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Good Science - Good Practice

Jamie Madigan

Marcus W. Dickson
Wayne State University

For at least part of the column this time around, we wanted to talk about two different articles in two different journals that you might not immediately link together on first glance. One is on combating stubborn resistance to good science in the realm of selection and the other is about a good, firm handshake.

First is Scott Highhouse’s focal article for a recent issue of SIOP’s Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives and Practice (Highhouse, 2008). This article, entitled “Stubborn Reliance on Intuition and Subjectivity in Employee Selection,” notes two common reasons for objections to scientifically derived employment testing programs. First is the belief that it should be possible to explain 100% (or close to it) of the variance in human behavior within an organizational context. Someone holding this belief may scoff at the puny validities of your testing program, arguing that if you can’t predict the behaviors of people with greater precision, it’s just not worth it. Expectancy tables and realistic discussions of false positives aren’t going to sway these people much. The second common reason for objecting to selection systems is the belief that experience makes people better at figuring someone out and predicting their suitability for a job through intuition, hunches, reading between the lines, and other nebulous decision making. Indeed, as Highhouse mentions with the case of college football bowl championships and automated medical diagnostic tools, such soulless formulas and “cookbook medicine” may be outright derided and rejected.

Most practitioners would have little difficulty imagining or even recalling from memory these kinds of beliefs in action. Who hasn’t had a hiring manager come in and insist that you explain why someone who passed your test is failing miserably on the job or demand that exceptions to the testing rules be made for a candidate who they have a really good gut feel for on account of some ineffable quality or some perplexing constellation of traits? For those of us who administer selection systems in organizations, these are the kinds of battles and challenges that we face daily, and many of us have come up with a list of well-rehearsed starting points for those discussions. Moreover, Highhouse, along with many of the people responding to his article in the same issue, provides some insight and suggestions not only for combating these attacks, but also for developing research programs to examine the issue scientifically.

To us, this seems like an obvious opportunity for scientists and practitioners to collaborate to address a question that hasn’t really hit many researchers’ radars yet. We know a lot, for example, about how job applicants react to selection systems and what we can do to shape those reactions without sacrificing the validity and utility of the tests. There’s a whole healthy body of research out there on this practical problem that grew out of research on organizational justice and other theories. Why haven’t many researchers tilted their attention slightly and developed a similarly robust body of research on the reactions of hiring managers and other stakeholders to selection systems? With a little research, we could learn a lot about how to implement, sell, and choose these kinds of tools.

And speaking of being hiring managers who want to “read between the lines,” an article entitled “Exploring the Handshake in Employment Interviews” featured in a recent issue of Journal of Applied Psychology (Stewart, Dustin, Barrick, & Darnold, 2008) also caught our eye. In it, the authors note that we know a lot about what roles nonverbal cues such as smiling, eye contact, stance, and body language play in the employment interview, but for all its ubiquity, no one has scientifically studied the importance of the handshake that starts and ends almost every such meeting. The article reports their use of a clever research design to have students engage in mock interviews with real businesses where the qualities of their handshakes are systematically evaluated and related to personality measures and ratings of their interview performance. The researchers were particularly interested in the relationship between Extraversion (as measured by a personality test), handshake quality (in terms of strength, vigor, grip, duration, and eye contact), and global ratings of interview performance (though not for any particular job).

Their findings included the fact that not only was handshake quality related to interview ratings, but it was also related to measures of Extraversion. That is, more extraverted people tend to have “better” handshakes, at least according to the criteria set forth in the study.  It was also interesting to note that handshake ratings mediated the relationship between Extraversion and interview ratings—the better the handshake, the stronger the relationship between Extraversion and ratings of interview performance.

So, what does this mean in relation to Highhouse’s comments about reliance on intuition and subjectivity in selection systems? The authors of the article on employment interview handshakes seem to interpret their findings to mean that to the extent that Extraversion is a valid predictor of job performance, then “a quality handshake conveys something meaningful about the interviewee that is also reflected in the rating of employment suitability” (Stewart, et al., 2008). The handshake is, in effect, acting as a behavioral measure of Extraversion. Of course, although we’re generally in favor of exploring behavioral measures of just about anything in the world of work, if this relationship between Extraversion and critical aspects of the job doesn’t exist (or even if it just isn’t appropriately researched and documented), then the handshake’s influence upon interview ratings seems to shift into the same category as other common interview biases. An interviewer who factors in the quality of a handshake into evaluations of the candidate may be engaging in the kind of intuitive decision making that Highhouse discusses in the article we described above, even if it does happen to correlate consistently with some known psychological construct.

Stewart and his colleagues certainly do practitioners a service by scientifically studying the effects and correlates of handshakes in the employment interview context, though. It’s just another example of what we like to see when we go looking for research to feature in this column: someone taking a practical problem (or assumption) and putting it through the scientific wringer to see what falls out. The next step in this line of research will be to put more thought and study into what it means for practitioners: How do we put this knowledge into practice, and what does it mean for interviewers and interviewees sitting at the table?

In our last column, we highlighted work on ethical leadership, and given the number of corporate ethics-related scandals and stories that have emerged in the months since that column, it shouldn’t be surprising that we return to the topics of ethics, this time focusing on ethical culture. Muel Kaptein’s recent (2008) article in Journal of Organizational Behavior describes a series of four studies to develop and test a measure of organizational ethical culture, ultimately concluding with a 58-item self-report measure of seven “virtues” that comprise organizational ethical culture.

Kaptein’s virtues include the virtues of:

  • Clarity: This primarily refers to clarity of behavioral expectations.
  • Congruency: This refers to the extent to which supervisors and managers behave congruently with the organization’s behavioral expectations (i.e., not engaging in “do as I say, not as I do”).
  • Feasibility: This describes the extent to which conditions within the organization actually allow employees to behave in ethically desirable ways.
  • Supportability: Does the organization provide support for employees to meet the normative expectations of the organization?
  • Transparency: This refers primarily to the transparency of consequences of behaviors and the extent to which employees are able to understand the “why” of the organization’s normative expectations. 
  • Discussability: Do employees have opportunities to raise and discuss ethical issues, or are those issues “taboo” for conversation?
  • Sanctionability: When unethical behavior goes unpunished, others who see those behaviors believe that those behaviors are only undesirable de jure rather than de facto and may in fact be desired by management.

One of the benefits of this measure is that it grows out of a strong theoretical base and has a series of studies behind it to demonstrate its reliability, factor structure, and ultimately its validity. The author argues for its applicability across organizational and industrial settings, and although this may be debatable, it is clear that the measure was designed not to be industry or job specific but rather to apply to the wide range of organizational settings and normative expectations.

If we have one quibble with the work, it is simply that there is so much attention paid to the details of the individual studies that validate the measure that little room is left in which to discuss the actual usage of the measure. We do, however, see this as a useful additional tool for managers and organizational leaders wishing to conduct diagnostics on their organizations’ ability to encourage ethical behavior among employees, with clear implications for remediation when deficiencies are identified in specific “virtue” dimensions.

To wrap up our column this month, we’re going to turn our attention to some work going on in the Academy of Management.  We are delighted to learn about the work of the Practice Theme Committee within the Academy, and about their efforts to integrate practice issues into management scholarship. Some of the committee’s specific charges are to:

  • Encourage the Academy to become exposed to and provide exposure for application-oriented professional development opportunities.
  • Raise the visibility of management practice as an important professional focus within the Academy. 
  • Coordinate support for the “scholarship of application” activities of Academy members.

These are ideas that are near and dear to our hearts, and we commend the Academy for explicitly focusing in this direction. Elena Antonacopoulou of the University of Liverpool Management School is chairing the committee, and we look forward to seeing the research that will come from this renewed focus (the Practice Theme Committee is being reconstituted after a period of inactivity) on the importance of scholarship focusing on and affecting organizational and managerial practice.

We first became aware of the new energy within the Academy’s Practice Theme Committee because of sessions that were held at the recent AoM conference in Anaheim, held in August.  The first session was entitled “Bringing Practice Back Into Our Scholarship: The Epistemology of Practice,” and a second was entitled “Bringing Practice Back Into Our Scholarship: Setting an Agenda for Action.” The sessions included such noted scholars as Chris Argyris, Jay Conger, Jean Neumann, Andrew Pettigrew, Jean Bartunek, and many others.

One of the questions the PTC is attempting to address through a variety of activities is “How do theory-driven questions compare to practice-driven questions? How can they be connected if the knowledge generated is to have impact?” One of the basic assumptions of Good Science–Good Practice is that there need not necessarily be differentiation between theory-driven questions and practice-driven questions—we try to highlight research that both advances theory and that provides direct practical information to practitioners.

Certainly, we don’t mean to imply that practice issues have been unimportant within the Academy of Management. Several of the recent Academy presidents have strong practice orientations, and there is a long tradition within the Academy for practice-based research. We are delighted to highlight the extensive plans and strategies the Practice Theme Committee within Academy has for encouraging and promoting practice-oriented research and for linking the needs of practitioners with the efforts of researchers. We applaud their efforts and look forward to the fruits of their many labors in this domain.

Keep the cards and letters coming. We’re at jmadigan@ameren.com and marcus.dickson@wayne.edu.


      Highhouse, S. (2008). Stubborn reliance on intuition and subjectivity in employee selection. Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives and Practice, 1, 333–342.
      Kaptein, M. (2008). Developing and testing a measure for the ethical culture of organizations: The corporate ethical virtues model. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 29, 923–947.
      Stewart, G. L., Dustin, S. L., Barrick, M. R., & Darnold, T. C. (2008). Exploring the handshake in employment interviews. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 1139–1146.