PHR / SPHR Exam For Dummies
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Human relations and motivation content are included on both the Professional in Human Resources (PHR) and the Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) exams. The updates in 2018 eliminated the Core Knowledge and Risk Management functional area from the exams, spreading the content throughout the remaining domains. Human relations and motivation are two areas that are necessary to know about for both exams.

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What is human relations?

Human relations is many things, including a science. This means that there is a substantial body of research available on—wait for it—how to be human and treat humans. While it may seem counterintuitive, this data can be useful to outline some of the more important behaviors that affect relationships at work.

The key element of human relations hinges on how we can make employees feel like valued, contributing members of our organization, and not just numbers. This approach goes back to the 1920s, when researchers discovered that employees work for reasons beyond economics. Organizational behaviors that supported the other, more “human” needs will help build an engaged workforce. And as modern-day studies show, an engaged workforce leads to positive job attitudes, such as improved job satisfaction, greater worker engagement, and an increased organizational commitment.

A basic model for human relations includes three fundamentals that leaders should remember:

  • Attitudes toward people: Our employees share a set of common needs, including being respected and valued for their contributions.
  • Amount and kind of participation: We must consider the “whole” of employees as opposed to only their output. This includes giving them the context behind decision-making and allowing teams to be self-directed where appropriate.
  • Expectations: How information is shared is just as important as what kind of information is shared. These processes establish expectations and can satisfy basic needs for belonging and esteem. Modern-day application includes applying motivational techniques to discover how to change and drive adult behavior.

The three factors noted in the model of human relations is an excellent lens through which to measure a company’s diversity and inclusive practices.

Motivation on the PHR and SPHR exams

There is so much data out there about how to motivate workers. When faced with an underperforming employee, many supervisors take up the cry, “We need to pay them more.” With limited budgets and job worth factors, HR needs to model and communicate ways that supervisors can motivate their team members beyond the paycheck.

There are three categories of the theories of motivation: content, process, and reinforcement.

  • Content theories of motivation are founded on the idea that there are ways we can explain and predict employee behaviors. These theories include one of the more famous: Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Depicted as a pyramid, Maslow’s theory indicates that until the lower needs are met, the higher needs will never be a motivating factor in an employee’s behavioral choices. The order of needs, starting from the bottom, are physiological, safety, belonging, esteem, and eventually, self-actualization. Many years after Maslow, Frederick Herzberg published an expanded version called the two-factor theory that helped clarify what factors motivate (intrinsic, such as personal pride in performance), and what factors are dis-satisfiers (extrinsic, such as salary).
  • Process theories are grounded by principles that seek to understand the employee needs that drive behavioral choices. These include J. Stacy Adams’ equity theory (employees are motivated when their rewards are equal to their efforts) and Victor Vroom’s expectancy theory (people believe they can do the work, they know they will be rewarded, and the rewards are worth the effort).
  • Reinforcement theories take free will out of the equation, benchmarked by the ideas that we are all conditioned through reward and punishment to act. The behavioral scientist BF Skinner wrote his operant conditioning theory, which noted that all human behaviors are learned through reinforcement—either positive or negative. If you have ever had trouble leaving a slot machine, you have experienced conditioning through rewards that occurred on a schedule of reinforcement.
All three theories are true to a certain extent! Regardless of which one you subscribe to or which one feels most natural, you can use the knowledge to begin to change behavior, a major focus of organizational risk management techniques.

Job Characteristics Model

The way jobs are structured can serve as an extrinsic motivator for individuals. A 2012 study of federal workers validated the Job Characteristics Theory (JCT) built by Richard Hackman and Greg R. Oldham. JCT is a model of how the work is organized and the characteristics of the tasks that will have a direct influence on employee performance. The five characteristics are as follows:
  • Task identity: Employees who know the whole as opposed to only the parts feel a sense of achievement when the task is complete.
  • Task significance: The more important the task or body of work, the greater the impact it has on others and the more it contributes to a sense of purpose.
  • Skill variety: The ability to use multiple skill sets in work contributes to a sense of fulfillment and reduces boredom.
  • Autonomy: The extent to which an employee is allowed to use independent judgment affects her sense of control over her work life.
  • Feedback: Feedback gives employees the information they need to be successful. Most employees crave both positive and constructive feedback.
The Association for Talent Development published an article about the 2012 study of federal workers. Search for the title Job Characteristics Key to Motivating Federal Employees to find out more.

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