KNOWLEDGE HUB

Evidence-Based HR

Colourful people from above learning concept

In 2011, CRF published Evidence-based HR: From Fads to Facts? In that report, we examined what was then the relatively new idea of EBHR to better understand its meaning and relevance to the HR profession. We discussed the idea with a range of senior HR professionals and academics who first advocated its adoption.

There is no doubt that the HR function has changed significantly over the past decade. Business stakeholders have become more demanding of HR and HR has become more prominent as an internal function, a trend accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Technology and the proliferation of HR analytics have played a particularly prominent role in reshaping the function.

Over the last decade, EBHR has developed in various ways, although there is still significant scope for further progression. CRF therefore decided to revisit the topic by producing two new reports. The first titled: Strong Foundations: Evidence-Based HR provides a stock take of where we are now by examining what has changed since 2011, seeking the current views and perspectives of senior HR professionals through a survey and interviews, exploring the role of people analytics within EBHR and providing some initial suggestions for how we can strengthen our EBHR practice.

The second report will be published in early 2024 and will consider how HR professionals and HR functions can become more evidence-based by providing a range of practical resources and detailed guidance, including a model, methodology and key principles for practitioners to use.

Rob Briner, Associate Director of Research, Corporate Research Forum, Professor of Organizational Psychology, Queen Mary University of London

Three New Year's Resolutions for HR

You’d be hard-pushed to find a single HR professional who thought HR’s use of data and evidence was perfect and simply could not be improved in any way.

There is now widespread acceptance – right across the profession – that more can and needs to be done to improve our use of evidence in order to improve our effectiveness as a function and add greater value to the business.

HR's attitude towards evidence has changed

For me, this general shift in thinking towards making better-informed decisions is one of the most important changes in the profession over the past few decades.

When I first started writing and talking about Evidence-Based HR (EBHR) over 20 years ago I sensed more than a degree of defensiveness. Some practitioners seemed to feel that suggesting HR could do better when it came to evidence-based decisions was just another attack on the profession and therefore best ignored. Now, in contrast, it feels like I’m pushing at an open door when I make the same points.

But, it’s one thing to acknowledge that we should try improve the way we do something and quite another to actually do it.

What do EBHR and New Year’s resolutions have in common?

Trying to do more EBHR has much in common with classic New Year’s resolutions such as doing more exercise, losing weight or starting new hobbies. These are good things to try to accomplish. They seem relatively straightforward. It’s seems obvious what we need to do to make them happen. Yet, give it a year, and for most of us they just won’t have happened much, if at all.

These are all examples, like EBHR, of something that is highly desirable, not particularly complicated, but very hard to accomplish.

What makes EBHR difficult (though not complicated) to do and how can we make it easier?

One of the main reasons why EBHR is difficult is that within the HR profession we are just not used to making structured decisions following an explicit process of gathering and using evidence. Decisions somehow just get made. Data and evidence play a role in a somewhat haphazard way.

Adopting the EBHR model which describes the process we should ideally follow along with the four sources of evidence we can draw on, can seem too much. Particularly when we compare it to what we usually do.

It’s a bit like trying to follow a highly demanding exercise plan when we haven’t done any exercise for years. Or sticking to an all-encompassing and overwhelming diet regime when we’re used to eating whatever we want, whenever we like.

This is why breaking down broad yet desirable goals into more achievable smaller behaviours is more likely to bring about the results we want. But can we do the same for EBHR?

Can starting to do EBHR be made easier?

One way of thinking about doing EBHR is to consider its basic principles. It’s important to remember that evidence-based practice has been around for at least 30 years. These principles have evolved over time – not to help people get fitter or eat better – but to help professionals make better-informed decisions.

In our recent report, Strong Foundations: Evidence-Based HR, we define EBHR as:
…a process which delivers better-informed and hence more accurate answers to two fundamental questions: first, which are the most important problems (or opportunities) facing the organisation which are relevant to HR activities? Second, which solutions (or interventions) are most likely to help? In other words, what’s going on and what can we do about it? These questions are answered through a combination of using the best available evidence and critical thinking.

What are the underlying principles of EBHR and how can we start to apply them in our work?

EBHR New Year Resolution 1:
Incorporate multiple sources and types of evidence and information.


Using multiple sources and types of evidence helps us to build a more complete and accurate picture of what’s happening and what we can do about it. In EBHR we typically consider four sources of evidence, each of which includes data of quite different types.

Do we always need to use all four sources? No. But using more sources is generally better. So, if you mostly rely on one or two sources or types of evidence when making decisions, next time consider drawing on more sources and using more types.

EBHR New Year Resolution 2:
Adopt a structured and explicit process of gathering and using evidence.

There are two aspects of this structure. The first entails understanding the issue before identifying a solution. The second is about taking a structured approach to collecting the evidence we need to answer our questions.

A structured and explicit process helps us to stay on track and ensure we are systematic in gathering and applying the evidence to help us make a better-informed decision. Do you have to follow every step of this process? Not necessarily, but trying to explicitly follow the process and being aware of which steps you’re skipping is likely increase your awareness of what you know – and don’t know – and the basis on which you have identified the issue and potential intervention.

Just using one part of this process – spending much more time really trying to understand the business issue before you think about a solution – will mean you are much more likely to understand the issue and choose a solution that will help.

EBHR New Year Resolution 3:
Focus on the most trustworthy and relevant evidence.

It seems that sometimes people think that EBHR is about gathering and using all the evidence we can get hold of. The problem is that much of the evidence around us is unreliable and irrelevant so we should not use it.

This means we should pay more attention to evidence that is more trustworthy and relevant and less attention to – or even ignore – evidence that is less trustworthy and relevant.

There are many simple ways of identifying the better-quality evidence. One is to ask questions such as: Do you personally trust or believe it or not – and why? What do your colleagues think? Are there reasons to think the data may be biased or have important omissions? Are you clear about how the evidence has been collected and is being presented?

Committing and sticking to EBHR resolutions

As said at the start, you’d be hard-pushed to find a single HR professional who thought HR’s use of data and evidence was perfect and simply could not be improved in any way. Almost all of us feel we can and should do better. But how?

One way of doing this is to commit to at least trying to do more EBHR in 2024 through making and sticking to the three EBHR New Year Resolutions. At the same time, it’s essential to remember that EBHR is not about making perfect decisions but better-informed decisions. And that’s a goal that’s desirable and achievable for us all.

Find out more about CRF’s research Evidence-Based HR: A New Paradigm, including how to sign up to our events on 25 January and 7 February, here.

Doing EBHR

Evidence-Based HR (EBHR) supports HR practitioners to make better-informed decisions about the precise nature of the issues they face and how they can best be dealt with. It therefore plays a critical role in enhancing the HR function and helping it make a stronger contribution to the business.

Building on CRF’s May 2023 research Strong Foundations: Evidence-Based HR, CRF has surveyed over 200 HR practitioners and interviewed over 20 to create a more detailed overview of what EBHR means in practice. As part of this, we have created a range of practical tools that practitioners can use to get started and maintain progress with EBHR. 

Read on for a preview of two frameworks that will be part of the full range of research-based and tested resources that we will be sharing at CRF’s event, Evidence-Based HR: a New Paradigm on 25th January 2024.

Figurines standing on top of each other in rows to create a grill

Bias Checker

We all have biases that can strongly shape the way we see things. Although it’s very difficult to remove bias completely it is possible to reflect on whether we are likely to be biased and to take steps, such as asking other people or looking for more evidence, to help reduce the impact of biases.

Thinking about how you went about the EBHR process...
answer and keep a track of your score

It is worth reflecting both individually and as a team how you scored on this Bias Checker and why. It may also be useful to ask members of the team to rate each other on these questions as well as self-rate.

Sources of Evidence Framework

Evidence-Based HR is about making better-informed decisions both about the nature of the business issues HR needs to deal with and the most likely solutions.

One of the key principles of Evidence-Based HR is to incorporate multiple sources and types of information and evidence into our decision-making.  By doing so, we can build a richer and more complete picture of the evidence.

EBHR draws on four main sources of evidence. Examples of the types of evidence and information found in each source are provided in the below Framework.

STAKEHOLDER VIEWS AND PERSPECTIVES

  • Executive committee 
    (bear in mind that strategy and objectives may not necessarily be that clear even to senior leaders)
  • Senior managers
  • Line managers
  • Employee groups and representatives
  • Key employees
  • Customers and clients

PROFESSIONAL EXPERTISE

  • HR professionals
  • Key professionals from other functions within the organisation
  • External professional expertise (e.g. HR professionals in other organisations, consultants, professional bodies)

EVIDENCE FROM INSIDE THE ORGANISATION

  • HR metrics and KPIs (e.g. absence, costs, training, performance)
  • Surveys and employee perceptions
  • Customer and client satisfaction linked to employees/teams
  • Structures and processes
  • Results of experiments and evaluations of HR initiatives

SCIENTIFIC AND OTHER EXTERNAL EVIDENCE

  • Peer-reviewed scientific publications (e.g. meta-analyses)
  • Scientific evidence collated by professional bodies and grey literature
  • Benchmarking data from external research companies (e.g. salaries, practices)
  • Case studies

Evidence-Based HR

Post Meeting Notes

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Strong Foundations: Evidence-Based HR

Evidence-based HR (EBHR) is a process which delivers better informed and hence more accurate answers to two fundamental questions. First, which are the most important problems (or opportunities) facing the organisation which are relevant to HR? Second, which solutions (or interventions) are most likely to help?

The fundamental idea underpinning EBHR is that we are more likely to identify important problems or opportunities for improvement, or to develop effective solutions, if we follow the principles of evidence and incorporate critical thinking in our decision-making. The discipline of EBHR can help HR avoid fads and fashions and most importantly help focus on supporting the organisation to deliver its objectives. EBHR can help HR shift from justifying its existence to using evidence to identify appropriate courses of action in response to business needs. It provides strong foundations upon which HR can build its business impact and effectiveness.

Being evidence-driven means adopting three principles: incorporating multiple sources and types of evidence and information into decision-making, adopting a structured and explicit process to gather data and use evidence, and focusing on the most trustworthy and relevant evidence.

The EBHR process involves six steps:
1. Designing and asking answerable questions to help identify the problem/opportunity or solution/intervention
2. Collecting evidence of different types from multiple sources which will help answer the question
3. Rating the trustworthiness and relevance of the evidence
4. Aggregating the most trustworthy and relevant evidence
5. Applying this evidence to answer the questions which help identify the problem/opportunity or solution/intervention
6. Assessing the process and outcome.

A common misunderstanding of EBHR is that it is just about using scientific data. Evidence-based practice is actually about using multiple sources of evidence. We identify four sources of evidence that are particularly relevant to HR: stakeholders’ views and perspectives; the professional expertise of practitioners; evidence from inside the organisation; and scientific evidence.

One of the biggest developments in HR over the last decade has been the rise of HR analytics. Technology, analytical methods, awareness of privacy and ethical issues and the availability of data are progressing rapidly. Analytics can be a useful source of evidence and there is significant potential in using analytics to improve HR decision-making. However, analytics is not contributing to EBHR as much as we might expect. To address this challenge, it’s important to start in the right place: focus on the business strategy to identify where analytics is likely to add value to the most important business outcomes.

EBHR needs to take account of the politics and power dynamics of organisations and the influence of key stakeholders. Getting early input from senior management and internal customers is fundamental. Their continuing involvement in developing solutions makes it much more likely that senior managers are bought in to the proposed solutions, and also that they have real desire to make change happen and are committed to taking the necessary steps.

We consider how far EBHR has come since CRF’s last research in 2011. We found that HR professionals have become more aware of the concept of EBHR and aspire to be more evidence-based. The expectations of HR’s stakeholders have evolved and enablers such as technology and data have progressed. We conclude there is still some way to go for HR to achieve the potential benefits of EBHR in terms of impact on business outcomes.

From our research we identify nine key themes that summarise what we see as the current state of play:
1. HR now has access to more data than ever and is using it more, but this is not necessarily leading to greater insight and better-informed decisions. Often, other functions are some way ahead of HR in their use of data and analytics.
2. Multiple sources of evidence are used to some extent, but not as much as they could be.
3. Understanding and application of EBHR as a defined process and approach is limited. HR practitioners often lack confidence in applying EBHR principles.
4. Some organisations are doing something very close to EBHR.
5. Evidence and data should be used to help HR support the business in achieving its goals, not to justify HR’s existence. The key is to evaluate how HR initiatives impact business outcomes in a meaningful way.
6. EBHR is not complicated but it is difficult. There are many barriers such as the commercial and analytical capacity of HR professionals and availability of data. The capability of HR – both competence and confidence – needs to be developed.
7. The quality of data and evidence could be better. We need to focus on using the best available data to avoid the ‘garbage-in, garbage-out’ problem.
8. Evidence from external benchmarking or what others do needs to be treated with caution. Just because something works elsewhere doesn’t mean it will work in your organisation and popular activities may simply be fads.
9. EBHR is political and stakeholders need to be included in the dialogue about evidence.

We set out the principal barriers to EBHR. These include the difficulty of quantifying business benefits and establishing links between cause and effect of HR actions, access to relevant and robust evidence, navigating the power dynamics of organisations, and the skills of the HR profession.

We identify some quick wins that HR could easily adopt to become more evidence-based in our work. These include better sense-checking of our arguments and evidence, using existing data better and more often, benchmarking judiciously and with caution, focusing on implementation not just design, and evaluating to improve practice. We provide some practical checklists to assist professionals in these areas.

Is EBHR worth it? It’s important to remember that EBHR is about making better-informed, not perfect, decisions. By following the EBHR process, we will be better positioned to identify the most relevant business issues, to develop more effective solutions and make a difference to business outcomes. In the next stage of our research, to be published in 2024, we will develop a range of practical resources and detailed guidance that HR professionals can use to deepen their practice of EBHR.

A TIMELINE OF EVIDENCE-BASED HR

FEB. 2007

Is HRM Evidence-based and Does It Matter?
Institute for Employment Studies Opinion Paper
Rob Briner

OCT. 2007

Why HR Practices are Not Evidence-based
Article in Academy of Management Journal
Edward E Lawler III

NOV. 2007

Tried and Attested
Article in CIPD’s People Management
Jane Pickard

2011

Becoming an Evidence-based HR Practitioner
Article in Human Resource Management Journal 
Denise Rousseau & Eric Barends

AUG. 2011

Evidence-based HR: From Fads to Facts?
CRF Report
Wendy Hirsh & Rob Briner

JAN. 2015

Evidence-based HR: Under the Microscope
Article in UK HR Magazine
Katie Jacobs

SPRING. 2016

The Role of Scientific Findings in Evidence-Based HR
Article in SHRM’s People + Strategy
Rob Briner & Eric Barends

DEC. 2016

In Search of the Best Available Evidence
CIPD Positioning Paper
CIPD

NOV. 2017

Make Better Decisions with Evidence-Based HR
Short article in SHRM’s HR Magazine
Shonna Walters

WINTER. 2019

Embracing Evidence-Based Management – The Basics of Evidence-Based Practice 
Article in Special Issue of SHRM’s People + Strategy
Rob Briner

JAN. 2022

Evidence-Based HRM at Birkbeck
Launch of first ever Professional Doctorate
Birkbeck

APR. 2023

Building an Evidence-based People Profession
CIPD relaunches and extends its online EBHR resources
CIPD

Event Video