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. "Youre 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 psychologyget it?).
"Well, just what does an I-O-U psychiatrist do, dear?"
"Mom, Ive already told you a hundred times. Why dont
you ask Dad?"
"He fell asleep an hour ago, besides, just last night he told our
neighboryou remember poor Mrs. Jenkinsthat after you graduate you could help
her with her sonyou remember the poor Jenkins boy."
"Mom, Im not that kind of psychologist."
"I know dear, thats 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
consultantsI-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 (its 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.
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
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.
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.
The Percentage of Each Sample that Indicated
They had Heard of Each Given Profession.
Note: Standard Deviation is given in parenthesis following the
mean. N = the number of individuals that answered this question for each
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.
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).