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SIOP Award Winners: Meet Joel Lefkowitz Award for Humanistic I-O Psychology: Ishbel McWha-Hermann

Liberty J. Munson

As part of our ongoing series to provide visibility into what it takes to earn a SIOP award or grant, we highlight a diverse class of award winners in each edition of TIP. We hope that this insight encourages you to consider applying for a SIOP award or grant because you are probably doing something amazing that can and should be recognized by your peers in I-O psychology!

This quarter, we are highlighting the winner of the NEW Joel Lefkowitz Award for Humanistic I-O Psychology: Ishbel McWha-Hermann.

 

Why did you apply (if applicable)?

Winning this award means so much to me because working in the area of humanitarian work psychology and social justice has sometimes felt like swimming against the stream. It has sometimes meant asking challenging questions of our discipline and its fundamental values, and it is on this point that I have been really inspired by the incredible work of Joel Lefkowitz. Joel’s work has challenged us as a discipline to consider how humanistic values fit within I-O psychology and has encouraged me to continually strive to consider this perspective. In the current climate of COVID, increasing global movement around racial inequality, and the frightening urgency of climate change, Joel’s work feels more and more relevant for our discipline.

Share a little bit about who you are and what you do.

I am a lecturer in International HRM at the University of Edinburgh Business School in Scotland, UK. I’ve been here 6 years, prior to which I was a research faculty member at Cornell University’s Employment and Disability Institute.

In applying the tools and theories of I-O psychology to social justice at work I tend to focus on two main areas. First, I am fascinated by the topic of fair reward in international aid and development organizations. These organizations are explicitly focused on the social good, and yet paradoxically they often use salary systems that are increasingly criticized as unjust. More generally, they often manage their international and national staff in quite different ways, which is a source of dissatisfaction among employees. In these nonprofit organizations, in particular, it also generates a feeling that how the organizations operate might be undermining their values and the goals they strive to achieve.

I started this work in my PhD where I looked at how paying national and international staff on different salaries impacts relationships between staff, and this has evolved over the past 10 years to look not only at how traditional dual salary systems impact employee outcomes but also how policies can be designed in ways that are fairer.

I am currently lead researcher on Project FAIR (https://www.project-fair.business-school.ed.ac.uk/), where I collaborate with international NGOs to identify evidence-based alternatives to traditional pay systems. Understanding the problems with traditional systems is important, but Project FAIR focuses on how to address the problems.

I facilitate a network of international NGOs (small ones to the really big ones) where we share learning and understanding on how to make pay fairer within the sector. We have developed a series of principles and standards of Fair INGO reward, which many organizations have adapted in their own policies.

More recently this work has extended beyond pay to look at other HR policies and practices. Pay is just one manifestation of inequality, and there are other more hidden ways that inequality is reproduced through organizational practices.

My second area of research is examining the working conditions of marginalized and vulnerable workers. This interest was really ignited during my time at Cornell, where I was working to understand the work experiences of people with disabilities and how to overcome the barriers these employees face. Since moving to Edinburgh my focus shifted to another group of marginalized and vulnerable workers— those on low incomes and the ways in which earning a living wage (rather than the minimum wage) facilitates and enables a better quality of life for people and their families, with ultimately positive spillover for organizations and societies. Most prior research in this area has taken an economic perspective, but I-O psychology has a lot to contribute to an understanding of how earning a decent wage supports and enables employee resilience and engagement, leading to flourishing and sustainability both at work and in life more broadly.

Through all of my work the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals play a key role, and I have advocated widely for the role of I-O psychology in addressing global grand challenges such as poverty reduction. Many I-O psychologists don’t immediately see the connection between what we do and global goals like the SDGs, but through addressing gender inequality, decent working conditions, or issues of sustainability and CSR, there are a lot of ways we can align with and contribute to these broader goals.

What do you find exciting about winning this award?

What I find exciting about this award is that it recognizes work that is more applied and often more difficult to publish in academic outlets but which has lots of potential for change for good.

What do you learn that has surprised you? Did you have an “aha” moment? What was it?

Almost 20 years ago when I was an undergraduate student in NZ, I was studying I-O psychology, and I knew it was what I wanted to do as a career. But I was also really interested in poverty reduction and inequality. I never thought I could do both until I happened to meet Stu Carr—another SIOP award winner this year! Talking with Stu, and subsequently with many other colleagues within SIOP (Virginia Schein, Walter Reichman, Mary O’Neill Berry to name a few), really opened my eyes to how our tools and theories could be applied to global grand challenges and how addressing these challenges is a type of work within which people need to be organized.

What do you see as the lasting/unique contribution of this work to our discipline? How can it be used to drive changes in organizations, the employee experience, etc.?

Project FAIR is a collaboration with HR leaders in international NGOs; these leaders are looking to influence change. Project FAIR provides a space and a forum to explore how to change and to share ideas on what change might look like. By sharing these thoughts and experiences on what works and what doesn’t work change can occur.

In terms of our discipline, this work provides direct examples of how I-O psychology can be used to address global challenges such as poverty and inequality and how we as a discipline can contribute to decent work.

To what extent would you say this work/research was interdisciplinary? 

This work is absolutely interdisciplinary: It covers economics, development studies, nonprofit management, and many others. Right from the start of my PhD it was apparent that appreciating these other lenses and drawing out the strengths of the different perspectives was crucial for creating research that can be applied in this particular context.

What’s a fun fact about yourself (something that people may not know)?

My first ever job was a summer job wrapping presents as a Christmas elf in the local shopping mall (I grew up in New Zealand, so Christmas is during summer!). My kids (currently aged 5 and 7) are very excited that I might know Santa personally.😊

What piece of advice would you give to someone new to I-O psychology? (If you knew then what you know now…)

It sounds cliche but follow your heart and your passion, for that is where you can have the most impact.

 

About the author:

Liberty Munson is currently the director of Psychometrics of the Microsoft Certification Program in the Worldwide Learning organization. She is responsible for ensuring the validity and reliability of Microsoft’s certification and professional programs. Her passion is for finding innovative solutions to business challenges that balance the science of assessment design and development with the realities of budget, time, and schedule constraints. Most recently, she has been presenting on the future of testing and how technology can change the way we assess skills.

Liberty loves to bake, hike, backpack, and camp with her husband, Scott, and miniature schnauzer, Apex. If she’s not at work, you’ll find her enjoying the great outdoors or in her kitchen tweaking some recipe just to see what happens.

Her advice to someone new to I-O psychology?

Statistics, statistics, statistics—knowing data analytic techniques will open A LOT of doors in this field and beyond!

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