Statistics for Business and Economics 11.58 - PDF

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                                        Thomas A. Timmerman
                                 Tennessee Technological University


This study explores possible origins of misconceptions about human resource management.
Rynes, Colbert, and Brown (2002b) found that human resource professionals hold many beliefs
that are contrary to well-established human resource research findings. The present study found
that undergraduates and MBA students hold many of the same misconceptions. This finding
suggests that some false beliefs held by human resource professionals are formed long before
they enter the profession. Implications for human resources education are discussed.


       The evidence-based management (EBM) movement is gaining momentum (Pfeffer &
Sutton, 2006), but it faces many of the same challenges faced by the evidence-based medicine
movement (Rousseau & McCarthy, 2007). The two biggest challenges appear to be 1)
disseminating evidence-based principles to practitioners and 2) convincing practitioners that
evidence-based principles are more likely to add long-term value than principles that are not
evidence-based. Advocates of EBM have argued that practicing managers need more information
about evidence-based principles and about the cognitive limitations that put individual
perception at a disadvantage (Fisher, 2008).

       If more information is the key, then it should be relatively easy to provide educational
and training opportunities that convince practitioners to use EBM. If, on the other hand,
evidence-based principles contradict deeply held beliefs, then simply providing more
information may be insufficient (Highhouse, 2008). From Rynes et al. (2002b), we know some
of the misconceptions that human resource professionals possess, however, we do not know
whether people enter the HR profession with these misconceptions or whether they learn them on
the job. Answering these questions may help guide efforts to correct false beliefs. Thus the
purpose of the current study is to determine whether business students share the same
misconceptions as human resource professionals.


        Rynes et al. (2002b) found a startling disconnect between research findings of academic
researchers and knowledge of human resource professionals. Rynes et al. sent a true/false quiz to
5,000 human resource professionals. The quiz was constructed to represent important and well-
established findings in the academic literature. The survey was sent only to professionals with
high-level titles such as Human Resources Manager, Human Resources Director, or Vice
President of Human Resources. Rynes et al. received 959 responses, a 19.2% response rate, and

Journal of Human Resources Education             31                    Volume 4, No. 1, Winter 2010 
the average "grade" on the quiz was 57% correct. Given the true/false nature of the quiz, this
grade is only slightly better than would be achieved by guessing randomly.

        Rynes et al. (2002b) found that some research findings were well-known among human
resource professionals. Ninety-six percent, for example, knew that leadership training could be
effective (i.e., the "leaders are born" maxim is false). Ninety-four percent knew that managers do
not typically give employees lower performance ratings than they deserve. Given the high level
of correct responses, we might interpret this to mean that there are some research findings that
human resource professionals know.

        Other research findings were known by approximately half of the respondents. Forty-nine
percent, for example, knew that job advertisements produce higher turnover rates than employee
referrals. Given the true/false nature of the quiz, items in this range might indicate areas where
human resource professionals, as a group, do not have deeply ingrained beliefs about a topic or
have not learned any principle in particular. When there is no widely held preconception, it
should be relatively easy to teach a principle.

         Of greater interest are the items that human resource professionals, as a group, answered
incorrectly. These items seem to indicate that human resource professionals know something, but
it is the opposite of what academic research has revealed. A great deal of research, for example,
shows that intelligence is a better predictor of job performance than is conscientiousness
(Schmidt & Hunter, 1998), yet, only 18% of the respondents knew this and only 10% said they
were unsure. So 72% of the sample was incorrectly confident that conscientiousness is a better
predictor than intelligence. Teaching a principle when the opposite has been learned and is
believed will be more difficult than teaching a principle when nothing is known or believed
about the topic.

        The holding of false beliefs is not unique to human resource professionals. Mandell,
Claypool, and Kay (2005) found that 69% of the nurses in their sample believed that their
workloads increased during a full moon. Likewise, Vance (1995) found that 73% of mental
health and health care workers believed in full moon effects. Among college students, only 24%
believed and among adults employed in non-healthcare fields the rate of belief was 45%. These
beliefs persist despite repeated findings that the moon has no predictable effect on any aspect of
human behavior (Rotton & Kelly, 1985). This gap between health professionals and everyone
else could exist because people with such beliefs self-select themselves into such occupations. A
more likely explanation is that these false beliefs are taught by more-experienced employees and
cemented by selective perception and confirmation bias (Lilienfeld & Arkowitz, 2009).

       The “full moon” example is an important illustration of how experience within a field
might actually lead to greater misconceptions about that field. The same may be true of human
resource professionals. If people outside the field of human resources demonstrate no particular
knowledge of these principles, then it seems more likely that strongly held beliefs are being
formed after entry into the profession. If that is true, educational efforts before entry may help
inoculate (Pfau, 1996) them and protect them from learning incorrect principles.
       It is also possible, however, that people outside the field of human resources hold the
same beliefs as human resource professionals. If that is true, certain principles (right or wrong)

Journal of Human Resources Education           32                       Volume 4, No. 1, Winter 2010 
might permeate the culture and be carried into the profession. Rynes, Brown, and Colbert
(2002a), for example, suggest that intelligence tests are viewed negatively by human resource
professionals because of the negative stereotypes associated with intelligence (Hofstadter, 1963).
Under this scenario, correcting misconceptions may be very difficult.

                                    PURPOSE OF THE STUDY

         The present study was conducted to determine if undergraduate students without any
human resources education and MBA students hold the same misconceptions as human resource
professionals. If students respond randomly across all of the items, the beliefs exhibited in Rynes
et al.'s (2002b) sample are more likely to have occurred after entering the workforce. On the
other hand, if students display the same misconceptions, it is more likely that HR misconceptions
are the result of culturally embedded factors.


         The quiz used by Rynes et al. (2002b) was administered and completed by 250
undergraduate students (36% female) and 225 MBA students (34% female) at a mid-sized
university in the southeastern United States over the course of seven semesters. The
undergraduate students were enrolled in an introductory Human Resource Management course
and the MBA students in an Organizational Behavior course. All students completed the quiz at
the beginning of the semester before they were exposed to any course content. The
undergraduate students represented 17 different majors with General Management (37.8%),
Nutrition (11.6%), Human Resource Management (10.8%), Management Information Systems
(7.6%), and Independent Studies (7.6%) being the most prevalent. These students were all
juniors or seniors who had completed a General Management prerequisite course. The graduate
students were all first-semester MBA students who had completed either an undergraduate major
in a business field or a set of prerequisites consisting of management, finance, marketing,
statistics, business law, economics, and accounting. Within the MBA program, 57% of the
students were full-time students and entering students had an average of 20 months of full-time
work experience. Their average age was 25.


       The average score for undergraduate students was 58.1% correct. The MBA students
scored slightly, but significantly, higher at 62.2% (t(473) = 5.292, p < .001). The distribution of
each group is shown in Figure 1 and shows a similar pattern as that in Rynes et al (2002). Table
1 shows the item level statistics for each group and compares them to the findings of Rynes et al.

Journal of Human Resources Education            33                       Volume 4, No. 1, Winter 2010 
Figure 1. Distribution of Correct Responses by Group


        Table 1 (below) shows the percentage of correct responses and rank within each response
group. The table represents data from 250 undergraduate students, 225 MBA students, and 959
HR professionals that comprised the Rynes study. Data are sorted by the item difficulty level for
undergraduate students. The seven most commonly missed items among the undergraduates were
also the seven most commonly missed items among the MBA students and six of the most
commonly missed items among the human resource professionals. The Spearman rank order
correlation reveals that the MBA and undergraduate students’ items show a very similar order (r
= .90, p < .001). The rank order correlation between the human resource professionals’ items and
the MBA students’ items was also high (r = .72, p < .001) as was the correlation between the
professionals’ and the undergraduate students’ items (r = .64, p < .001).

Journal of Human Resources Education           34                      Volume 4, No. 1, Winter 2010 
Table 1. Percentage of Correct Responses (Rank within Group)
                                                                Undergraduate             MBA              Rynes
                                                                 % Correct              % Correct         % Correct
    Question Topic                                                 (Rank)                (Rank)            (Rank)
    Errors in performance appraisal                                 6% (1)*             12% (1)*           25% (4)
    Validity of integrity tests                                    17% (2)*              36% (7)           32% (6)
    Four dimensions of personality                                 18% (3)*             27% (5)*           49% (11)
    Participation in decision making                               24% (4)*              16% (2)           18% (2)
    Conscientiousness vs. Intelligence                             26% (5)*              22% (3)           18% (2)
    Screening for values                                           28% (6)*             24% (4)*           16% (1)
    Importance of pay                                               30% (7)             28% (6)*           35% (7)
    Talking salary during performance appraisal                    32% (8)*             42% (9)*           51% (14)
    Transfer of training                                           33% (9)*             60% (12)           60% (20)
    Validity of interviews                                         37% (10)*            37% (8)*           70% (26)
    Variable pay systems                                           42% (11)*            58% (11)*          35% (7)
    Effective leaders                                              49% (12)*            78% (26)           82% (29)
    Intelligence is a disadvantage                                 49% (12)*            47% (10)           42% (9)
    Dissatisfaction with pay changes                               51% (14)*            73% (19)           72% (27)
    Training for simple skills                                     53% (15)             62% (13)           59% (18)
    Adverse impact of integrity tests                              54% (16)*            75% (23)*          31% (5)
    Differences among personality inventories                      55% (17)*            67% (16)*          42% (9)
    Specific goals                                                 58% (18)*            69% (17)*          82% (29)
    Validity of drug testing                                       60% (19)             65% (15)*          57% (17)
    Turnover and recruiting sources                                60% (19)*            63% (14)*          49% (11)
    Problems with merit pay                                        62% (21)             78% (26)*          66% (24)
    Strictness errors in performance appraisal                     67% (22)*            74% (20)*          94% (33)
    Poor performers more realistic                                 67% (23)*            74% (20)*          88% (31)
    New company survival                                           76% (24)*            76% (25)*          59% (18)
    Turnover and profit                                            77% (25)*            80% (29)*          62% (21)
    Profitable downsizing                                          82% (26)*            72% (18)*          54% (15)
    Most people over-evaluate                                      82% (27)*            83% (30)*          54% (15)
    Older adults learn more                                        85% (28)*            76% (24)*          68% (25)
    Organization-based pay                                         85% (29)*            74% (20)*          62% (21)
    Lecture-based training                                         86% (30)*            89% (33)*          96% (34)
    Leadership training                                            88% (31)*            98% (35)           96% (34)
    Functional diversity in teams                                  91% (32)             96% (34)*          88% (31)
    Change management                                              92% (33)*            78% (26)*          50% (13)
    Preference for individual pay                                  93% (34)*            85% (31)           81% (28)
     Vision statements                                              94% (35)*            86% (32)*         62% (21)
    * Percentage correct is significantly different from that of the Rynes et al. sample (p < .05).

Journal of Human Resources Education                          35                            Volume 4, No. 1, Winter 2010 
        These results suggest that the misconceptions of human resource professionals might be
widely shared well before they enter the profession. An alternative explanation, however, is that
people with these misconceptions might self-select into particular college majors and the human
resources profession. This possibility was tested by comparing the responses of undergraduate
students from a variety of different majors. Table 2 shows the percent correct on the seven most
common misconceptions for five different majors. It also shows the average number of correct
answers on these seven items as well as the complete quiz. Although the sample sizes are small
and there is some variation, Chi-square analyses and ANOVAs revealed no significant
differences between majors. Thus, in this limited analysis, there is no evidence that the
misconceptions of human resource professionals are unique to people who pursue this career.

Table 2. Percent Correct Among Most Common Misconceptions by Undergraduate Major
                                                             HR    Acct.   Engr.     MIS       Nutrition
Item                                                        n=27   n=12    n=10      n=19       n=29
Most errors in performance appraisals can be
eliminated by providing training that describes the
kinds of errors managers tend to make and                   11%    17%      0%        0%          3%
suggesting ways to avoid them.

Although there are "integrity tests" that try to predict
whether someone will steal, be absent, or otherwise
take advantage of an employer, they don't work well         7%     25%     10%        5%          14%
in practice because so many people lie on them.

Although people use many different terms to describe
personalities, there are really only four basic
dimensions of personality, as captured by the Myers-        26%    0%      40%        16%         28%
Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).

On average, encouraging employees to participate in
decision making is more effective for improving
organizational performance than setting performance         19%    8%      40%        26%         17%

On average, conscientiousness is a better predictor of
job performance than is intelligence.                       7%     33%     50%        42%         14%

Companies that screen job applicants for values have
higher performance than those that screen for               30%    25%     30%        32%         21%

Surveys that directly ask employees how important
pay is to them are likely to overestimate pay's true        33%    8%      40%        26%         52%
importance in actual decisions.

Average Number of Items Correct Among 7 Most
                                                            1.33   1.17    2.10       1.47        1.48
Commonly Missed
Average Number of Items Correct Among All Items             20.8   19.5    21.1       20.2        20.6

Journal of Human Resources Education                       36               Volume 4, No. 1, Winter 2010 
        The results of this study show remarkable consistency between the misconceptions of
human resource professionals, a group of naïve undergraduates, and a group of MBA students.
Unlike the full moon myth that apparently develops with exposure to the field, at least six
misconceptions about human resource management are present among students with little or no
exposure to the occupational culture surrounding human resources. This consistency suggests
that these misconceptions are deeply ingrained within our beliefs and culture and may be very
resistant to change.
        Several of the most common misconceptions deal with staffing. Highhouse (2008)
recently proposed that misconceptions about staffing do not merely represent deficiencies in
knowledge. Instead, they are grounded in beliefs about the ability to predict human behavior and
our overconfidence in our intuition. Terpstra (1996) and van der Zee, Bakker, & Bakker (2002),
for example, found that HR professionals place more trust in unstructured interviews than in
structured interviews. Lievens, Highhouse, and De Corte (2005), found that interviewers gave
more weight to intelligence than extraversion when intelligence had been assessed during an
interview and extraversion had been measured with a paper and pencil test. When extraversion
was measured through an interview, however, it received more weight than a paper and pencil
intelligence test.
        In response to Highhouse (2008), several authors posed explanations for this “stubborn”
reliance on intuition. Phillips and Gully (2008), for example, explained that positive staffing
outcomes reinforce self-serving attributions. Negative outcomes, on the other hand, are explained
away through external attributions (e.g., “I didn’t see that side of him during the interview”).
Colarelli and Thompson (2008) proposed that humans have evolved a self-serving preference for
face-to-face evaluation that overrides mechanistic approaches to help an organization succeed. In
other words, from an evolutionary perspective, interviewers would rather use face-to-face
techniques to decide who they like than paper-and-pencil tests to decide who will provide the
most value to an organization.
        Given the possibility that misconceptions about staffing might be rooted in our genetic
makeup and perpetuated by attribution biases, it is likely that these beliefs will be highly resistant
to change. Human resources educators, therefore, must do more than provide information about
evidence-based principles. We must also persuade students that EBM is more likely to provide
long-term value than decisions based on intuition or principles gleaned from introspection or
selective perception. This emphasis on persuasion has been neglected in much of the discussion
on the research-practice gap (Rynes, in press), but we have a rich body of literature on
persuasion that may be useful (e.g., Cialdini, 2008).
         Persuasion researchers, for example, frequently compare the relative strength of
statistical, anecdotal, causal, or expert evidence (Hornikx, 2005). Similar research is needed to
determine what type of evidence is most persuasive to our students and practicing professionals.
If different people are persuaded through different means, then it may be worthwhile to develop
teaching resources that reflect all of these bases for persuasion. Whereas proponents of the
evidence-based management movement frequently provide statistical evidence supporting the
efficacy of EBM, we may need to develop better causal explanations and better stories that
illustrate the value of EBM. One good example of such a resource is Locke’s (2009) Handbook

Journal of Human Resources Education             37                        Volume 4, No. 1, Winter 2010 
of Principles of Organizational Behavior. Each chapter in this handbook is written by a leading
expert, provides statistical evidence of a principle, explains the mechanisms behind the principle,
and provides an example of the principle in a real organization. The book is targeted at MBA
students in Organizational Behavior courses, but it would be an outstanding model for a human
resource management text.
        Aside from the misconceptions, patterns in the additional items reveal more challenges
for human resources educators. On 17 of the 35 items, the undergraduate students scored
significantly higher than the professionals (see Table 1). MBA students were significantly more
accurate on 16 of the items. These results could suggest that students were simply demonstrating
knowledge of material that they had recently learned in General Management or other courses.
They may also suggest, however, that human resource professionals with more experience
realize the complexities of implementing human resource practices even if they are supported by
evidence (Dipboye, 2007). The sample used by Rynes et al. (2002b) had an average of 13.8
years of experience in human resources. Thus management educators must do a better job of
teaching the social and political factors that influence the adoption of evidence-based practices.
We must also do a better job of teaching future professionals how to identify, define, and
structure opportunities for creating, sharing, and using evidence-based knowledge (Jackson,
Chuang, Harden, & Jiang, 2006).
       Educators play a vital role in the evidence-based management movement (Rousseau &
McCarthy, 2007). Human resources educators, in particular, face the daunting challenge of
overcoming deeply held beliefs and human nature itself. Our current techniques and resources do
not seem to be adequate for the challenge. Perhaps our greatest hope is more evidence-based
Thomas Timmerman received a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior from the A. B. Freeman
School of Business at Tulane University. He is a professor of business management at Tennessee
Technological University where he teaches undergraduate and MBA courses in human resource
management and organizational behavior. Contact:


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Rynes, S. L., Colbert, A. E., & Brown, K. G. (2002b). HR professionals’ beliefs about effective
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