HR Careers

Careers Spotlight: What Do People Scientists Do?

September 23, 2021
November 7, 2023
Deanna deBara
Lattice Team

Historically, there hasn’t been much overlap between Human Resources and analytics. The people who spent their time crunching numbers and analyzing data typically weren’t the people who were leading the hiring process or developing initiatives to improve employee experience (and vice versa).

But all that’s changed with the field of People science, which, as the name implies, bridges the gap between People and science, and started taking a more data-centric approach to better managing employees — and improving the workplace in the process.

“People science is used as a catch-all to describe a number of different approaches toward improving the human experience and outcomes at work,” explained David Shar, MPS, SHRM-SCP, an industrial and organizational psychology consultant with a focus in People science and founder of performance-management consulting firm IlluminatePMC. “These approaches, whether through the lens of industrial [or] organizational psychology, organizational development, or other fields, typically utilize the scientific method to collect and analyze data in order to inform decision-making [related to Human Resources within a company].”

People science is growing in popularity — and, as organizations look to expand their People science operations, there’s also a growing need for People scientists.

People science can be a great career path for candidates who are equally as passionate about data and analytics as they are about HR, People management, and employee experience. But what, exactly, do People scientists do? And if this career path interests you, what do you need to do to land a job?

In this installment of our Careers Spotlight series, we’ll take a deep dive into the People scientist role — what it is; what People scientists are responsible for within an organization; and what kind of skills, background, and experience you need to get the job. By the end of this guide, you’ll have a better understanding of the People scientist position and how to determine if it’s the right role for you — and, if it is, how to get your foot in the door.

What Is a People Scientist?

People scientists take a data-driven approach to understanding People-related issues within an organization. “People scientists survey, interview, observe, and focus group employees and other stakeholders to understand behaviors, motivations, and attitudes, as well as knowledge, skills, and abilities,” said Shar. They then dig into their findings to gain a deeper understanding of any issues of concern, and based on what they discover, develop data-backed solutions that lead to better outcomes and experiences for employees.

The type of initiatives People scientists work on usually depends on a variety of factors, including company culture, team dynamics, and an organization’s People-related needs, but are all related to driving more successful outcomes for the organization — and the people who work there. For example, People scientists may be tasked with figuring out how to increase employee engagement, develop a more effective performance management strategy, or optimize a company’s onboarding practices to increase employee retention.

What Does a People Scientist Do?

As mentioned, People scientists take a scientific, data-backed approach to solving People-related issues. To illustrate how this manifests in the role’s day-to-day responsibilities, here are some common tasks, responsibilities, and projects that typically fall to People scientists.

1. Work with key stakeholders to identify areas of interest.

People scientists are charged with better understanding — and helping to solve — People-related issues within an organization. But in order to do that, they need to know what those problems are, and that means collaborating with leaders throughout an organization.

People scientists work with key stakeholders at a company (for example, C-level executives, HR directors, or People managers) to gain insight into what’s happening with the organization, identify areas of interest worth exploring, and clearly define any issues that need addressing. Through this process, People scientists get a better sense of leadership’s priorities and the problem or problems facing the organization, and can come up with the best approach to explore, and ultimately, solve it.

2. Collect data from employees.

People scientists are all about data. Once they clearly understand the People-related issue(s) at play, People scientists get to work collecting the data they need from employees.

Depending on what kind of issues they’re dealing with, the data collection process may include:

  • Connecting directly with employees for one-on-one interviews
  • Developing and administering employee surveys
  • Running focus groups
  • Collecting data from relevant software and apps (e.g. an internal tool that measures employee engagement)
  • Collecting external data (e.g. industry statistics)  

In addition to collecting the data they need, People scientists also have to process and organize that data, whether that means entering data into a spreadsheet for further analysis or transcribing employee interviews.

3. Analyze the data and use it to make business recommendations.

Once People scientists have collected their data, it’s time to roll up their sleeves and analyze it. Data analysis can take many forms: It might involve going through hundreds of lines of software usage statistics to see which apps are supporting employee productivity, or it could mean reading through transcripts of in-depth employee interviews to identify any trends or themes across interviews.

Once their data analysis is complete, People scientists take their findings and use them to make recommendations on how to best address an issue and create a better, more effective environment for the organization’s employees. And, because they have cold, hard data to back up their recommendations, they’re often more likely to be adopted than they would be without such concrete metrics.

“People scientists have a unique opportunity to back up sometimes softer HR initiatives with hard data,” Shar pointed out. “Executives might push back at an appeal for raises or more vacation days or the ability to telework, but when there is make the case that these initiatives will ultimately benefit the bottom line, [the findings and recommendations] tend to hold greater weight.”

How to Become a People Scientist

If the People scientist job description sounds right up your alley, you’re probably wondering how to get started. Let’s take a look at some of the key attributes you’ll need to land a position in the People science field.

1. Experience

People scientist is not an entry level role; in order to get your foot in the door, you need to have a solid amount of experience in some aspect of People science, whether that’s Human Resources, data analysis, statistics, or psychology.

“A lot of People scientists start out in HR,” said Shar. “Some have psychology backgrounds or a strong background within data analysis. Many enter the field as industrial [or] organizational psychologists.”

2. An Equal Balance of People and Analytics Skills

Some individuals think of themselves as being people-oriented. Others consider themselves to be much more logical, analytical, and numbers-focused. But if you want to make it as a People scientist, you need an equal balance of both.

“Successful People scientists often balance communication skills needed to build trust within the organization with analytic skills used to identify trends and relationships within the data they collect,” Shar said.

3. Curiosity 

Successful People scientists don’t take issues at face value. They know that in order to truly understand what’s happening within an organization, they need to dig deeper — which is why curiosity is a must-have trait for People scientists.

“When presented with a problem, People scientists dig deeper and investigate, often finding that the original ‘problem’ was just a symptom of something deeper,” Shar noted.

For example, say the C-level team approaches a People scientist with an issue related to employee absenteeism. In order to get to the root of the problem, a good People scientist will get curious and investigate the why behind the absenteeism. Instead of assuming the absenteeism is an employee issue, they might compare absentee rates with major leadership changes, and realize that the problem with employee absenteeism is actually a problem with a high rate of leadership turnover. From there, the company is better equipped to address the root cause — and find an effective, lasting solution.

Successful organizations invest in their people, and People scientists play a huge role in helping leadership better understand their employees and creating work environments that foster employee happiness and high performance. So if you have an equal passion for people and analytics, and you’ve already gained some experience in HR, psychology, data science, or a related field, aiming for a role as a People scientist, whether at your current company or a new organization, could be a great next step in your career. Being a People scientist is a challenging, rewarding role that gives you an opportunity to positively impact an organization — and, importantly, the people who work there.