Is COVID-19 the End of Junk HR Technology?

These days, the thought of getting sick is front of mind for all of us. Imagine though that when the cough and fever arrive, we push away our thermometers and medicines.  “There’s no time for that,” we say. “I have to focus on getting healthy.”

We’d only do this if we don’t actually believe that our tools can help us when the chips are down. And in my conversations with HR leaders over the past few weeks, this is exactly what is happening with their “employee experience” tech. It is supposedly there to help strengthen cultures and support employees. Now seems like the hour for such HR tech to connect us, aid collaboration, gather critical information, and keep things humming for our organization, our employees, and our customers. But instead, we are turning away, claiming “now’s not the time” for another employee survey or round of reports.

And so our true beliefs about these solutions are unmasked: Most “employee experience” tech is a façade of care without underlying substance.

If we are honest with ourselves, we should not be that surprised. We’ve been spending billions every year on employee engagement measurement and “people first” initiatives, and then watching the needle stay basically the same. Most employees remain unengaged and unimpressed by shiny engagement metrics and programs that are designed for leadership, not employees. Even the HR folks I speak with who voice a vague satisfaction with their system’s ability to measure and track engagement levels demur when you ask the most important question: How effective is your tech with front-line managers and employees themselves? How helpful and appreciated do they find it? How effective is it in making positive things happen for…you know…the very people it is supposed to be helping?

We should have dealt with this problem sooner, but instead, we collectively shrugged. The economy was good, and there was plenty of toilet paper. Now the jig is up: There is an urgent need for real employee care and support based on proven psychological science. The mental health of your employees is in decline, which will be devastating to any business that does not act. Now is your time to clean house on HR Tech that is junk and replace it with an approach grounded in evidence and the proven psychological science underlying well-being, authentic engagement, and productive collaboration.

How to spot the junk

The sneaky bit of most junk HR tech is that it tries to sprinkle scientific psychology-speak into its pitch to convince you it is caring and effective. Here is a quick blurb I pulled from a promotional video from one of the leading employee experience players on the market. My bet is if you ask your vendor about the scientific evidence of their approach, you’ll hear something similar. Ready? Here we go…

“People science is the study of all aspects of the employee experience, the organizational context, the culture, the impact of leadership, and puts that all together in scientific ways that you can extract out of it what is most motivating to people.”

Got that? Of course you don’t. Because it has not said anything. It pours shiny buzz words (Employee Experience! Organizational context! Culture! Leadership!) into a cauldron and describes a comically vague magic trick of “putting it all together in scientific ways.” Scientific how? Like…with test tubes? This kind of bluster is an insulting (but apparently effective) attempt to mesmerize HR professionals. It is a clear red flag you are dealing with junk “employee experience” tech that isn’t based on the actual science of what builds motivation and great experiences.

Guidelines for finding tech that authentically cares

So what does authentic employee experience tech look like? It is based in real science with proven impact. It puts demonstrated psychological principles of employee well-being and engagement first, instead of making fancy technology the headline. Let me describe what I mean and how specifically to identify it using Self-Determination Theory, the leading scientific model for engagement worldwide, as an example:

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Actual psychological models have a point of view. They speak fundamental truths about human needs and core experiences upfront that help you understand and act.

In Self-Determination Theory, we emphasize the critical role of universal psychological needs as the drivers of well-being. Everything – tech included – must support that model. In our work, that science drives what we measure, how variables are weighted and reported, and what prescriptive actions are recommended for change. Why? Because the psychology of well-being and engagement is an evidence-based science, not a math problem or a matter of opinion. If a business doesn’t value that science, all the tech in the world won’t help.

Currently, most HR tech vendors out there will take your money and let you continue to keep trying any approach you can think up. Or they emphasize that their tech will do fancy math to provide “insights” and “drivers,” but don’t have a clear model for employee well-being upfront. That makes about as much sense as ignoring medical science and trying to splint your newly broken arm with duct tape and a spatula. But sadly, that is what most companies have been doing.

Authentic psychological models have an independent, scientific evidence-base.

This one will sound like a no-brainer after I say it, but it is almost non-existent in HR Tech: Ask your vendor to produce independent research published in a peer-reviewed journal validating their model is effective. “Independent” means the research was not done by the vendor. And published in a “peer-reviewed journal” means the research method and results were reviewed and verified by a panel of experts on the subject matter.

This has been the standard of all science – including psychology – for decades. In Self-Determination Theory, there are hundreds – thousands – of such published studies. I would be surprised if most leading HR Tech vendors could produce even one study that meets this baseline standard, but ask for yourself and find out. Is it any wonder we aren’t trusting such junk systems now the urgent need for employee care has arrived?

By using these due diligence guidelines, we can find authentic solutions and finally turn away from the terrible HR Tech that has been multiplying for decades.

In closing, a final point to consider: The definition of technology is “the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes.” Let’s commit – right now – to take the science part of the definition seriously by kicking “people science” double-speak to the curb and making true psychological science the foundation of our HR Tech. To be honest, we don’t really have a choice anymore. I hope that means we’ll finally deploy proven medicine for engagement and well-being, and cast the snake oil aside.

Dr. Scott Rigby is an author, behavioral scientist, and founder of motivationWorks, a company that applies behavioral science to organizations to build engagement and wellbeing. Scott is a leading authority on predictive measurement of motivation and engagement, and the application of proven interventions to improve organizational culture.

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