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Bad advice, good advice, and the best advice ever


A recent HR publication suggested that a good interview question was “What song best describes your work ethic?” That’s bad advice. Enough research has been done on interviewing that we know that type of question is a waste of time. It’s sad to see this sort of thing, but it’s quite common. The standard of evidence demanded by the HR profession is still low. However, that’s changing and I think we’re approaching a world where the standard of evidence required in HR will be far higher.

The rise of good advice

Another recent HR article focused on enhancing motivation in the workplace with casual games. It reported on a study with a reasonable sample size that used a control group. That’s pretty solid evidence and hence we can have some confidence that the suggestion to use casual games is good advice.

Unlike this study on casual games, most of the studies we read about in HR are poorly designed, but I choose to take a ‘glass half-full’ perspective. HR is beginning to ask for evidence before accepting advice. As time goes by HR will get better at distinguishing the good from the bad. In particular, this process has been accelerated by the number of people in HR who have advanced degrees. Not everyone in HR needs an advanced degree, but the fact that the profession now has many such people benefits everyone. Anyone coming out of university where they studied evidence-based management will help power the rise of good decisions.

The best advice ever

The really exciting thing that is happening is that even as we are still mired in a world of bad advice, we are rapidly moving to a world of the best advice ever. Do you want advice on writing a job advertisement? You can easily find poor articles; you can work a bit harder to find good articles; but why not find the best advice ever? Given that “all the articles in the world” are on the internet, why not just read the best one?

We know why we don’t just read the one very best article—it’s hard to find. In fact, an article worthy of the title “best advice ever” may not even exist. The good news, or perhaps scary news, is that is gradually changing. I see this in my own work. I could do an article on job advertisements, but these days I have to ask myself if my article would add any value to the hundreds of other a quick Google search would pull up. Content creators are slowly moving towards a world where there is no point writing something unless it in some way approximates the best advice ever—in other words, it adds something new and substantial that people won’t get from Googling the existing content.

However, it’s not really going to be the content users or the content creators who drive the change. It’s going to be the content curators who make it easy to tell the very best articles from all the other ones. Those curators will be organizations like the Centre for Evidence-based Management ( whose mission is to raise the standard of decision making in organizations. We may not be far from the day when artificial intelligence engines like Watson simply find the ‘best ever advice’ for us with the push of a button. As these curators get established we’ll hit a point where no one will read poor quality articles and hence no one will bother to write them. It will be a revolution.

What should you do?

If you are an HR leader, you should make sure your HR team has a reasonable mix of people with postgraduate degrees in a scientific subject. In particular, you should have some people trained in Industrial-Organizational psychology. I would explicitly give those people the mission of gradually raising the bar in the department so that good advice could be distinguished from bad advice. On important projects I’d give them sufficient time to do the research to find the “best advice ever.”

If you are an HR professional who wants to get better at distinguishing good advice from bad, and don’t have time to get a PhD, what can you do? Well, it’s surprisingly easy. You don’t need to learn statistics or become an expert in experimental design. Just start by being skeptical of what you read or what consultants tell you. Seek out articles with titles like “critiques of engagement”. Seek out articles that have references to peer reviewed papers. Best of all is to have conversations with people who do have advanced degrees in scientific disciplines and discuss the quality of evidence supporting HR’s decisions.


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