM
position. Third, given the number of I-O positions and given the number of HRM
positions, one respondent observed that there are simply many more job
opportunities in the latter field.
Finally, one of my respondents moved into an HRM position quite accidentally.
Specifically, this person's organization was being downsized, and with the
elimination of the position of I-O psychologist, a decision was made to accept a
job in HRM.
Pros and Cons of HRM Versus I-O Jobs
My respondents offered some interesting information in regards to the pros
and cons of HRM and I-O jobs and clearly there are pros and cons to both types
of positions. I'll focus on the advantages of an HRM position first. One
particularly astute observation was that I-O psychology does not closely
correspond with a particular function in most organizations, while HR does. If
nothing else, I would expect that practically every line manager would have some
understanding of what an HRM manager does. The same line manager, however, may
have little or no understanding of what an I-O psychologist does or what
functional area he or she works for. It may be more difficult therefore for a
line manager to understand how the I-O psychologist contributes to an
organization's mission. Another perceived advantage of HR was the greater focus
on financial considerations, as compared to I-O. Now, when I countered that I-O
psychologists have developed utility analysis, my respondent argued that
practicing I-O psychologists generally do not use utility analysis in their
work. Here, readers, I could use some input from you. Are you being asked to
apply utility analysis or some kind of cost-benefit analysis in your work? Why
or why not?
In sum, the implication of the above comments is that I-O psychology may not
be perceived as a business necessity, while HRM will generally be viewed as a
necessary, even if "evil," function.
Before you, the reader, begin applying for an HRM job, I can assure you that
the HR manager's job is not just about winning division titles and breaking home
run records (remember, baseball season is around the corner). In line with my
previous comments, my respondents felt that there was a considerable amount of
fire fighting and far less "strategic orientation" than they would
like. If you think that I-O psychologists, then, have limited time to reflect
and make well-thought-out and thorough decisions, it appears that HRM staff are
even more pressed for time. As one respondent observed, the HRM manager may not
be able to "follow the book" and may not always be able to implement
the best solution. Furthermore, one respondent emphasized that HR staff are
stretched "thinner and thinner" as companies continue to reduce the
size of their HR staff and in some instances introduce Internet Web pages as
replacements. As pointed out in a recent Wall Street Journal article,
some organizations are moving away from the traditional 1:100 ratio of HR staff
to employees and closer to a 1:500 or 1:600 ratio, as more services are provided
via the Internet (Work Week, 1999).
To summarize, I would suggest that much depends on one's individual
preferences and competencies. For those who prefer to remain specialists, focus
on highly specific solutions, and enjoy more of a project-orientation to work,
the I-O position may be best. For others, who prefer to interact regularly with
line managers, participate with top executives in making key decisions, and
enjoy the novelty of facing new questions and issues on a daily basis, an HRM
position may be more enjoyable. I turn now to
Lessons Learned from Being in HRM:
What They Don't Teach You in Graduate School
My respondents offered a number of different lessons learned, which I have
divided into three broad categories as follows.
Basic business competencies. There was a strong feeling that
the I-O psychologist who moves into an HRM position has much to learn in the
business field. This includes such topics as finance, operations, and political
savvy. The most interesting comment I received was that the respondent learned
how to be more "thick skinned." My sense is that if you are going to
be more involved in "fighting fires," you are likely to be singed more
often than someone who does not put out fires on a daily basis!
New content-related information. I keep this separate from
basic business competencies to point out that there are content-related areas
that I-O psychologists must learn in order to become effective HRM managers. One
respondent mentioned compensation; another area mentioned was attorney-client
privilege. Clearly, if an I-O psychologist is to be successful as an HRM
manager, there is more to learn.
I-O psychology is still valuable in the HRM role. Before you
throw away all of your I-O journals and books, I should point out that no one
indicated that their training as I-O psychologists had been a waste of time. On
the contrary, two of my respondents emphasized just how valuable their training
as an I-O psychologist had been and that they had many opportunities to make use
of their training in such areas as motivating employees and making effective
decisions. My feeling is that I-O psychology served as a useful discipline for
all of my respondents, although they experienced areas for which they had to
obtain further training. But in any field that is changing, including I-O
psychology, isn't continuous learning necessary in order for one to stay
Well, I certainly hope some of my comments have gotten on the
"scoreboard" with you (I will attempt to use a different metaphor for
the next column!). Please don't try to hit me with any e-tomatoes or e-eggs. But
I do hope to hear back from you about some of these comments or conclusions.
Please e-mail me at email@example.com, call
(314-516-6280), fax (314-516-6420), or snail-mail me, Michael Harris, School of
Business Administration, University of Missouri-St. Louis, St. Louis, MO 63121.
I would like to thank the following individuals for their help in preparing
this column: Tom Baker, EGS-Electrical Division of Emerson Electric; Shawn
Hughes, XTRA Lease; Kalen Pieper, Bristol-Myers Squibb; Pam Waits,
Mileage Plus, Inc.
Work Week. (1999). The Wall Street Journal, August 31, p. A1.
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