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I-O Psychology: What’s Your Line?

Michael Gasser, David Whitsett, Neoshon Mosley, Karla Sullivan, Tammy Rogers, and Rowena Tan

As I got on the elevator, another graduate student in the clinical psychology program stepped on as well. We were both going to the top floor, and had some time since this was the slowest elevator on campus. We struck up a conversation and I told her that I was in the I-O psychology program. "What does an Input/Output psychologist do, anyway?" she asked.

I was talking with some people at a party one night. A tall man just beginning to bald came over and we were introduced. He was the president of a local bank that had incidentally just given me a loan for a new car. He asked me what I did and I told him I was an organizational psychologist. "You’re an organizational psychologist," he exclaimed. "Boy, I really need to get organized!"

My personnel psychology class was going to start in a week. A young student came to my office and asked me to sign her add slip so she could register for the class. "Why are you taking personnel psychology?" I asked. "I just wanted to know more about myself," she replied (personal psychology—get it?).

"Well, just what does an I-O-U psychiatrist do, dear?"

"Mom, I’ve already told you a hundred times. Why don’t you ask Dad?"

"He fell asleep an hour ago, besides, just last night he told our neighbor—you remember poor Mrs. Jenkins—that after you graduate you could help her with her son—you remember the poor Jenkins boy."

"Mom, I’m not that kind of psychologist."

"I know dear, that’s too bad, but we still love you."

These are examples of experiences in which members of the general public (and our families), members of the business community and other psychologists showed that they did not have any idea what someone in our profession does. We suspect that these experiences are not unique to us, but have happened to many others who call themselves I-O psychologists. This problem of recognition has been noted by others concerned with the development of I-O psychology including past SIOP President Wally Borman who would like I-O psychology to be a household word (May, 1995) and past SIOP President James Farr who, in his presidential address reflecting the 50th anniversary of APA Division 14, questioned why there is still "limited acceptance and understanding" of our profession (Farr, 1997).

So what if others do not know who we are or what we do? Is this really a problem? When dealing with the general public, this lack of acceptance and understanding is a problem for clinical psychologists. Many lay persons do not know the difference between a therapist (a generic term which could mean a lot of things) and a professionally trained and licensed psychologist. A similar dilemma exists for I-O psychology. The general public does not know the difference between someone who is an I-O psychologist and a business consultant, which is a generic term that could be used by anyone with any level of training. These individuals may be promoting questionable "pop" management fads that will ultimately do more harm than good and foster distrust of business consultants—I-O psychologists or otherwise.

We see two major benefits if there is generally a clear understanding of who we are.

1. Who ya gonna call? The higher-ups in a company with a human resources problem will know who to contact. Why is this important? Consider this analogy. If you had a leaky pipe in your basement and you had never heard of a plumber you might end up calling an electrician or a general contractor. This worker, after seeing your problem, may steer you to a good plumber or maybe not. Perhaps instead they will fix the problem themselves (it’s all billable hours after all!). The electrician may wire the lights so you can no longer see the problem. The general contractor may develop an excellent drainage system so the leaking water is transported away. The true problem, however, was not fixed. The higher-ups in a company with a human resource problem may contact a business consultant who turns out to have a great deal of expertise in financial matters and approaches the problem from this angle. The problem does not get fixed, but becomes harder to see or is moved to another location.

2. Who ya gonna believe? If the higher-ups in a company do get someone that specializes in human resource matters, did they get someone with good credentials? We believe that if the business community knows what a I-O psychologist does and knows who they are professionally, then they might increase the utilization of I-O psychologists over generic consultants, reducing the number of workers that have to go through scream therapy with their boss, running around naked in the woods or a seminar on KABLOOY How to Defuse Your Employees. In addition, the long suffering employee may be more likely to accept the intervention, training or advice put forward by the I-O psychologist if they know more about our credentials.

So how well known are we, anyway? Although the lack of recognition received by I-O psychology has been noted as a problem, we are not aware of any previous surveys that have looked at this subject. Therefore, no baseline information is available to answer the question, "How well are we known?" The purpose of this survey is to ask members of the general community, undergraduate students in the college of business and other psychologists if they have ever heard of I-O psychology or some related titles. In addition, for the participants who answered that they had indeed heard of a particular title, we asked them to provide a self-report estimate of their confidence that they could accurately describe what someone in that profession does.

Method

Participants

Three groups of participants were interviewed over the phone by undergraduate research assistants during the Spring semester of 1997. For the sample representing the general community, 259 individuals were randomly selected from the phonebook for Cedar Falls/Waterloo, which has a combined metropolitan area of approximately 100,000 individuals and is located in Iowa. Of the 259 individuals called, 91 were contacted and provided a complete data set. For the business college sample, 380 students in the College of Business at a mid-sized university in Iowa were selected at random from university records. Of the 380 individuals called, 91 were contacted and provided a complete data set. For the sample of psychologists, 324 were randomly selected from the 1996-1997 membership directory of the American Psychological Society. Individuals that were listed as I-O psychologists were not included in the sample. Of the 324 called, 87 were contacted and provided a complete data set.

The average age of the general community sample was 47.89 with a standard deviation of 18.53. The age of the youngest individual contacted was 18 and the age of the oldest individual contacted was 87. For the business college sample, the average age was 20.66 with a standard deviation of 2.39. The age of the youngest business students ranged from 18 to 31. The average age of the sample of psychologists was 49.05 with a standard deviation of 11.80. The psychologists in this sample ranged in age from 30 to 80.

For the general community sample, 37.4% were male and 96.7% reported they were Caucasian. For the business college sample, 52.7% were male and 98.9% reported they were Caucasian. For the sample of psychologists, 63.2% were male and 94.3% reported they were Caucasian.

Survey

Each participant was contacted by telephone and asked to participate in a survey being conducted as part of a research project. Those who agreed to participate were first asked if they head ever heard of each of the following eight professional titles: I-O Psychologist, Industrial Psychologist, Organizational Psychologist, Personnel Psychologist, Consumer Psychologist, Human Factors Psychologist, Human Resource Director and Personnel Director. Participants answered yes or no to each of these questions. Participants that indicated they had previously heard of one of the professional titles were immediately asked how confident they were that they could correctly describe the work someone in that profession does. Participants answered by providing a confidence estimate from 0 "no confidence" to 10 "total confidence." Note that we did not assess actual knowledge of the profession, but only a subjective impression of knowing about the profession.

 

Table 1

The Percentage of Each Sample that Indicated

They had Heard of Each Given Profession.

_____________________________________________________________

 

Sample

 

General

Business

Majors

Psychologists

I-O Psychologist

13.2

06.6

96.6

Industrial Psychologist

35.2

17.6

70.1

Organizational Psychologist

12.1

30.8

73.6

Personnel Psychologist

26.4

35.2

85.1

Consumer Psychologist

28.6

31.9

86.2

Human Factors Psychologist

02.2

06.6

96.6

Human Resource Director

76.9

83.5

92.0

Personnel Director

93.4

91.2

97.7

_____________________________________________________________

Table 2

The Mean Confidence Report for the

Follow-up Question for Each Professional Title.

_____________________________________________________________

 

Sample

 

General

Business

Majors

Psychologists

  Mean N Mean N Mean N

I/O Psychologist

3.33 (2.27)

12

6.83(1.72)

6

5.94(2.20)

84

Industrial Psychologist

3.94(2.37)

32

3.25(2.93)

16

5.77(2.02)

61

Organizational Psychologist

2.82(1.78)

11

3.75(2.60)

28

6.03(2.14)

64

Personnel Psychologist

3.67(2.26)

24

3.78(2.46)

32

6.07(1.90)

74

Consumer Psychologist

4.73(1.85)

26

3.66(2.40)

29

5.39(1.99)

75

Human Factors Psychologist

0.00(0.00)

2

3.83(1.94)

6

7.08(1.85)

84

Human Resource Director

4.90(3.23)

70

5.01(2.71)

76

4.48(2.23)

80

Personnel Director

6.53(2.63)

85

5.49(2.78)

83

6.25(2.00)

85

_____________________________________________________________

Note: Standard Deviation is given in parenthesis following the mean. N = the number of individuals that answered this question for each professional title.

 

Results

The results of the initial question that asked if the participant had ever heard of each profession for each sample are presented in Table 1. The results of the follow-up question for each professional title are presented in Table 2. Only those respondents that indicated they had heard of a given professional title were asked to indicate their confidence in explaining the work done in that profession; therefore, the sample sizes will vary for each question.

Conclusions

The results of this survey indicate that not very many people in the general public have ever heard of an I-O psychologist or any of the related professional titles. I-O Psychologist is certainly less than a household name. This is especially noticeable when comparing the various psychological professions to generic terms such as Human Resource Director and Personnel Director. None of the psychological professional titles were recognized by more than 36% of the participants, yet Human Resource Director was recognized by nearly 77% of the respondents and Personnel Director was recognized by 93.4% of the respondents. Furthermore, for those few that did report they recognized one of the psychological professional titles, their confidence ratings that they could accurately describe the work done in that profession were very low. The mean scores for each of the psychological professions, except Consumer Psychologist, were below 4.00.

Even more unfortunate for the development of our profession, not many business majors report they have ever heard of an I-O psychologist or any of the related professional titles. Again, none of the psychological professional titles were recognized by more than 36% of the participants, yet Human Resource Director was recognized by over 83% of the participants and Personnel Director was recognized by 91.2% of the participants. Also as occurred in the general sample, of the few that did recognize a psychological profession, their confidence ratings for being able to accurately describe the work done in that profession were very low. The mean scores for each of the psychological professions, except I-O psychologist (which was only recognized by 6 business majors), were below 4.00.

Fortunately, we are recognized by our colleagues in other areas of psychology. The percentage of psychologists in professions other that I-O psychology that had heard of the title I-O Psychologist was an encouraging 96.6%. Furthermore, all of the psychological professions were recognized by at least 70% of the respondents. Human Resource Director was recognized by 92% of the respondents and Personnel Director was recognized by 97.7% of the respondents. Although these results are encouraging, the results of the follow-up question show there is still room for improvement. How confident are you that you could explain what a clinical psychologist does? Probably pretty confident. How confident are other psychologists that they could describe what we do? The mean confidence rating for I-O psychologist was 5.94. Although this is higher than for either the general sample or the business majors, it still represents a moderate level of confidence. An investigation of the frequency distribution of responses for the follow-up question for I-O psychologist indicates that more than 50% of the respondents had confidence levels at or below 6.00 and 25% had confidence levels at or below 4.00. Overall, most of the professional titles received moderate average confidence ratings that were between 5.00 and 6.50.

What to do

The results of this survey indicate that I-O psychology is not well known in both a sample of the general public and, more importantly for the development of our profession, in a sample of business majors. Furthermore, although there was good general recognition of our profession amongst our colleagues in psychology, there was only a moderate level of confidence that an accurate description of the work we do could be given. Each of these points represents a lack of understanding and recognition of I-O psychology that is detrimental to the development, acceptance and general use of what I-O psychology has to offer. Finally, to improve the level of understanding and recognition of our profession in each of these populations we make the following suggestions.

1. It might be helpful if we collectively picked one name to call ourselves, especially when dealing with the public. Although amongst other psychologists the name I-O Psychologist seems to be recognized, amongst business majors (arguably the future greatest consumers of our services) this title was tied for least-known with Human Factors Psychologist. Business majors recognized the titles Organizational Psychologist and Personnel Psychologist at much higher levels. Both of these titles include key words that are often found in courses taken by business majors and both of these titles are certainly more succinct than the cumbersome I-O Psychologist. Regardless of the title chosen, using one title allows a simpler message to be conveyed.

2. I-O psychologists (or whatever you call yourself) should make an effort to give guest lectures in the business or management courses of high schools, local colleges, local trade schools, community colleges and chamber of commerce meetings. Be sure to point out the training and credentials of I-O psychologists, as opposed to generic titles such as business consultants or personnel directors. This is a service that is probably not done often enough by I-O types although this is an excellent way to sell the profession (and yourself) to the local business community. We are unaware of any surveys looking at the frequency with which this type of grassroots promotion is done by SIOP members. This would be a valuable piece of information to ascertain in the future.

3. For those of us in academics, or anyone who must deal with other types of psychologists on a regular basis, talk to your colleagues. Tell them who we are and what we do. Be sure to explain the types of research we engage in and the potential for fundamental benefits to individuals and society at large (rather than just the bottom line of a corporation).

References

Farr, J. L. (1997). Organized I-O Psychology: Past, Present, Future. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 35, 13-28.

May, K. E. (1995). TIP Profiles: Walter Borman. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 32, 52-55.

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