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As an Industrial/Organizational (I/O) Psychologist, (also referred to as a Business Psychologist), I often meet people that assume I am a clinical psychologist – one that has a couch and treats people with mental health issues.  However, that is not what an I/O psychologist does at all. Even though the field of I/O psychology is new to some people (surprisingly even to those in the HR field) it plays an important role in hiring, selecting and developing employees for an organization.


Let’s start with a little history on the field. I/O psychology has roots dating back to the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the U.S. military began applying I/O psychology concepts during WWI, providing more early visibility to the field.  During WWI the U.S. government wanted a way to place individuals into the right type of military career or military path.  A group of psychologists worked with the army to develop two tests:  the Army Alpha and the Army Beta.  These tests were used to identify an individual’s aptitude toward specific military roles.  Over time businesses started to understand that the same principles may be applied to help identify and select better employees.

What does an I/O psychologist do? 

I/O psychology focuses on the practices of describing, guiding and predicting human behavior within a work context. The goal of I/O psychology is not to treat mental illness in the workplace but to answer organizational issues such as:

  • How to select the best employees

  • How to choose the right type of training for a specific role

  • How to determine turnover causes and ways to decrease it

I/O Psychology really has two different sides.  On the Industrial side of this discipline, we work in areas such as training, selection and placement.  On the organizational side we deal with issues like increasing job satisfaction and determining how to motivate employees.  These are just a few examples, as the discipline of I/O psychology has a vast range of applications within the workplace.

How Do I/O Practitioners Work Help Organizations? 

I think of it as if answering a mathematical question.  There are two ways to really tackle a mathematical problem: 1) By hand, which would ultimately take longer and leave more room for errors OR 2) By using a program (such as Excel) to insert your formula and get an answer.  Ultimately using a solution like Excel is going to take less time and have a lower margin of error.  

Now think about how your hiring practices can align with that metaphor.  You could perform an unstructured interview, which is not very fast, uses a lot of people and time, can be inaccurate and inconsistent, etc. Not having the right tools and process for hiring will give you a poor idea of what makes an employee a good employee – ultimately leading you to select the wrong person. 

But if you use newer, sophisticated selection tools, such as assessments, that measure for job-relevant competencies (based on I/O research) – your results will be more consistent, objective and legally defensible.  If this is paired with a structured behaviorally based interview this whole process will overall provide your organization with better employees.

I find that HR people are always thinking:  How can I make my hiring process more effective? 

Well, by using the research that an I/O psychologist performs, they can improve on their current selection systems and processes by bringing in assessments or even a job analysis to determine what is actually important to complete a certain job, which is a great place to start.  If you are hiring manager -make sure you are putting your money and time into the right people and looking for the right things in potential employees. Using I/O psychology principles and research can help your organization select, train and place the right employees in the right roles. 

Dionne Mahaffey, PsyD


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