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Darla Moore School of Business

Management professor receives UofSC 2020 Breakthrough Leadership in Research Award

Friday, Feb. 7, 2020

Moore School management professor Robert Ployhart is one of five USC faculty honored with the 2020 Breakthrough Leadership in Research Awards.

Breakthrough Leadership in Research Awards celebrate senior USC faculty members who have made major research impacts throughout their careers. Ployhart, the Bank of America Professor of Business Administration, teaches management, human resources and analytics in the Honors College, Master of Human Resources program and doctoral program. Part of the Moore School faculty since 2004, Ployhart has been recognized as being among the top 1 percent of researchers, according to the Web of Science Group.

With research interests that include recruiting, personnel selection, analytics, performance management and leadership development, Ployhart recently published a paper in the Journal of Applied Psychology that compares individuals’ success within various occupations based on personality characteristics.  

Written with co-authors Traci Sitzmann, a management associate professor for the University of Colorado Denver, and Youngsang Kim, an assistant professor at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, Korea, the paper used a process model that looks at occupational differences and how certain personality types are drawn to occupations and who is likely to be successful or stay in each occupation based on their similarity to the dominant personality in each occupation. For their research, Sitzmann, Ployhart and Youngsang looked at 178,087 individuals within 315 occupations.

“Our occupations form our identities,” Ployhart said. “We should use that as a way to better choose our occupations to match our personalities. Personalities do not change much over time. Your preferences or attitudes may change over time, but who you are won’t change much, so it’s really important to understand your personality early in your career.”

Unfortunately, Ployhart said college students don’t often fully understand their personality characteristics and learn them later through experience. Not understanding their personalities can lead to mismatches with their occupations.

“Until you’re faced with situations that run counter to your personality, you don’t know yourself,” he said. “You might think you’re a conscientious worker, but then you’re in a job where you are expected to work 80-90 hours a week. You quickly learn how conscientious you really are.”

Sitzmann, Ployhart and Youngsang’s conclusions take a different approach to human resources.

In the past, researchers “have looked at matching people to jobs or occupations, but they’ve not given enough attention to the characteristics of the people in them,” Ployhart said. “We know that people with similar characteristics gravitate toward similar occupations. But their similarity to others in the occupation will influence how long they stay in the profession.”

Another aspect of human resources management Ployhart recently explored is the benefit of promoting a manager from within a company versus hiring someone new external to the company.

“There is a war for talent with near zero unemployment and intense competition for highly qualified people,” he said. “When you have open positions, do you promote within or go externally to hire; it’s a choice every organization has to face.”

Ployhart wrote the paper with co-authors Philip DeOrtentiis, a human resources assistant professor at Michigan State University, Chad Van Iddekinge, a management professor at Florida State University, and Tom Heetderks, an executive who currently oversees human resources for Compliance Systems, Inc., an information technology company in Grand Rapids, Mich.

The researchers looked at actual managers hired for fast food restaurants and how those hires affected the establishments’ bottom line.

“You will have higher business unit performance for less money if you promote from within; you will pay more to get less if you hire externally,” Ployhart said. “It takes a couple of years for an external hire to reach the level of performance of an internal hire. There’s probably some limits to that generalization, but we’ve found similar findings in establishments like retail, banking and accounting.”

Among his research on hiring, Ployhart has also examined whether human resources should use social media when considering candidates for positions. A paper co-authored with Lynn McFarland, a management assistant professor in the Moore School, provides a comprehensive review of the issues.

When it comes to social media, “people act differently, norms are different,” he said. “The implications for human resource practices are huge. In my opinion, I wouldn’t use social media for hiring, although there may be some value in using it to source potential candidates. There’s simply no scientific evidence you can hire better through social media than with existing approaches. For sure, there are lots of ways to get into legal trouble.”

Based on his research, Ployhart said employers should hire individuals based off of their job-related characteristics and minimize being influenced by outside considerations.

“If you just look at Facebook, you will know all of the [applicant’s] demographics, all those things which are not job-related, and you immediately have introduced the potential for risk, discrimination and bias despite everybody’s best efforts,” he said. “Even if you’re just going to look at their work history, the first thing you see sends a billion signals about what this person is like, and we don’t know that those are accurate. Now you can’t unsee it.”

Alternately, Ployhart said a person’s social media profile may influence a person because you realize you have things in common like you went to the same college or like the same sports teams, so it’s hard to put these unrelated influences aside when comparing applicants.

Ployhart’s research ultimately links psychology and human capital to business outcomes, he said.

“Everybody says people are the most important resource for companies,” he said. “And my research tests that question directly, the extent to which people, a firm’s employees, contribute to a company’s financial outcomes. Human resources has not historically made that linkage; there’s been enough stories, now it’s time to show with evidence and analytics that the linkage is real.”

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