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How a Workplace Behaves

Release Date: 
Jul 1 2007
From left: John Hazer, Crystal Harold, Leslie Ashburn-Nardo, dennis Devine, and Jane WilliamsFrom left: John Hazer, Crystal Harold, Leslie Ashburn-Nardo, dennis Devine, and Jane Williams Photo by Rocky Rothrock, Office of Visual Media, IUPUI
Published Spring 2007 in IU Research & Creative Activity. Written by Tracy James.

Is your workplace a little nutty? Do you work with a bunch of "chimps" or experience a level of dysfunction rivaling Dilbert cartoons?

If you think your colleagues would benefit from some therapy, don’t call the industrial/organizational (I/O) psychologists at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. But if you want to learn more about how to hire the best people for the job or how to deal with destructive influences at work, they’ve got what you need.

"When people hear industrial/organizational psychology, they often think we do counseling in the workplace," says Jane Williams, an associate professor in the IUPUI program whose research includes issues related to employee appraisals and performance management. "But we’re concerned with rational decision-making, and a lot of crazy stuff goes on in the workplace that doesn’t fit with that. That’s in part why industrial/organizational psychologists continue to have jobs."

In other words, one reason I/O experts keep busy is because rational data-driven decision-making is the exact opposite of a highly popular form of workplace decision-making--going with the gut.

No Guts

The I/O psychology program, housed in IUPUI’s School of Science, graduated its first master’s students in 1972, when it was one of fewer than 30 programs in the nation. The IUPUI program focuses mainly on personnel issues, with its five psychologists specializing in areas such as hiring practices, employee feedback and performance management, stereotyping, corporate image and recruiting, and teams, such as juries or groups at work.

The I/O field began in the early 1900s as part of a push to use psychology to improve the everyday lives of Americans. The field received substantial boosts during the two World Wars, when large-scale intelligence testing was developed and greater efforts were made to fit soldiers with appropriate posts. Today, as the American economy continues to move from the industrial to the information age, the I/O field is evolving with it. Computers and technology are changing how Americans work and the very appearance of the workplace, says John Hazer, a long-time professor in the IUPUI program and its coordinator since 1986. And as the shift to a technology-driven economy affects how employees are recruited, evaluated, and compensated, the need for solid research data from the I/O field may be greater than ever.

"There are so many instances from social psychology where our gut is wrong," says Hazer’s colleague, Leslie Ashburn-Nardo, a social psychologist and IUPUI assistant professor who studies prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination in the workplace, particularly biases held by African Americans. "We’re very clouded by self-interest. Without studying something in an objective and scientific way, it’s hard to make good decisions."

For example, Ashburn-Nardo studies the impact of the unexpressed, nonconscious biases many of us hold because of a lifetime of exposure to racial stereotypes. These biases, she says, can impede progress toward promotions or derail career decisions.

Biases held by whites have been well researched, says Ashburn-Nardo, which is why she studies biases among African Americans in the workplace. Contrary to what many would expect, she says that on implicit measures of racial bias, a "slight majority" of blacks favor whites. This bias can help explain decisions blacks and whites make concerning employee promotions or teammates for certain projects--for example, an African American may decide not to work with an African American colleague if the task favors skills stereotypically held by whites.

"It helps explain why some members of stereotyped groups do things that seem to be not in their self-interest," Ashburn-Nardo says. "In terms of the workplace, you can see that happening with not only African Americans but lots of groups, such as women. We do things that on the surface don’t make sense because they aren’t in the interest of our group."

Ashburn-Nardo also found a small but significant relationship between biases and psychological well-being. The more that blacks favored whites, the more likely they were to report lower self-esteem, less hope, and more depression.

Likewise, much of Hazer’s research involves making workplace decisions based on something more than intuition. When it comes to hiring, for instance, he advocates the use of structured interviews, which involve homework on the employer’s part to make sure interview questions and additional tests target the skills and qualities needed for the job. Research shows structured interviews to be more effective than unstructured interviews that rely on the interviewer’s instincts.

"The structured approach beats the heck out of people sitting down and shooting the breeze with a prospective employee and checking their gut to see if this person will work out," Hazer says.

Hazer’s research also can help employers determine how to compensate employees for "good citizenship" behavior. A manager’s gut might tell him or her that certain employees contribute to the well-being of the workplace in important ways, but such contributions are usually not reflected in standard reports or merit systems. Hazer’s research suugests ways employers can document and reward these contributions.

From Lab to Workplace

IUPUI’s I/O program accepts about 10 percent of the students who apply. About 90 percent of the students intern with a company between their first and second years of classes. Internships might involve developing training materials or an exit interview, for example, or helping craft a compensation system. During their second year, students continue hands-on projects and an optional practicum with a local organization.

Students working with individual businessses turn out to be a boon for Crystal Harold, an assistant professor in the program who looks at the job-hunting process from the hunter’s perspective. She has a rich pool of potential research subjects--soon-to-be college graduates or recent grads looking for jobs. Harold says she often will follow the students over a period of time to get their reactions to how potential employers are treating them and to other aspects of the job-hunting process.

One aspect of recruiting the best job candidates that companies overlook is the importance of having a corporate brand or image, Harold says.

"Many companies aren’t paying attention to their brand, but if you don’t become more savvy in your recruiting, start selling and marketing yourselves (as a company), you’re going to lose good people," Harold says. "If there is no image, why would someone choose a company over another that more clearly conveys what they stand for and what they can offer the applicant beyond traditional tangibles like pay and benefits? Many applicants are looking for organizations that offer those intangibles, such as a flexible work environment."

Some I/O research is conducted in the lab, allowing the researchers to manipulate variables and track responses to the changes. Information in an advertisement relating to corporate image could be altered, for instance, or responses on an interview transcript can be changed to study how the people reading the transcript respond. But Harold, Hazer, and their colleagues say their field experience gives theories an important reality check.

"It’s fun to see the theory coming to life in the workplace," says Jane Williams of her surveys involving feedback systems and performance issues. "When the employees talk about their experiences and perceptions and their responses map onto what the theory suggests, that’s really cool."

Many of us spend the bulk of our waking hours working or commuting to and from work. Work is a perennial topic for stand-up comics, sitcoms, government agencies, academic courses, and party chitchat. So when it comes to job security, the I/O psychology experts who study how we behave on the job have got it.

"People [always] complain about a boss or a colleague," Harold says. "Everyone has issues at work."