What is the Difference Between Industrial-Organizational Psychology and Human Resources?

What is the Difference Between Industrial-Organizational Psychology and Human Resources?

Candidates interested in careers where they can help improve morale and productivity in the workplace often wonder what the difference is between industrial-organizational psychology and human resources. As similar as these two fields may be, they are also very different. An industrial-organizational psychologist typically does research and studies employees and how they think and what will make for a better workplace. A human resource manager may develop programs but generally deals with providing the actual benefits and compensations to the employees. Both of these professionals are assets to the workplace.

What is Industrial-Organizational Psychology?

An industrial-organizational psychologist applies principles of psychology to the workplace. They study:

  • mental and human behavior
  • employee screening
  • workplace productivity and organizational development in the workplace

They might provide:

  • executive coaching
  • team-building activities
  • pre-employment testing

Degree programs in industrial-organizational psychology teach students how to assess, study and evaluate human behavior in the workplace. Courses help the student learn more about human behavior in the real world or, in this case, in the workplace. These include:

  • learning and cognition
  • motivation
  • behavior modification

Areas of Pre-Employment Screening

Industrial/Organizational Psychologists test job applicants for their cognitive ability . Many experts believe this is the assessment that most reflects the probability of an employee’s success in his position. They also perform personality assessments to determine whether it aligns with company policies and culture. Another assessment area is motivation. In other words an applicant may:

  • be a good match for the company
  • be able to learn new skills
  • perform job responsibilities

But how likely is it that he/she will actually complete assignments?

Supervisor Assessment

Another important assessment is that of the supervisor. The psychologist looks at factors that enable managers and supervisors to build a good workplace environment without stress and threats. That is important because productivity increases in a stable environment.

Assessment of the Workplace

When called as a consultant to evaluate the suitability of a job applicant, I/O psychologists start with an assessment of the workplace and the job itself. This assessment is made by studying job descriptions. It’s done by talking with people who currently do the job as well as with those who supervise workers in the position. They use surveys along with actual interviews. This assessment is necessary because job descriptions change over time. This can happen because:

  • the market changes (for instance, the introduction of flash drives makes CDs obsolete)
  • the company takes a new direction (for instance, becoming a “green workplace”)
  • the company grows or downsizes
  • there is a change in employment law.

Workplace evaluations also identify areas of stress that may affect productivity. If the corporate environment is one of dictatorship where the worker feels unvalued or where compliance is accomplished through fear, he is less likely to remain with the company.

Psychometric Assessments

That term refers to using numerical values to place the subject on an already-determined scale. It is used to determine not only which personality or character traits a person has, but how far on the scale of that trait he reaches.

Tools I/O Psychologists Use

Along with using psychological principles, I/O psychologists take their tools from their discipline.


These are simply lists of qualities applicants should have, and the psychologists checks off all items that apply. This could be used to identify things skills the applicant has such as flexibility and communication as well as the skills actually needed to perform the job for which he or she is applying.

Open-Ended Questions

These are questions that give test subjects an opportunity to answer by talking about:

  • their complete understanding of an issue
  • their subjective feelings
  • other material that may not actually be relevant to the posed question

Structured Questions

In structured questions, the researcher limits replies to a predetermined boundary or subject. This is often used with a group of subjects and may be presented as a questionnaire.


The researcher observes body language and attitude as well as other things,

Applicant Work History Records

The psychologists uses history to assess the presence of patterns that may or may not be an asset.

The Goal of I/O Psychologist Assessments

Another difference between industrial-organizational psychology and human resources is the goals they set. Psychologists in the workplace are studying things that might make an employee stay at a job and find a sense of “belonging.” The research done though the various tools helps the I/O psychologist create questions that can be used in applicant interviews by the HR manager in hiring. They also extract information that can be used to determine appropriate compensation for the job and other things that could help in employee retention. This is important because, according to the Terra Staffing Group, it costs a company $12,000 to replace an employee making a salary of $36,000 a year.
Additionally, I/O psychologists may be called as consultants when a company is experiencing productivity declines or workplace discord and conflict. Companies seeing symptoms of problems often bring the industrial/organizational psychologist on board as a consultant the way a person might consult a doctor. In short, they are called when something is “broken.”

The Focus of I/O Psychology

While the psychologist may be looking at systemic problems in a company, his focus, according to the “businessnewsdaily” website is on the needs and behaviors of individual workers. By studying the employee and his workplace environment, the consultant can help business owners increase the wellbeing of the employee and the company. To achieve this goal, the I/O psychologist may:
• Collaborate with the HR department
• Work with departments responsible for hiring
• Train and encourage the workers
• Analyze individual employee job performance
• Analyze efficiency of chain-of-command procedures in a company
• Analyze opportunity for employee work-life balance
• Help employees prepare for or adapt to company mergers or sale.
• Evaluate consumer patterns that may affect company performance
• Coach managers or company executives.

What is Human Resources?

i/o psychology vs human resources

A human resource manager is a member of the human resources department of an organization. They are in charge of:

  • recruiting
  • interviewing
  • hiring
  • disciplining
  • terminating

They also put together:

  • benefit plans
  • compensation packages
  • insurance plans

They do these things while also dealing with legal problems and staff issues. Whereas I/O psych degree programs have courses on organizational theory and organizational behavior, human resource degree programs have courses in:

  • marketing
  • accounting
  • economics

Human resources managers also handle timekeeping and payroll.

Many employers prefer HR personnel who have backgrounds in psychology. That accounts for much of the overlap in the disciplines.

Different Types of HR Managers

In small corporations, the difference between an industrial-organizational psychology and human resources may not be an issue. The HR manager assumes the duties of both. He or she and may “wear a lot of hats” to perform all the HR duties that emerge. In larger companies, however, the HR department may include several managers. Some of the main types are:

Recruitment Manager

This manager is responsible for meeting staffing needs in an organization. To do this, he or she may:

  • meet with department heads to assess what positions are lacking
  • “vet” resumes and applications for accuracy
  • oversee advertisements for the position
  • oversee the interview process
  • work to improve and implement an onboarding process
  • perform other duties involved in the recruitment and hiring of employees

Benefits and Compensation Manager

One of the major concerns of job applicants is salary and benefit packages. This HR manager is responsible for surveying the industry standards for salary and things like insurance and other benefits. This helps to ensure that the company is competitive with others to attract quality applicants. The manager may also work with unions and organizations to determine what constitutes fair compensation for jobs.

Labor Relations Manager

Working with unions is also part of the responsibilities of this manager. He or she is involved in negotiations and disputes. The labor relations manager also serves as a liaison between the workers and management to develop labor policies.

Training and Development Manager

This person creates training programs to meet the needs of employees in different departments. Department heads communicate needs to the manager who works to address deficiencies. This may include upgrading the skills of an individual employee or an entire department. It also pertains to continuing education needs.

Health and Safety Managers

The Health and Safety HR manager is responsible for being aware of workplace safety laws and OSHA policies to be certain his or her company is in compliance.

Similarities and Differences Between the Two

Industrial-organizational psychology and human resources are similar fields in that both professionals are focused on making an organization an attractive workplace and keeping their employees happy. The simplest way to describe the main difference between the two is that I/O psychologists study the employee behavior to determine what benefits will make them as satisfied and productive as possible. Human resources managers put together, implement and provide the benefits and packages to the employees.

Returning to the doctor reference mentioned above, the psychologist is the diagnostic physician and the HR manager is the attending physician or nurse who uses the diagnosis to create and carry out a treatment plan. I/O psychologists apply one of the primary components of their discipline ( research) to a workforce problem. They seek to find the root causes and deficiencies and then work with the HR manager to “cure” the problems.

If there is a disciplinary issue, the I/O psychologist might study and research what made the employee act in that manner, but it’s the human resources manager who will handle the problem.

Two major differences between the two professionals are the salaries and the educational requirements. Human resources managers generally earn higher wages than I/O psychs. Human resource managers must have at least a bachelor’s degree. Industrial-organizational psychologists are usually required to have a master’s degree.

Related Resource: What is Organizational Psychology?

Where they Work Together

i/o and hr

While the HR manager is usually a company employee on a management team, the I/O psychologist generally works independently as a consultant. We say “usually” because some I/O psychologists work as corporate team members as well. When they are brought in as consultants, their research provides the HR manager with a framework upon which to:

  • build compensation and benefit packages
  • design trainings
  • create team building exercises and more

While an HR manager may handle all the issues addressed by the psychologist, they will do so from a different vantage point. HR management degrees are primarily business degrees. They look at many employee problem areas from the standpoint of profit-loss. While psychology backgrounds are extremely useful, their attention is mainly upon the success of the company. This is where the input of the IO psychologist is important. It looks at problems through the lens of:

  • motivation
  • reward
  • personality

The psychologist uses tools like personality and behavioral assessments, psychometric testing and other methodology to help design programs and procedures that will make workers happier and more productive in the workplace. I/O psychologists can sometimes predict areas of conflict that the HR manager will work to proactively counter. Plus, the HR manager is concerned with day-to-day workplace stability and growth. The psychologist focuses on using research to suggest and design new programs that will address corporate deficiencies.

Companies that bring in I/O psychologists to consult on problematic issues expect that the scientist will collaborate with the HR management to alleviate tension and eliminate deficiencies. They understand that most workplace problems (aside from things like supply chain issues, cashflow and other solely business problems) arise from individual worker issues that affect the whole company.

Many companies cannot afford the luxury of a staff I/O psychologist or the cost of bringing in a consultant. So universities are increasingly offering dual degrees or degrees in human resources that include specialization in I/O psychology.

Related Resource: What Are Psychomotor Skills?

Career Outlook

i/o psychology career

The projected job growth, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), is similar for both of these professionals. Industrial-organizational psychologists are expected to see a job growth of 8% between 2016 and 2026. Human resource managers should see a 9% increase. As of a May 2017 wage report by the bureau, industrial-organizational psychologists earned an average annual wage of $102,530 while human resource managers earned $123,510.

As the economy continues to grow, businesses will continue to look for qualified employees and ways to make the workplace an attractive place to work. Careers in industrial-organizational psychology and human resources can be rewarding as well as challenging for an individual who wants to play a role in helping make an organization as profitable as possible.

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