UConn’s MS Degree in Human Resources Draws Diverse Specialists

As academic director for UConn’s Graduate Programs in Human Resources, I had the pleasure of welcoming 39 new master’s students to campus earlier this fall. We are excited to have a student cohort with a wide range of prior experience and knowledge coming into the program, because we believe such diversity enriches the classroom and online discussions with varied perspectives, beliefs and questions.

As you might expect, the group includes young, high-potential HR specialists working for several of Connecticut’s biggest employers. Our new cohort also includes professionals with more than 20 years of experience seeking the latest in HR thinking, several people who are the sole HR professionals in their small business, and retail managers who want better solutions to their people-management challenges.

I’m sure most people in Connecticut are aware that UConn is a research-based university, but suspect that many are not fully aware of how these research activities translate into impact on our teaching and outreach to communities in the state. One of the unique benefits of UConn being one of the 115 Research I institutions, designated by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, is our special emphasis on using research evidence to seek a better understanding of our businesses and the markets we compete in.

One of our early assignments in the UConn HR program asks students to examine their beliefs about the effectiveness of various HR practices and then showing them how those beliefs compare to research findings about HR practice effectiveness. While students’ intuition was well-aligned with results from empirical studies on many topics, there were also several HR practices for which the evidence-based findings were not consistent with personal beliefs about HR practice efficacy.

For example, master’s students (and HR managers in general) consistently underestimated the importance of intelligence in determining job performance. Most believed that higher job performance would result from focusing hiring on employees with greater values alignment or conscientiousness. In contrast, research-based evidence strongly suggests that intelligence is the strongest predictor of performance, and is specifically a better predictor than either values alignment or conscientiousness.

Several students shared that they struggled to reconcile their personal hiring experience with the research findings, and there were a wide range of ideas expressed about how to integrate this new information into their plans for future hiring strategies. One student found it troubling that there are large discrepancies between research findings and practitioners’ beliefs, specifically worrying that “HR professionals should not create change or implement new practices in their organizations just because it is the ‘trendy’ thing to do.”

I find it useful to examine why HR professionals might feel this resistance to hiring based on intelligence. One hypothesis is that these ideas may be rooted in beliefs about the relative ‘fixedness’ of intelligence compared to beliefs that values and conscientiousness are more developable for those that are willing to try. I think our culture highly values the belief that anyone can achieve success if they work hard enough and a finding that intelligence is the best predictor of job performance does not align with this cultural belief.

In contrast, another student found a different path for reconciling the conflicting results, commenting “I think it may really matter what type of industry you are in, and what jobs are being viewed. Some jobs may absolutely be more suited for an intelligent employee, but other jobs, like data entry, are probably better for a conscientious employee.”

Several key objectives of higher education are being achieved in this exercise. We are introducing students to the scientific findings being created by our research mission. We are introducing them to these ideas in ways that help them identify and challenge their own beliefs. Finally, we are generating a range of possible ways to fit these new ideas into our current belief systems and identifying new questions to explore to further refine and improve our managerial decision-making.

Graduate education is not primarily focused on simply gaining new knowledge. Rather, I consider our program to be a success because we consistently help our students improve their ability to integrate their experience-based beliefs about managing people with new evidence-based knowledge of how people and businesses actually operate. For me, this is one great example of the benefits of integrating research and teaching at UConn and why I am grateful to be part of such an institution.

Greg Reilly
Associate Professor of Management, UConn School of Business
Greg Reilly is a professor of management and the Academic Director for Graduate Programs in Human Resource Management at the UConn School of Business. Greg’s research activities are focused on human capital as firm resources, teams and the role of time in strategic management research.
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