Industrial-Organizational Psychology vs. Human Resources Management

Updated June 30, 2023

Industrial-organizational psychology and human resources management are two fields that can help organizations optimize their approach to employee relations. Professionals in these industries work toward comparable goals but often do so through markedly different methods. If you're considering a career in either industrial-organizational psychology or human resources management, it may be helpful to learn more about these fields, their purposes and the activities they encompass so you can decide which career path best fits your professional needs.

In this article, we outline what industrial-organizational psychology and human resources management are, including a list of each field's distinct qualities and similarities.

Key takeaways:

  • Organizations often use industrial-organizational (IO) psychology and human resources (HR) management to optimize their employee-employer relations.

  • IO psychology is the study of human behavior in the workplace while HR management focuses on affairs like recruitment, compensation and benefits administration.

  • IO psychology may require graduate education to pursue roles like an industrial-organizational psychologist or behavioral consultant, while a bachelor's degree is usually sufficient to pursue careers in HR management like policy officer or HR manager.

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What is industrial-organizational psychology?

Industrial-organizational psychology is a subfield of psychology in which professionals study human behavior in the workplace. Researchers in this field focus their efforts on understanding the principles of behavior on an individual and group scale, so practitioners can apply this knowledge in the workplace and identify solutions to organizational challenges. Practitioners may employ their competencies by working in a variety of organizational environments, including businesses, public organizations, nonprofits, academic institutions, health systems and labor organizations. With this, practicing I/O psychologists can help organizations address issues relating to:

  • Recruitment

  • Hiring

  • Training and development

  • Motivation

  • Productivity

  • Incentivization

  • Employee quality of life

  • Job satisfaction

  • Structure of workflow

  • Organizational culture

  • Client behavior

To address these issues, I/O psychologists use in-depth knowledge about the principles of workplace behavior to make multifaceted recommendations for restructuring an organization and its approach to employee relations. For example, an I/O psychologist might choose to redesign internal roles, clearly define expectations and establish pathways for advancement to provide a better quality of life for employees. In addition, these professionals often propose the implementation of programming that meets the needs of employees and employers alike through activities like training, development and coaching. From here, I/O psychologists can maximize a workplaces' efficacy and make a significant difference in employee retention.

Related: How To Become an Industrial Psychology Step by Step

What is human resources management?

Human resources management is a field in which professionals perform various activities regarding employment, hiring, training, compensation, organizational policies, retention strategies and adherence to legal regulations. In its origins, human resources management focused on more administrative tasks like processing payroll, ensuring the proper completion of tax forms and scheduling company meetings. Over the last few decades, though, human resources management has evolved into a much more complex field in which its professionals play a crucial role in the development of successful organizations. On a day-to-day basis, a human resources manager may handle the following affairs:

  • Staffing

  • Recruitment

  • Selection and hiring

  • Workplace policy development

  • Employee compensation

  • Benefits administration

  • Retention

  • Motivation

  • Training and development

  • Employee assessment strategies

  • Disciplinary action

  • Resolution of disputes

  • Legal employment regulations

  • Employee protections

  • Internal communications

Through these duties, human resources management professionals can greatly influence an organization's ability to meet its objectives, as they serve as a connector between employees and employers. Some human resources management professionals work as generalists who handle all the above activities, while others choose to specialize their work in a specific subfield. For example, there are professionals who focus solely on recruitment and others who only handle training and development programming. Often, smaller organizations with fewer needs employ generalists to cover all human resources duties, while larger organizations employ various human resources specialists to collaborate on a larger strategy.

Read more: Your Guide to a Career in Human Resources Management

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Industrial-organizational psychology vs. human resources management

I/O psychology and human resources management are fields with similar focuses, but professionals in this field often approach the goal of meeting organizational expectations through different lenses. Because of this, I/O psychologists and human resources management professionals perform distinct roles, have varying entry requirements and serve separate purposes within organizations. Here's a list of the key differences and similarities between these two fields:


I/O psychologists and human resources professionals each strive toward building organizational culture and fostering workplaces that are appealing to both existing employees and outside talent. Therefore, the purpose of these two fields is similar—through the implementation of I/O psychology and effective human resources management, organizations can better address employee needs, improve workplace morale and work steadily toward meeting overall objectives. With this larger purpose in mind, though, it's important to note that I/O psychology as a field isn't limited to the work performed by practitioners applying psychological principles within the workplace. Rather, I/O psychology is generally a research-based field.

With this additional basis, I/O psychology also encompasses the study of human behavior within a work environment. And, while practitioners can apply the information gained through this research to optimize an organization's success, there are other purposes behind this work as well. The work of I/O psychologists often analyzes the satisfaction of employees, how their environment relates to their performance and the importance of occupational health. Using these factors as a guideline in their work, unlike human resources managers, I/O psychologists serve as scientist-practitioners who often need to prioritize employee well-being and achievement over the needs of employers and organizations.

Related: Careers in Organizational Development


In achieving the purpose stated above, I/O psychologists and human resources managers use markedly different approaches. I/O psychologists often use scientific methods in conducting research to better understand the relationship between employee happiness and organizational efficiency. From here, they can use the information they gain through their studies to develop assessments and create new programming that improves employee satisfaction and productivity metrics. For example, an I/O psychologist may study employees' behavior within an existing workplace environment to determine what factors or benefits can improve overall satisfaction and allow employees to focus on producing high-quality work.

Comparatively, human resources managers approach the goal of improving employee-employer relations and workplace health by maintaining company culture, performing administrative tasks and implementing already-developed programming. They may handle practical tasks like overseeing compensation, administrating benefits and communicating workplace policies. With this, it's worthwhile to note that human resources management professionals may use I/O psychology research to inform their approach. Therefore, a primary difference between these approaches is that I/O psychologists can act as consultants who explain why employees behave in a particular capacity and how to improve behavior, while human resources managers often serve as the executors of this information.

Career options

There are various career options for both I/O psychologists and human resources management professionals. Sometimes, candidates from each respective field crossover into the same roles, while others choose to follow a more straightforward path within a single field. This type of crossover most commonly occurs when I/O psychologists pursue human resources management roles, but human resources management professionals can sometimes pursue roles designed for I/O psychologists, depending on their level of experience and education. Here are a few examples of overlapping career options that both I/O psychologists and human resources managers may pursue:

  • Human resources manager

  • Organizational effectiveness manager

  • Executive coach

  • Training and development manager

  • Strategy development manager

  • Change manager

  • Staffing and recruiting manager

  • Policy officer

  • Employee relations managers

  • Talent management specialists

There are a few career options that only I/O psychologists can typically pursue, though, including the following job titles:

  • Industrial-organizational psychologist

  • Workforce insights analyst

  • Behavioral consultant

  • Behavioral analyst

  • Engineering psychologist

  • Workplace psychologist

  • Evaluation assessment manager

  • Research analyst

  • Professor

  • Selection systems manager

In addition, there are some roles that commonly only apply to human resources management professionals, including the following career options:

  • Payroll manager

  • Labor relations director

  • Benefits administrator

  • Records and information specialist

  • Position classifier

  • Operations manager

  • Onboarding coordinator

  • Human resources assistant

  • Employment specialist

Related: How To Become a Human Resources Manager: Career Duties, Salary and Qualifications

Entry requirements

The entry requirements for I/O psychologists and HR professionals differ significantly. I/O psychologists must pursue undergraduate education and an advanced degree, such as a master's or doctoral degree, to be eligible to work in their field. Most candidates choose to pursue an M.S. in organizational psychology, but others go on to earn a Ph.D in I/O psychology or a Psy.D., both of which qualify them for a higher earning potential and advanced employment opportunities. In addition, most I/O psychologists need to pursue experiential learning opportunities, such as internships, fellowships or clerkships to develop their high-level skills as researcher-practitioners.

While I/O psychologists rarely need to obtain licensure to work in their roles, some do so in order to work in clinical environments. Comparatively, human resources managers typically only need to earn a bachelor's degree to enter their field and may pursue programs in human resources or business administration. They may also benefit from honing their skills in entry-level roles or through experiential learning opportunities. Some human resources management professionals choose to pursue master's degrees in leadership to secure advanced positions in organizational management. In addition, they have the option to earn certification from various sources to legitimize their skills.

Earning potential

The national average salary for a human resources manager is $69,206 per year with the potential to earn additional compensation of $5,000 per year in the form of a cash bonus. This figure may vary depending on a professional's exact role, qualifications, location and years of experience. For instance, a professional in this field who has a decade of experience and earns an advanced degree may be able to enjoy higher rates of compensation. In addition, human resources managers often receive various employer-sponsored benefits, such as health, dental, vision, life and disability insurance, retirement plans and paid time off (PTO).

While I/O psychologists may receive similar employer-sponsored benefits, they typically have an increased earning potential due to their specialization and the field's high barriers to entry in terms of education and experience. In general, the national average salary for psychologists is $94,870 per year with the possibility of advancement. This figure may be higher for I/O psychologists specifically, as they often work for large organizations with substantial budgets for development activities.

Job outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 6% increase in employment of human resources managers over the next 10 years. This growth rate is faster than average for all occupations and may result in an addition of approximately 10,400 new jobs in the field. The BLS attributes this growth to the increasing need for human resources managers as new companies continue to emerge. In addition, since these professionals play a crucial role in ensuring organizations adhere to regulations, they may be in demand as employment laws regarding equal employment opportunity (EEO) and healthcare evolve.

Comparatively, the BLS projects a 3% increase in employment for all psychologists, a projection that encompasses industrial-organizational psychologists, over the same period. This growth rate is as fast as average for all occupations and may result in an addition of approximately 5,700 new jobs in the field. The BLS attributes this growth rate to the continuing need for industrial-organizational psychologists to improve employee retention rates, increase organizational efficiency and build company culture. The BLS notes that these professionals may face more competition than other psychologists and those with training in quantitative research methods may have an advantage over other candidates.

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