From analysing staff data to collating employee engagement surveys, HR is always being urged to be more evidence-based these days. But, says Lucy Standing, vice-chair of the Association for Business Psychology – and a former global recruiter in the financial services sector – this same commitment to science is sorely lacking when it comes to good psychological practice at work.

Which areas of HR would benefit from more psychological insight?

A lot of leadership development programmes use good psychological principles, but all the peer-reviewed research that’s been done on them indicates there’s little return on investment. So often, the sorts of activities that characterise these programmes – such as classroom sessions and inspirational talks – just aren’t as useful for helping people learn as something that’s more experiential. You need to put them in an environment where what they’re doing and talking about genuinely counts, such as putting them in another job for one day a month.

What’s your view on mindfulness techniques? Are they a bit of a fad? 

I’m quite mindful of not jumping on the mindfulness bandwagon. A lot of it is the same old stuff, the traditional stress-management techniques, but they’re just being called mindfulness to make it sound sexy.

For certain people, providing it as an option, and allowing them to choose it, if that’s what they feel would be helpful to them – I wouldn’t say that’s a bad thing. But the evidence on it making a lasting difference is still pretty weak. My big criticism of it is that you’re helping people to cope, but you’re not helping them to address what might be causing the issue in the first place. I think a more responsible employer will offer mindfulness as one of a number of tools and solutions, as part of a wider mental health strategy. Meditating can help you cope with stress, but it doesn’t make your job any less stressful.

How would you like to see recruitment processes become more sophisticated and evidence-based? 

Organisations still tend to be stuck in this mindset of doing interview after interview after interview. This is a classically unsophisticated way of selecting candidates. The best way to hire someone is to put them in the job for a day, and let them see what it’s like and see how they perform. If you want to recruit a bus driver, don’t interview them about driving a bus – put them in a bus and watch how they drive it.

Companies that do a better job of giving people a real-life experience benefit hugely from the candidates being able to self-select for that role. I used to run graduate recruitment at an investment bank, and when we made ‘day in the life’ videos I insisted we include things like the alarm clock going off at 5am. Because if this means we get 20 per cent fewer applications, that means I’m paying less to my response handlers, we’ve got fewer people to interview and fewer to bring into the assessment centre – it’s a win all round. 

What can HR do to make greater use of psychological insight? 

The expertise is genuinely out there, if you know where to find it. There are psychology students who are desperate to do dissertation projects with real-life data. And they will collect it and analyse it for free, under the supervision of university professors. If you want to measure things, why not talk to someone in the academic world and find out what data they could collect and how they could evaluate it, and if they provide the students to do that? I guarantee that most course professors would say ‘yes, we’d be happy to work with you’.

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