Doing some light reading?

What to look for — and avoid — in HR books
By Ray Brillinger
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/12/2002

Today’s HR practitioner is blessed with information in journals, on the Internet, from HR professional organizations and in books. Each resource offers unique advantages and features, but books hold a special place for many.

Nothing else offers the same opportunity for in-depth treatment of a subject, breadth of scope and continuity of the material, not to mention, the portability and ease of reference. Also, the sense of knowledge and investment — both the author’s investment of research, skill and effort to write the book, and the reader’s investment of time and money to buy it — is priceless.

In reviewing books for

Canadian HR Reporter

since 1993, I’ve seen the best and worst of titles coming off the press. Fortunately, many of the books give the reader something to think about and real assistance in tackling HR, organizational and business situations.

However, since the runaway success of the landmark

In Search of Excellence

, in the early 1980s, both writers and publishers alike have recognized the business of business books could be a highly profitable one. Consequently, there are more books to choose from now, unfortunately a number of them lack substance and seem to be thrown together in a hurry by people inspired by self-promotion rather than originality.

So, how is it possible to weed out these books that may be a waste of time to read? Here are some thoughts based on my experience sorting through and reading hundreds of titles over the past few years.

Everyone is different

We need to start by recognizing that every reader is different. One person’s “great read” is another person’s bore. Sam may appreciate a serious, well-researched book with models, case studies and analysis, while Mary is looking for pragmatic, easy-to-access checklists and “how-to” advice. On the other hand, Terry likes a narrative storyline with twists and turns, lessons learned and sport analogies.

What’s an HR book, anyway?

It isn’t easy to categorize what the human resources practitioner needs to read. The terrain includes specific information such as reference guides on employment standards or human rights law; technical manuals on pension plan design, health and safety procedures or HR management system selection; functional overviews of recruitment, compensation or training practices; and strategic books on HR’s role, impact, measurement and leadership.

Browse through the business books in a bookstore, publisher’s catalogue or Web site. While many titles fall clearly into the human resources management category, there’s often an overlap with books aimed at general management readers as well.

Books are not always for reading

I often hear the same question when getting feedback on the books column: “How do you find time to read all those books?” In reality, it does take a lot of time. That’s why I make sure to ask myself the following questions.

•Which books does one really “read” cover to cover? After all, HR and business books are not novels. Depending on our specific interest and challenges at the moment, and the relevance of a book’s focus, we pick and choose which ones merit full reading or selective hunting and scanning.

•How can the reader best hone in on selective parts? Reviewing the preface, table of contents, index and an initial perusal of the book for style and approach is probably what most people do. This helps the reader decide which chapters hold most promise, whether to read the book sequentially, or whether to go through the introductory part and then to the chapters addressing one’s specific needs.

•When is a book not for reading, but for reference on an as-required basis? Many titles offer a treasure trove of facts, legal or practical advice, examples, guidance and discussions on topics encountered in day-to-day work. Usually, these books are not designed for reading, but rather for consultation in certain sections or topics on an as-needed basis.

Bookstore or online shopping

The above assessments are easier to make during a visit to the bookstore than shopping on the Web or ordering a book from a catalogue. It’s helpful to leaf through the book, check out the highlights on the cover jacket and scan the content to take stock of the quality of the writing. But many titles are frequently unavailable in the typical bookstore.

That’s where book reviews come in. We hope that


’s continuing coverage of the latest books assist readers in identifying those worth checking out.

Criteria for book selection

My own criteria for deciding to read and review a book are geared to the fundamentals: Is it comprehensive? Is it original, with value beyond what’s been said before? Is it substantive and engaging? And the most basic question: Is the book well written and clearly organized for easy reading and reference? These are questions any HR professional should consider before investing their time and money, so that every book chosen is well worth the read.

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