Welcome to Evidence-Based HR

You make hundreds of decisions every day. Some are simple — where should you go for lunch? Others are a tad more complex — should you buy the flat you viewed at the weekend? 

It’s not a big deal if you make a mistake on your midday sandwich (the hoisin duck is always bad news), but the wrong house choice could be disastrous — negative equity; rising damp; knot weed in the garden. It doesn’t bear thinking about…

To avoid these problems you don’t just turn to the available evidence, you also make a judgement on its quality and reliability. You’re right to be wary of your Estate Agent’s valuation because he wants his commission. You want more than Uncle Barry tapping on the wall and saying ‘yeah, it smells a bit weird, but everything seems OK’. And you’re not going to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds because you love the sofa in the Living Room. 

You want rigour, so you might research all the 2-bed flat sales in the area over the past year and map that against projected rises from an independent source. You might hire a Chartered Surveyor to objectively evaluate the quality of the build and feel reassured that her company is legally accountable for the assessment. You might invite a trusted family member to view the property with critical eyes — 'just don't be lured in by the couch, Mum, it's a beauty!'

Management and HR decisions are not that different. We’re often looking for the same endpoint – an improvement in sustainable performance, productivity or well-being, but we could reach that outcome in many ways. Even if we decide to invest in one area, like leadership development, there are plenty of options that follow. Emotional Intelligence? 360 Degree Feedback? Coaching? How are we supposed to know what’s going to offer the best return on our investment? How are we supposed to separate the Estate Agent's advice from the Chartered Surveyor's? 

We asked our friends at not-for-profit, Science For Work for an answer that would go beyond platitudes and dodgy data.

Editor, Pietro Marenco responds...

Pietro Marenco, Editor of Science For Work

Pietro Marenco, Editor of Science For Work

Pietro Marenco:

Thanks James. The answer is the practice of making managerial decisions through a combination of critical thinking and the use of the best available evidence. We call it 'Evidence-Based Management' and its origins are in the field of medicine. It's spread to other disciplines like education, nursing, criminology and public policy, and it's our mission to bring the approach to leadership and HR.

We're here because so many major organisational decisions are based on ‘Uncle Barry’s advice': a mix of biased personal opinions and experiences, ‘best practices’, and the advice of industry gurus. As our friends Eric Barends, Denise Rousseau and Rob Briner from the Center for Evidence-Based Management once wrote: 

“The bottom line of this process is often bad decisions, poor outcomes for the organisation, along with a limited understanding of why things went wrong. As a result, billions of dollars are spent on management practices that are proven to be ineffective or even harmful to organisations, their members and their clients”  

What does an evidence-based practitioner do differently? 

6 steps.png

An evidence-based practitioner knows how to find the ‘best available’ evidence and knows how to evaluate this information. Recently the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development published a positioning paper in collaboration with the Center for Evidence-Based Management, that describes the six steps that evidence-based practitioners follow. You can find a quick guide on the left. 


Many of us will follow these stages intuitively, but it’s the ‘systematic’ approach that we want to promote. Let’s look at just one element – the four sources of evidence that should be considered before a major management decision:

98af9bfa-19bf-4f88-9f44-952b57deb8fb (1).png

This is where we want to provide value to the HR and leadership community - we know that scientific literature is often the least accessible of the four; it's hard to find and hard to read. But if the best scientists in the world have studied the problem you're trying to solve, wouldn’t you like to know what they've discovered? Us too! 

  • So we identify and select the evidence we consider most relevant across a range of management disciplines. 
  • We critically evaluate its trustworthiness – to give you only the highest quality information.
  • We summarise the findings and implications for your practice in plain English. 

Becoming an evidence-based practitioner doesn’t happen overnight but we want to make it a little easier. We’re also fiercely independent, so you can be sure we’ve approached our summaries without commercial conflict. 

You can explore our work at Science For Work. It's open to all. 

Well, there you go. Pietro and the team at Science For Work provide this free resource on a volunteer basis because they’re passionate about the difference that behavioural science can bring to the workplace. It's a pleasure to have them feature in our first guest blog.

I’ll leave you with this thought on the popular topic of the 'future of work'... wherever we go - from robot leadership to virtual work-space — if we aren't able to distinguish good practice from bad, we’ll always be stuck in the past.