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Obituary: Charles J. de Wolff

Charles J. de Wolff died June 24, 2021, at 91, and the world of work/industrial/organizational (WIO) psychology lost one of its most prominent contributors and organizers. He excelled in all three organizational ecologies in which WIO psychologists spend their careers. 

He was born January 22, 1930 in Amsterdam during the global economic depression. Charles’ father was a primary school teacher in an impoverished part of the city, but the family was able to avoid the worst poverty. In 1944–45, extreme food shortages and starvation became known as the “Hunger Winter,” the most difficult time in his life.

Charles began studying psychology at Vrije Universiteit in 1947. The academic program was similar to what it had been before the war, with emphasis on philosophy. He completed his undergraduate studies in 1953.

In 1953 while still a student, Charles began employment in the Selection Department of the Dutch Navy, interviewing applicants and conducting validation studies. This led to study of methodology and statistics, training as a naval officer, and active duty, military, and civilian service investigating the range of issues for WIO psychologists. Conference attendance and publications resulted.

In 1961, Charles joined Dutch steel company Hoogovens while continuing his PhD studies. Projects focused on testing and selection, expanding into applicant attraction. Cooperative studies with other large employers and conference presentations and publication followed, most notably on workplace stress.

Charles was chair of the Netherlands Institute of Psychologists and professor at the University of Nijmegen, and conducted research on workplace stress. Workplace absences due to illness had increased enormously, and the number of persons on disability benefits in the Netherlands was approaching one million. This led to many research projects and consultation on public policy.

In 1974, I had the privilege of becoming the editor of Personnel Psychology and continuing a project initiated by previous Editor Rains Wallace. Rains invited Charles to write a review of industrial psychology in Europe. Charles secured a grant and chaired meetings of industrial psychologists from seven countries. One meeting was where a joint discussion session was held with Summit Group members. The review article (de Wolff and Shimmin, 1976) was published just ahead of a symposium at the APA Convention. Subsequently, de Wolff et al. (1981) edited Conflicts and Contradictions: Work Psychology in Europe.

In 1979, Charles was one of the founders of the European Network of Organizational Psychologists, an informal association of WIO psychologists.

From 1980 to 1990, Charles was secretary general/treasurer of the International Association of Applied Psychology, having served on its Executive Committee since 1971. Charles was a central figure in regularizing its publications contract, congresses, and finances during this period of rapid change.

In 1991, Charles was founding editor of the European Work and Organizational Psychologist.

Charles de Wolff was articulate, thoughtful, resourceful, energetic, and visionary. After his mandatory retirement in 1995 from the University of Nijmegen, he continued to serve, advise, and publish. Crucially, he always did what he had agreed he would do: sterling example, one entirely worthy of emulation.

 

Milton D. Hakel

Ohio Eminent Scholar and Professor of Psychology Emeritus

Bowling Green State University

 

References

 

De Wolff, C. J., & Shimmin, S. (1976). The psychology of work in Europe: A review of a profession. Personnel Psychology, 29(2), 175–195.

De Wolff, C. J., Shimmin, S., & de Montmollin, M. (1981). Conflicts and contradictions: Work psychology in Europe. Hillsdale NJ: Erlbaum.

De Wolff, C. J. (2017). My “outstanding contributions to the advancement of psychology internationally.” IAAP Bulletin, 29(2), 8–32.

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