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Question: What is Industrial-Organizational Psychology?

Answer: Industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology is a specialized area of applied research and psychological practice that focuses on individual and group behavior in the workplace. I-O psychologists use theories and principles of psychology to study various types of workplace issues, including job productivity and satisfaction, hiring and promotion processes, leadership and management techniques, and organizational dynamics. The general aim of I-O psychology is to provide businesses, public agencies, and other types of organizations with scientifically based strategies for improving workplace conditions, workforce productivity, managerial decision-making, and organizational effectiveness.

I-O psychology is one of the 16 psychology specialties formally recognized by the American Psychological Association (APA), which characterizes I-O psychologists broadly as, “scientist-practitioners who have expertise in the design, execution and interpretation of research in psychology and who apply their findings to help address human and organizational problems in the context of organized work.” The specific roles described by the APA in its literature on I-O psychology include:

  • Identifying training and development needs
  • Optimizing the quality of work life
  • Formulating and implementing training programs and evaluating their effectiveness
  • Coaching employees and organization leaders
  • Developing criteria to evaluate performance of individuals and organizations
  • Assessing consumer preferences, customer satisfaction and market strategies

The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP), an affiliated division of the APA, distinguishes I-O psychology from other areas of psychological practice by emphasizing its role in the workplace: “Industrial-organizational psychology is the scientific study of working and the application of that science to workplace issues facing individuals, teams, and organizations.” Some of the issues SIOP notes that I-O psychologists have studied include:

  • The role of personality traits in the hiring process
  • Barriers to successful employment of workers with disabilities
  • Workplace culture, particularly when companies merge
  • Selection of law enforcement officers
  • Reducing absenteeism
  • Workplace aggression
  • The leadership behavior of women as managers

The Field of I-O Psychology

The field of I-O psychology encompasses clinical research, professional consulting, and other specific roles, such as the recruitment and selection of qualified employees, the development and implementation of effective job training programs, and the reconfiguration and design of work environments. In order to fulfill these roles, I-O psychologists are trained in the same foundational theories and practices as other types of psychologists. What distinguishes I-O psychologists from other researchers and practitioners is the field’s focus on using these theories and practices to better understand workplace dynamics, provide insights into the psychological aspects of organizational behavior, and present psychologically based solutions to work-related issues.

For example, I-O psychologists use traditional behavioral and social science research methodologies to develop competency models and assessment criteria that can be used to gauge and predict productivity, job satisfaction, and other qualitative factors that may be important to workplace efficiency, and to design workforce training and development programs. They use theories of social psychology to inform decisions about project management, organizational structuring, and office design. The tools of psychology may also be applied by I-O psychologists to the challenges of developing and implementing protocols for succession planning, leadership development, and organizational change. And the reach of I-O psychology extends to workplace safety issues, the science of ergonomics, and more recently the psychological and psychosocial implications of human-computer interaction.

Training in I-O Psychology

Training in the professional practice of I-O psychology takes place in master’s and doctoral programs with dedicated I-O psychology curricula. A typical I-O psychology program curriculum covers general psychological knowledge and specific applications of that knowledge to workplace issues. While some schools may offer introductory courses in I-O psychology at the undergraduate level and there are bachelor’s programs in I-O psychology, the discipline is more commonly studied at the graduate level, in master’s and doctoral programs. Indeed, the SIOP Guidelines for Education and Training in Industrial-Organizational Psychology published by the APA are explicitly designed for master’s and doctoral programs. The guidelines delineate six general knowledge and skill areas that should be covered by graduate program curricula, as detailed in the table below.

General Knowledge and SkillsDescription
Ethical, Legal, Diversity, and International IssuesRelevant federal, state, and local laws, statutes, regulations, and legal precedents regarding employment and the workplace (e.g., the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures, and the Americans with Disabilities Act), as well as international human rights standards.
Fields of PsychologyTheoretical and methodological grounding in the biological aspects of behavior, cognitive and affective aspects of behavior, and social aspects of behavior.
History and Systems of PsychologyThe intellectual heritage of psychology and how the discipline of psychology evolved and developed into its present configuration.
Professional SkillsIncludes communication, business development, and project management skills, as well as negotiation and conflict-management skills, and research proposal and development skills.
Research MethodsIncludes the procedures, techniques, and tools used in the conduct of empirical investigations of phenomena of interest in I-O psychology, encompassing inductive and deductive reasoning; the generation and articulation of problem statements, research questions, and hypotheses; literature review and critique; the nature and definition of constructs; study designs (experimental, quasi-experimental, and non-experimental); and psychometrics.
Statistical Methods/Data AnalysisDescriptive and inferential statistical methods, parametric and nonparametric statistical methods, and quantitative and qualitative research methods and data analysis.

In addition to providing didactic training in general psychological theories and methods and their application in I-O psychology, SIOP recommends that graduate training in I-O psychology include supervised internship experiences in settings where I-O psychology is practiced, such as companies, manufacturing plants, and other types of organizations.

Working in Industrial-Organizational Psychology

The four broad areas in which I-O psychologists are commonly employed are consulting, government/military, business/industry, and academia/research. The type of work done by I-O psychologists typically depends on an individual’s level of training. A bachelor’s degree in I-O psychology may provide adequate training for entry-level work in an organization’s human resources department. Graduates from master’s in I-O psychology programs have a broader array of career options in part because I-O psychology is one of the few psychology specialties in which a doctoral degree is not required for most types of work.

While a doctoral degree is required to become a licensed clinical psychologist in all 50 states, most states and many employers do not require I-O psychologists to be licensed provided their work is of a non-clinical nature. The APA in conjunction with SIOP has taken the position that I-O psychologists should respect state laws regarding licensure but should not be governed by the same licensing policies as other types of psychologists due to the fact that, “many, if not most, I-O psychologists practice in more than one state from time to time.” In addition, SIOP has pointed out that the clients of I-O psychologists are organizations rather than individuals, an important distinction that defines much of the work done by I-O psychologists and distinguishes the practice of I-O psychology from the type of work done by licensed clinical psychologists.

As a result, I-O psychologists commonly enter the job market after training at the master’s level, which qualifies them to work as business consultants, personnel managers, and researchers, as well as in areas such as leadership training, productivity assessment, and safety management. However, I-O psychologists who intend to pursue clinical research and/or provide clinical counseling services must earn a doctoral degree in psychology and attain licensure. Similarly, most upper-level academic positions in I-O psychology are held by professionals who hold a doctoral degree in psychology.

For state-specific information on licensing requirements for I-O psychologists, students should contact their state’s licensing board.

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