An Overview of Evidence Based Management in HR: Moving from Suppositions to Data

An in-depth look at Evidence Based Management in HR, the misconceptions around the term, challenges in the path of its implementation and the six-step process that walks practitioners through it.

I stumbled across the term “evidence based practice” thanks to a friend who works at the HR department of a multinational conglomerate.

Amidst giggles and late-night gossip, she said quite incredulously, “Today we had our first workshop around evidence based HR. Can you dig that?”

Not being familiar with the implications of evidence based anything, I asked her to elaborate.

Her answer was quick and rather funny.

“Well, we are now being encouraged to take Human Resource decisions based on a body of evidence or precedence. So actually investigate what has worked and what science says will work and shape the path forward off of that foundation.

But you know what, I always thought that was what we at HR are supposed to do. I asked my senior and she looked at me askance. Her take was HR decisions are never based on evidence. They are guided by seat of the pant reactions, the opinions of the C suite and implicit power struggles.”

That was when my friend, who will remain unnamed, dissolved into laughter.

However, her senior’s words stuck with me.

Is that how HR operates?

Maybe some of it is true.

But no matter what the heart of the issue is, the consensus is unequivocal.

HR can benefit from evidence based practice.

What is Evidence Based Management in HR?

Evidence based practice in general refers to framing a problem that might be keeping an organization from achieving a desired result, formulating hypotheses around how the problem can be solved, consuming high quality, peer vetted, scientifically researched information or robust empirical evidence to determine the possibility of success of the different approaches and then leveraging the considerable critical thinking power at the disposal of the brain to identify a hypotheses that’s plausible and a solution that’s effective.

Hence Evidence Based Management in HR refers to employing HR practices that move away from suppositions, fads and reactions towards judicious use of high quality data, critical thinking and strategic decision making; motivated only by an anticipation of the output and not by compromising factors like the organizational command chain and biases.

Some experts like Ian McKendrick of AstraZeneca define Evidence Based HR as a discipline that propagates use of data to find solutions that respect talent and provide businesses with competitive advantages.

Others like Mark Spears believe that Evidence Based HR can help CEOs grapple with big issues such as regulators, customer requirements, talent and the myriad demands of the workforce.


What it Isn’t………

There is a real danger of assuming that Evidence Based Management in HR demands that decision makers be constantly “in their heads” and spend all their time “researching”.

This is definitely not the case.

According to proponents like Prof Denise Rousseau of the Carnegie Mellon University, the aim isn’t to turn practitioners into academics.

There is simply a need to supply the brain – the decision-making apparatus – with sufficient good quality evidence so that it doesn’t deduce from incomplete patterns and doesn’t rely on less credible sources like hearsay to decide approaches.

Also, there is a very strong case for the use of Analytics and Business Intelligence in Evidence Based HR.

In fact according to reports by KMPG International an overwhelming 82% of HR executives are planning to increase their spend on advanced analytics over the years. However this reliance on automatic insights doesn’t equal decision making on auto-pilot.

HR practitioners will still be accountable for the strategies they suggest and the approaches they take.

The bottom-line is, Evidence Based Management in HR will change how decisions are made and introduce an element of increased trust and efficiency in organizations because of practices that are more people and outcome centric. Evidence Based HR will not impact who takes these decisions or burden them with the task of sifting through mounds of dry and academic information.

Does it Work……

Thanks to the diligent practice of Evidence Based HR,

  • The Royal Bank of Canada discovered a direct correlation between how competitively they are positioned in the market and the performance of employees in the branch.
  • McDonald’s found that having at least one employee over 60 improved the customer satisfaction of an outlet by over 20%.
  • McGraw Hill Financial can pinpoint employees who are at a risk of churn and implement interventions accordingly.

Evidence Based HR is also boosting the overall credibility of Human Resources as a department. More and more executives believe that the HR function is able to supply “excellent” insights into how the talent of an organization may grow and evolve.

Obstacles in the Way of Implementing Evidence Based Management in HR:

  1. First and foremost, it is the assumption that Evidence Based HR calls for commitment of time that Human Resource executives simply do not have to spare. They envision themselves reading research tomes with their noses in books. This is unappealing and discourages the exploration of Evidence Based HR. Most practitioners however dismiss this fear. Evidence Based HR can be implemented on a steady diet of articles and blogs that summarize the findings of scientific research. Also the accumulation of knowledge over time refines the capability to take decisions and no one needs to start from a place of “perfection”.
  2. Secondly, Evidence Based Management in HR is too explicit and has the potential to shake the status quo. Human Resource executives are wary of finding gaping flaws in all their approaches. And if this is the case, they may be left with finding new answers to age old problems. The prospect is daunting. Surveys show that 32% of HR employees blame “corporate culture” as the biggest bump in the road to Evidence Based Management in HR.
  3. Thirdly, HR is a department that deals with human beings. And humans are whimsical. The idea of predictably quantifying human behaviour is alien to Human Resource executives who like the ambiguity because it provides the forgiving “room for error”.
  4. Fourthly, Evidence Based HR can increase the initial time to respond to situations because of the assessments involved. However the boosted efficacy of decisions far outweighs temporary lags.

In 2007 the city of New York spent $75 million dollars on teachers believing incentive payments could somehow push them to give more to students and improve their performance.

Had the decision makers cared to go down the path of Evidence Based HR they would have found research that states otherwise. But officials chose to embrace the notion of “performance for financial rewards” and failed to register any positive change.

Evidence Based HR isn’t a novel concept. But it is rather revolutionary. Those who meet it head-on will be able to grab benefits that elude their peers.

Four Sources of Data Evidence Based HR Practitioners May Consider:

1. Scientific & Empirical Literature

This refers to validated and peer reviewed research from credible sources. In today’s age of social media myths, nothing but articles from experts who synthesise scientific findings without distortion may be considered reliable.

2. Organizational Data

In the absence of scientific literature to consume, practitioners can turn to organizational data or precedents – What has worked? What has failed? What approaches are effective given the unique internal and external factors influencing a business? In order to gather organizational data executives should become adept at asking the right questions.

3. Practitioner’s Professional Expertise

This is the last resort. Professional expertise may come with the baggage of personal perception. Only when executives have a history of seeing an approach work multiple times in similar settings should they consider it a solution that can be applied.

4. Stakeholder Values & Concerns

When there are multiple credible alternatives to choose from, practitioners should run the approaches through the filter of the “Values & Concerns” fit. If a particular solution is more aligned with stakeholder concerns then it is the first hypothesis that should be tested.


6 Steps to Practical Implementation of Evidence Based HR:

There are six sequential steps that can help interested practitioners work within the framework of Evidence Based HR:

Step #1: Identifying the Problem

Ask yourself, ‘What is the issue that I am investigating?’

It is highly recommended that at this stage practitioners:

  • Write the problem down. This helps externalize the situation and scrubs it clean of any existing associations and biases.
  • Complete the problem statement. Collect as many sets of data as needed to understand the problem. Remember a “problem” is generally the manifestation or symptom of underlying issues. Identify the cause-effect pairs that may be at play but do not jump to conclusions.

Tip: Practitioners who spend more time asking “What is the issue I am investigating?” are likely to formulate better hypotheses.

Step #2: Developing Hypotheses

This can be a group effort. Here all possible reasons why the problem may have surfaced and solutions to eliminate them are concerned. This isn’t the time to vet. It is the time to indulge in plausible and cautious brainstorming.

For example, the issue of reduced productivity at a manufacturing plant may be due to poor supply chain coordination. It may also be the result of inferior factory safety that leads to several deaths a year. Workers who are focused on preventing bodily injuries are rarely workers who can give their best.

Tip: Tap all potentials and leave no stone unturned. Let your understanding of the nature of the problem guide you to tenable hypotheses.

Step #3: Acquiring Data

Next Evidence Based HR practitioners need to ask the question, “What do I need to prove/disprove a particular hypothesis?”

The answer may be scientific research. Or it may be different types of organizational data.

To gauge why productivity at a plant is low not only do executives need to look at the daily output of each worker, the outputs from those who work near and with large machines also need to be contrasted with the output of employees who feel they are relatively “safer”.

Tip: Don’t focus on only what you must acquire. Also inventory the data already at your disposal and if it can serve your requirement or further inform your approach.

Step #4: Analysing Data and Aggregating Evidence

Consume the data you have acquired, process it with the help of analytics and then analyse its implications.

Do the hypotheses you have formulated hold water in the face of the evidence?

Do precedents and science confirm that going down a particular path will yield the solution to the problem you have defined?

Do not stick to one source. Where possible aggregate the stories that different data sets have to tell and use them to inspect your solutions.

Tip: Do not alter the data to fit the hypotheses. Tweak the solution to account for the findings presented by the data.

Step #5: Leveraging the Solution

Apply the most tenable and effective solution to the problem.

Pick one possible hypothesis at a time and move ahead with conviction. If the insights you have gleaned aren’t properly leveraged, the point of Evidence Based HR is defeated. In the absence of execution, it becomes an academic exercise.

Step #6: Assessing the Outcome

Did the solution solve the problem in a talent centric, efficient and KPI impacting way?

Evaluate the outcome.

Tip: If it seems that the hypothesis has proven useful, ask yourself, “Can this solution be improved? If yes how?”

evidence based hr tips infographic

Three Traits Evidence Based HR Practitioners Must Cultivate?

Without exception those wish to reap the rewards of Evidence Based HR must:

Build “Reviews” into the way they handle HR projects.

All tensions must be periodically subjected to the process of Evidence Based decision making. This will call for a mind-set shift around what the task of Human Resources is! HR is meant to optimize talent and Evidence Based HR provides executives with all the tools needed to do just that.

Get comfortable with data.

HR executives should definitely pay heed to professional intuition. But they must also make consulting quality data a go to habit.

Practice thinking “outside the box”.

It is okay to tread where no professional has ever gone when it comes to formulating hypotheses. It is later – during analysis and aggregation – that data needs to light the way forward with its tenets of logic and precedence.

* * *

Evidence Based Management in HR is the end of an era of random decisions that leave employees feeling insecure and powerless.

It is the dawn of conscientious and largely consistent practices that produce reliable results by:

  • Identifying and completely defining a problem
  • Formulating multiple hypotheses
  • Acquiring empirical, organizational and expertise based data to gauge plausibility of proposed solutions
  • Analysing and aggregating what the data has to say to identify the most effective and talent centric way forward
  • Leveraging the solution in real world practices
  • Assessing the outcome and tweaking for improvements


Written By

Trina Moitra

Trina is a part of the CakeHR content team. She is a marketing funnel creator who has worked with 5 reputed HR SaaS startups and established ventures over the past several years. She has experience understanding how HR software should be sold and uses persuasion based strategies to generate results.