Evidence-based HR: How much progress have we really made?

What were you doing in 1999? Not yet born? Still at school? Worrying about the Y2K Bug? Planning your Millennium Eve party?

One thing I did that year was write a chapter on evidence-based HR (EBHR). Other chapters in the book discussed how the then relatively new technique of evidence-based practice was being used in different professions including nursing, public health and education.

I sometimes wonder if in fact my chapter was the first ever piece of writing on EBHR. Probably it was, but, thankfully, it was certainly not the last. Since then, as the timeline shows, we’ve seen many publications, including several in HR Magazine itself including, notably, this 2015 feature tracing the history of and prospects for EBHR.

Some years earlier, in 2011, the Corporate Research Forum (CRF) published Evidence-Based HR from Fads to Facts? which explored views about the meaning of EBHR is and its impact (then quite limited) on HR practice.

More on evidence based HR:

What's the evidence for... Evidence-based HR?

What's been happening to evidence-based practice?

Evidence-based HR ebook

So what’s been happening with EBHR since then? 

This is exactly one of the questions addressed by CRF’s new report Strong Foundations: Evidence-Based HR.

In it, we interviewed senior HR professionals asking for their views on how HR currently uses data and evidence, how it’s changed over the past decade, and what EBHR means to them.

All participants agreed on the vital importance of making the best possible use of data and evidence to make the HR function more effective. 

Others were also aware that, relative to other areas of the business such as operations or sales, HR’s use of data was sometimes perceived by senior management to be underdeveloped and making better use of evidence would thus help shift this view.

Many interviewees observed that even though we now have more access to data than at any other point in our history this was not necessarily leading to more or better insights or better-informed decisions. 

Some also suggested that our data should not be used to justify HR’s existence but, rather, to help HR help the business achieve its objectives.

Making better-informed decisions means focusing on the most reliable information. In order to do this, the reliability of evidence therefore needs to be explicitly assessed. 

Most of those we spoke to admitted this was something their functions did not do so much.

Participants also told us what they thought had changed in HR’s use of evidence. 

In addition to the greatly increased access to data and the wider use of people analytics a more profound shift is an almost universal acknowledgement that HR really does need do a much better job of collecting and using of data.


What about their understanding of EBHR? 

Its three principles are straightforward: 

  • Use multiple sources and types of evidence. 
  • Adopt an explicit and structured approach to gathering and using evidence. In particular starting always with a detailed diagnosis of the HR-relevant business issue or challenge. 
  • Focus on the most trustworthy or reliable evidence rather than all the evidence.

Most of our interviewees had heard of EBHR but very few could provide a definition of framework. 

One striking finding was that some HR functions are currently doing something similar to EBHR and following its principles to some extent without being explicitly aware of the meaning of EBHR.

It’s clear that some progress towards EBHR has been made but there is still a way to go.

For our next report early next year, CRF is digging deeper into the use of evidence in HR, developing a better understanding of barriers to its use, and developing tools and practical guidance to enable HR functions to continue making more informed decisions using EBHR.

By Rob Briner, professor of organisational psychology, School of Business and Management, Queen Mary University of London and associate director of research, Corporate Research Forum