HR according to “A Skeptic’s HR Dictionary”

From gut feeling to scientific basis

Suppose you have suffered from inexplicable abdominal pain for some time. You go to your GP who refers you to a gastroenterologist. You assume the latter will examine and treat you on the basis of the latest medical findings and not rely on his gut feeling (no pun intended). Then shouldn’t you expect the same in an entirely different context, which may also give you a stomach ache: your working environment?

According to HR expert and author of “A Skeptic’s HR Dictionary” Patrick Vermeren, the sad truth is that you cannot just assume your employer, manager(s) and HR team will base their decisions on robust and reliable scientific research. Learn more about Vermeren’s struggle against the many myths, lies, hypes and half-truths that have plagued the labour market and his argument for an evidence-based HR policy.

Vermeren’s crusade

Patrick Vermeren, who is also a journalist and board member of Belgian sceptical organisation SKEPP, has made it his life’s work to challenge HR practices that cannot deliver what they promise and can even cause major damage. (He wrote “A Skeptic’s HR Dictionary” in part in response to the tragic loss of a relative who blindly believed in pseudoscience .) Armed with an impressive arsenal of specialist literature from various disciplines, Vermeren guides you through various theories and practices that companies use to make their human resources more productive and thus maximise profit, but that in reality have not been sufficiently substantiated or proven. The author is very critical of the discipline which, with a few exceptions, does not stand the scientific test: psychology.

Various topics are addressed in the book. Which factors should companies that hire new staff really take into account? What are the best practices for enabling people to manage change? What does it mean to be an impactful leader? What are the facts and myths about self-managed companies where there is supposedly no hierarchy? How to enable employees to acquire knowledge throughout their career? Is there such a thing as effective coaching? Which characteristics and evolutionary patterns result in which types of behaviour in the workplace? These are just a few of the questions which Vermeren answers in his one thousand plus page book. His draws the conclusion that people are essentially still driven by latent primeval instincts. They determine to a large extent how someone will behave in a particular context towards their peers. These conscious or unconscious motives can cause managers, colleagues, HR consultants or other people, who are inherently neither good nor bad, to do a lot of damage to their working environment. This happens frequently and results in a great deal of human suffering.

Trade union’s finger on the pulse

As a trade union, we aim to assist employees with our expertise in finding solutions to the problems they are faced with in their working environment. We gladly debunk useless theories that are harmful to employees and their motivation (the principal resource in our knowledge-based economy). An employee organisation is primarily based on values which many employees support, and we have no need for the current HR nonsense. On the other hand, we gladly introduce theories that are sufficiently substantiated and create added value into the thousands of organisations where we are involved in social consultations.

We can make use of new psychological insights to better achieve our objectives as a trade union. We therefore have to continue developing our expertise, keep a finger on the pulse and establish connections on the basis of shared analyses. If we want to remain a future-oriented employee organisation, we also need to be aware of the risk of biologically flawed thinking and act with appropriate humility. Practical experience and “A Skeptic’s HR Dictionary” have shown us how extremely complex human beings and interpersonal relationships are. Continuously learning, asking questions and entering into dialogue are the preconditions for an employee organisation to make progress towards a working environment where every individual is treated with respect. Personally, I can hardly imaging a more useful mission.


Vermeren does not make it easy for the reader. The book is very bulky (which testifies to the thoroughness of the author’s analysis) and presents a host of hypotheses, propositions, argumentations and comparisons. But the satisfaction is all the greater if you succeed in taking it all in.