How to Hire Smarter: Avoid the Experience Trap!

by Keith Francoeur

As Vice President, he is responsible for training and managing PCI’s global assessment team, designing and updating the assessment process (including the research and selection of the test battery and interview format), and handling custom competency mapping.

Do you weight experience on a resume heavily when deciding on whether a candidate is a strong fit for an open position? If so, you are falling victim to the experience trap.  The experience trap happens because of assumptions that people make about a candidate’s experience.  An assumption is something that is believed to be true in the absence of proof.  When it comes to experience, there are four assumptions that people commonly make, some of which may turn out to be correct and others will most certainly be wrong.  By knowing what these are, you can weight experience more appropriately when evaluating a candidate’s suitability for a role, and the truth about how you should view experience will undoubtedly surprise you.   

Assumption 1: A candidate’s resume accurately summarizes their experience.  

A survey¹ 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.  You should keep in mind that there is a decent chance that some of the experience you are seeing on a candidate’s resume is not actually possessed by that individual.

Assumption 2: A lot of experience means that the candidate was successful in those experiences AND their success was due to their strengths.

Even if all of the experience on a resume is true, all it really tells us is how long the individual was in specific roles for and what the nature of their job duties were; it provides us with no information about how well (or poorly) they did those duties and what they actually learned (or didn’t).  Nor does it tell us anything about factors outside of the individual that may have assisted their performance (e.g., having a strong manager or coworkers who helped compensate for their shortcomings) or what methods they may have used that allowed them to acquire those experiences (e.g., taking credit for others’ successes, blaming others for mistakes, or otherwise just being manipulative). 

Assumption 3: Experience doing certain duties is what matters most.

Even if we assume the experience listed on a resume is true and the individual did their job duties well for reasons that are positive and attributable to them, this only speaks to their task performance.  In judging an individual’s overall performance in a company, it is critical to consider not just how well they do their explicit job-related duties, but the extent to which they go above and beyond, contributing to the greater good by displaying Organizational Citizenship Behaviors (OCBs), as well as the extent to which they may put their own interests first by engaging in Counterproductive Work Behaviors (CWBs).  Experience on a resume offers little, if any, information on the former and absolutely none on the latter.  For more information on the importance of OCBs and CWBs, see: Remote Teams: Why Some Thrive and Others Wither.

Assumption 4: Relevant experience in a different company will help a candidate be successful in your company. 

A recent meta-analysis² (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.  That’s right. Despite almost every job requiring a certain level of experience, science suggests that a candidate having that experience tells us very little about successful they will be. How is that possible? Well, the previous 3 truths should give you some ideas.  Besides that, even if you are hiring an individual into a very similar position to the one they hold (or have held) with another company, they will be operating in a new culture, with different expectations to meet, as well as processes and procedures to follow, and interacting with different peers, managers, and direct reports, among other things.

Keys to Hiring Smarter:

If experience is a poor predictor of performance in a new company, what does the research suggest that you focus on instead?  In terms of individual characteristics, the two single best predictors of performance for any role are intelligence and conscientiousness, in that order. 

  • Not surprisingly, those who are brighter and harder working tend to do better than those who are not, regardless of the position that they are in.  
  • Why do these characteristics predict success better than experience? Because individuals who have them have the learning agility, problem-solving skills, motivation, and self-discipline needed to overcome any lack of experience.  Conversely, those who are lacking these characteristics will not get out of experiences what they should and will not have the will or ability to apply that experience to novel situations and adapt to different environments.
  • The smarter way to hire for most positions is to try to select the “best athlete.”  In other words, those who have higher potential to excel in any role they are placed in, even if they lack experience, because of their intelligence and work ethic.  Remember, experience can be gained, but intelligence and work ethic cannot; it is not possible to train someone to be smarter or harder working.  

  • While intellect and work ethic are most accurately measured by having a candidate go through a valid and reliable assessment, you may be able to get some clues to where they stand on these things by reviewing their resume, but you need to know what to look for (hint: it’s not their experience).  Be sure to look for next week’s post to see how you can find the hidden message in a candidate’s resume.    


¹ Resume Lies on The Rise. Newswire, US. August 17, 2017

² Van Iddekinge, C. H., Arnold, J. D., Frieder, R. E., & Roth, P. L. (2019). A meta-analysis of the criterion-related validity of prehire work experience. Personnel Psychology, 72, 571-598.

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