Employee Relations

“Why HR Did It”: Employee Attributions Matter

Employees’ attitudes have long been recognized as important factors that affect their behavior at work. Recent research has looked into what specific attributions about HR’s motives influence employees’ work attitudes and customer service behavior.

Employee Attributions

An attribution is an explanation that a person makes about other peoples’ intentions and actions. Attributions are important because different people can come to very different conclusions about the same thing based on making different attributions. Regarding HR practices, employees can attribute positive intentions behind those practices such as a desire for service quality and employee well-being. However, employees can also attribute negative intentions to HR practices and may think that only desires for cost cutting and even employee exploitation underlie their implementation. An example of an HR practice that can be taken either way by employees is giving employees increased job responsibilities and duties.

Attributions and Attitudes

Evidence suggests that employees have more positive attitudes (i.e., job satisfaction and commitment to the organization) when they attribute HR’s policies to a desire by the company to promote quality and employee well-being. On the other hand, the same research also indicates that when employees attribute negative motives to HR they tend to have more negative work attitudes. Attitudes seem not to be affected by attributions when employees believe that policies are put in place for external motives (i.e., union or legal compliance purposes); in other words, it appears that employee attributions have their greatest effect on their work attitudes when employees are inferring about intentions of motives internal to their organization.

Attitudes, Actions, and Customer Satisfaction

Research shows that employees’ attitudes meaningfully affect their willingness to perform organizational citizenship behaviors like helping others, following rules, and regularly attending work. Importantly, but perhaps not surprisingly, employee helping behaviors are positively associated with customer satisfaction. Thus, the attributions employees make about HR intentions affect their attitudes, which in turn affect their actions at work and subsequently influence an important outcome in customer satisfaction.

Implications for Practice

Based on these results, human resource professionals should attempt to:
  • Assess employee attributions of policy implementation to understand their perceptions of HR management intentions.
  • Make sure the organization is clearly communicating its policies and procedures to stakeholders in a noticeable manner.
  • Ensure as best as possible that policies are implemented the same across departments and units by all supervisors to make sure that all employees will similarly interpret organizational motives.
By following the above suggestions, unintentional or unwanted attributions by employees about HR practices may be reduced or reversed. This can be significant not only for employee-management relations, but for customer service satisfaction as well.

Interpretation by:

Donnie Johnson

DeGarmo Group

This was a summary of the research and practice implications from: Nishii, L. H., LePak, D. P., & Schneider, B. (2008). Employee attributions of the “why” of HR practices: Their effects on employee attitudes and behaviors, and customer satisfaction. Personnel Psychology, 61, 503-545.