Does HR differ in theory and in practice?

Sometimes academic teachings don’t match real world realities

Brian Kreissl

By Brian Kreissl

From an academic perspective, all professions have theoretical underpinnings. Accompanying that is usually some recognized body of knowledge possessed by practitioners — but that's often fairly theoretical too.

In HR, we also have a set of best practices that are somewhat less theoretical. However, because of this, the flip side is many of those HR best practices aren’t universally recognized.

HR best practices vary widely by industry sector, organizational size and even among individual companies. What's considered a best practice in one organization won't necessarily work elsewhere.

Book smarts versus street smarts

Where does that leave us in terms of obtaining guidance on how to manage HR programs, projects and tasks?

The answer is a combination of theory and practice is often required. In HR, a balance of “book smarts” and “street smarts” is probably most effective.

Having just the theory only provides part of the picture. We've all seen keen new graduates fresh out of university with the idea they know it all and are ready to take on the world.

Such people usually need to have their expectations managed and be given a healthy dose of reality. The problem with new graduates is they’re often lacking in practical, real world experience.

However, I've also met quite a few people who were the opposite — all practice and no theory. Because of that, their knowledge often seemed lacking too.

While it's great to have a lot of experience, some theoretical knowledge is necessary — especially in a profession like human resources. It's important to have the context as to why things are done a certain way.

While doing a lot of reading can make up, to a certain extent, for a lack of academic background, some HR professionals who haven’t formally studied HR either seem too transactional or a little too reliant on buzzwords. Either that’s the case, or they’re senior level people parachuted in from some other function like finance or marketing.

While it’s great to have line management experience and knowledge of other business disciplines, to be a truly effective HR leader, at least some theoretical understanding of the profession is also required.               

So, a balance of theory and practice is probably best. But sometimes the real world is a bit different from what they teach in HR courses. I’ve included a few examples below.

Base pay versus incentive pay

While the main focus of compensation courses seems to be base pay, in the compensation-related roles I had — at least in the financial services industry — I found we spent far more time on and had much larger budgets for incentive pay than we did for base pay reviews.

Surprisingly, when I learned about compensation, I don’t remember covering much on incentive pay calculations, formulaic versus discretionary incentive plans, incentive pay pools, the link between pay and performance or the concept of pay-at-risk.

While I realize there are differences across industry sectors, and base pay is typically a much larger component of the compensation mix, a little more academic focus on incentive pay and bonuses might have been more helpful to me.

Behavioural interview overkill

When I first took a course in behavioural interviewing, we were taught to develop two or three behavioural interview questions per desired competency. But when I tried to do that in the real world, it completely turned candidates off.

Behavioural questions are tough on candidates and interviewers. It’s often really hard to come up with specific, real life examples on the spot which demonstrate certain behaviours.

Job candidates shouldn’t feel like they’re being “grilled” by homicide detectives. And it’s also important to realize not all types of information are best obtained through behavioural interview questions.

Organizational change and communications

While it’s important to keep employees impacted by organizational change in the loop, it isn’t always possible. Sometimes, the specifics of organizational change aren’t known in advance, or concerns about insider trading mean information can’t be communicated right away.

And, while it’s important to realize organizational change often takes up to five years to complete, most companies don’t have the luxury of such timelines. Shareholders want results now and therefore finance will typically be focused on results in the current accounting period.

There are many other examples of this type of thing. I’d be interested in hearing examples from readers of how HR theory might not exactly match current HR practices.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at [email protected]. For more information, visit This blog post was prepared with the input of Yaseen Hemeda.

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