Consistency With Human Resources

Consistent human resources practices are desirable for (at least) five sets of reasons. First, there are some obvious technical benefits of consistency. For example, a firm choosing to invest heavily in training its employees will see increased value in careful screening of applicants and in practices that are intended to decrease turnover. When on-the-job training accumulates over a period of years, practices that reward seniority (and thus reduce turnover among employees with longer tenure) make sense. When the firm employs informal training, provided by more senior workers to their more junior colleagues, seniority-based rewards also help by putting senior workers at no disadvantage when they share their knowledge. To cite another example, a firm that wishes to broaden its workforce (hiring, say, more women and minorities) may find it relatively advantageous to move to a cafeteria-style benefits plan. These reasons all pertain to single-employee consistency. At the same time, temporal consistency and among-employee consistency have different (and fairly obvious) technical benefits, having to do with economizing on costs of administration.

A second set of reasons why consistency is desirable concerns the psychology of perception and cognition. From basic psychology, we know that messages are more salient and recalled better when the multiple stimuli being transmitted are simple and support the same theme, as in an effective advertising campaign. Consistency, which also entails simplicity (i.e., everything follows the same basic principles), is thus desirable because it aids in the learning process that individuals must undertake, to understand what is expected of them and what they can expect in turn.

For example, owing to their technologies, some firms find that they must give their personnel wide discretion in some (but not all) matters. In these cases, the firms must choose whether to provide direct incentives for employees to perform as desired versus using indirect control based on the perception of mutual interests. When it comes to other activities that these individuals perform, the firm may be able to monitor its personnel quite closely and thus control them by rules. Should the firm use rules? The choice depends on how the firm aims to control its employees in the first set of activities. If the firm chooses close supervision of those activities that can be closely supervised, its employees may infer that they are not trusted and adjust their behavior accordingly by acting in ways that are consistent with not being trusted. Control of the first set of activities by trust will then be compromised: Employees will infer that they are not trusted (and thus not trustworthy), and react accordingly.

This category of reasons-largely about single-employee consistency as phrased above-can is extended to among-employee and temporal consistency. In most cases, an employee assumes that how she and others have been treated in the past, as well as how other similarly situated employees are being treated contemporaneously provides good data for how she can expect to be treated now and in the future. Consequently, if human resources practices changed frequently or varied considerably across similar employees, the process of learning what to expect and what is expected would be seriously impaired.

A third category of reasons for pursuing consistent human resources practices involves social forces. Consistency in the sense of congruence with external social norms and preconceptions – aids learning. It is easier to mold individuals’ tastes and expectations when the organization’s practices consistently (and symbolically) mimic previously internalized patterns of relationships in other contexts, whether these patterns are akin to an anonymous marketplace (dog-eat-dog) or a family relationship (mutual caring).

A fourth advantage of consistent human resources practices relates to recruitment and selection. Workers are not all alike, and they will do better or worse in a given organization according to how well they are matched to its attributes. Just to keep turnover costs in line, the firm should hope that prospective employees can understand the nature of employment on offer, so that mismatch and concomitant quits don’t result. Indeed, even if a somewhat mismatch worker doesn’t quit, he may be less happy and productive if the job doesn’t fit his tastes in employment.

Consistency in human resources practices allows for better initial matches in three ways. First, insofar as consistency promotes understanding, prospective employees are better able to comprehend at the outset what they are getting themselves into. Second, to the extent that there are correlations among the preferences of a given worker-for example, someone who feels comfortable with performance-based compensation also desires similar hard-edged practices when it comes to promotion criteria, benefits, decision-making authority, and the like-then clusters of human resources practices that are consistent in matching those correlations will achieve better matches. Third, individuals may have a taste for co-workers who have the same preferences they do-warm and fuzzy types may not interact well with very competitive types-and consistent human resources practices, insofar as they lead to a workforce that is homogeneous in terms of such preferences, may promote teamwork and worker cohesion.

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