Hiring for Potential vs. Experience

Assessments for Hiring high potentials
by Deborah Bell

As Vice President, Consulting, Deborah conducts assessments, manages consulting projects, and designs and delivers custom solutions. She enjoys building relationships with her clients and uncovering their needs so she can serve as a trusted adviser and business partner.

Frustrated by the lack of “qualified” candidates? Even in the face of mass layoffs in the tech industry, economists agree that the labor market will be tight for at least the next few years.  Finding talent that checks all the boxes in terms of education and experience will continue to pose challenges for talent acquisition teams.  The good new is that there is an immense amount of opportunity to find the talent you need by redefining what “qualified” looks like.  Here’s how:

1. Make the business case for decreasing focus on experience.

The amount of required experience listed in job descriptions is often excessive.  You can build a case to support lowering these requirements based on the research:

  • Experience doesn’t predict well.  A recent meta-analysis (which aggregates results from all relevant studies on a specific topic) showed that, regardless of how it is measured, experiences that people have with other companies are poor predictors of their long-term performance in a new company. 
  • Potential predicts better than experience. Research consistently shows that cognitive ability, conscientiousness, and compound personality traits, such as integrity are better predictors of performance than outside experience. Why? Because if you are bright, have a good work ethic, and act with integrity, you have the ability to learn, the self-discipline to put that learning into practice, and the ability to earn trust in a new organization.
  • People exaggerate experience.  A good deal of research has shown that people are not always honest on their resumes.  One survey revealed that almost half of respondents said they know someone who included false information on a resume, and three quarters of those individuals cited job experience as the area that was embellished, making it top on the list.
  • Experienced leaders hired from the outside tend to fail.  External hires at the senior leadership level are more likely to fail than succeed – many of them within the first 18 months. 
  • Giving (rather than requiring) experience gives you the competitive advantage.  Companies who build talent from within and have a formal succession planning strategy have the competitive advantage when it comes to attracting and retaining talent. 

2. Make the business case for decreasing focus on education. 

With increasing debate over the value of a college education, and more companies focusing on Diversity, Equality, and Justice, organizations are looking at alternatives to university degrees.

  • Apprenticeships. These are gaining popularity in the U.S., opening doors for people with high potential who can’t afford to go to college, giving access to high quality jobs to underrepresented groups.  Consult the DOL website and do some benchmarking to find out how your competitors are using apprenticeships to recruit and retain this untapped source of potential.
  • Identify critical future roles that can be filled by inexperienced people and create programs to give them the experiences they need to build the necessary KSAs.
  • Tuition reimbursement program. For roles that really do require formal education, do an ROI and cost-benefit analysis to build support for this initiative.

3. Evaluate potential at every stage in the hiring process.

Take a look at each stage in the hiring process and find ways to reduce the focus on education and experience and increase the focus on the things that best predict potential.

  • Resume Review: Because people are so focused on checking the education and experience boxes, they often overlook red flags. Do a careful and thorough screening for misspellings, formatting inconsistencies, grammar issues, typos, etc. When resumes contain many such problems – or even 1 or 2 egregious issues – it is a red flag. Why? Because it usually means that a candidate lacks the cognitive ability to detect the errors and/or the conscientiousness to put forth the effort to turn out a high quality output. This is problematic because cognitive ability and conscientiousness are two of best predictors of job performance. Especially in professional and leadership roles, many of the tasks that you need them to do (and problems that you need them to solve) will undoubtedly be more complex than the act of putting together a resume that is not replete with typos!
  • Interviews:  Structured interviews are among the best methods for gaining information that is predictive of job performance, whereas unstructured interviews are weak predictors of success.  When crafting structured interview guides, be sure to balance technical skills and experience-related questions with realistic job previews, situational judgment questions, and culture-fit items. Train interviewers to focus less on experience and more on what the person brings to the table in terms of work ethic, problem-solving skills, emotional intelligence and leadership style.
  • Objective assessments: This phase should include valid psychometric tests that measure the best predictors of potential (i.e., cognitive ability, compound personality traits, and leadership style) interpreted by an experienced Psychologist. Ideally, this assessment would NOT include an evaluation of the person’s experiences. The value-add lies in the ability to identify POTENTIAL to learn from new experiences, put those learnings into practice at work, and align with your culture.

Bottom line: Hire based on potential – not experience!

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