Should You Hire For Experience Or Potential?

Russell Porter

Have you ever applied for a job and been rejected due to lack of experience?

Traditionally, recruiters have focused on candidates’ background and experience of rather than talent or potential. The assumption is that if you’ve done ABC somewhere else, of course you can do ABC just as well here too.

But experience does not equal performance. It’s possible to do the same job year after year without significant change or growth. So five years of experience might actually equate to one year of learning. It’s also possible to do a job for many years without doing it well!

This approach doesn’t always work in today’s job market

People without “direct” prior experience succeed all the time. When someone is promoted, made a manager, transferred to a new role or industry, or is hired as an undergrad, they usually adapt and overcome any shortcomings in experience. And in today’s technology-driven, digitally disrupted world of work, what has worked in the past may not work in the future. Products, processes, experiences, and even education quickly become obsolete, especially in fast-moving fields like technology, finance, medicine, and retail.

And in new, emerging industries, experience is less important than creative thinking, adaptability, and communication skills.

Where do rookies outperform veterans?

Author and leadership educator Liz Wiseman’s research revealed something surprising – experienced people outperform inexperienced people at work only by a small margin. Even more surprising, if you look only at knowledge industries, rookies actually outperform veterans on average. Inexperienced people outperform experienced people when:

a) The work is innovative

b) Speed is important; rookies are faster than those with a lot more experience

Interview questions that focus on talent rather than experience

There are some simple interview questions that help reveal potential. Claudio Fernandez-Araoz, author of It’s Not the How or the What but the Who, suggests a few cues that can reveal potential.

Business growth expert Royston Guest advises asking the following three questions at the start of an interview:

  1. What do you know about our business?
  2. What questions do you have for us?
  3. Why you?

These questions reveal how well prepared the candidate is, how they deal with the unexpected, and how they take control of the interview to demonstrate why they’re a great fit.

Leveling the playing field

An individual’s performance and potential are not always apparent from a resume or even an interview. Sometimes a resume can represent circumstance and luck more than talent.

And one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to recruiting – talent comes in many forms. The way a role is advertised and the way someone is interviewed and screened can limit who can be successful during the hiring process. For example, unconscious bias can limit our focus on who we consider for a particular role.

To help combat this, recruiting technology using machine learning algorithms predicts and flags language that may be biased. This helps customers avoid unconsciously making jobs more or less attractive to candidates with a specific background or profile, especially when the wording is gender-biased.

Another example is that people on the autism spectrum find themselves locked out of opportunities in the workplace, with 80%+ being unemployed. They often lack the traditional social skills to make it past an interview, even though they may be highly qualified for the position. An Autism at Work program helps mitigate this with non-traditional recruiting processes that counteract the typical challenges people with autism face. People on the spectrum are recruited for roles that tap into their specific skills and talents such as exceptional analytical skills and high conscientiousness. In addition, some companies are trialing a new recruiting approach that minimizes bias by using anonymous evaluations from a network of expert screeners. The result is a faster, more inclusive hiring process focusing on what candidates can do, not what they write on their resume.

Does your organization hire for potential or experience?

Hiring for potential rather than experience can be a leap of faith. But the payoffs can be significant. I think the right mix of talent vs. experience depends on the situation but, at the very least, we should be aware of when each works best and make a conscious decision rather than leaving it to chance.

I hope that if nothing else, this article has prompted you to give a second look to candidates who may be a perfect fit except for their credentials.

When does your organization prioritize potential over experience? Do you have a standard way to decide which approach will work best? Click here for a more in-depth guide on how to encourage diversity, drive referrals, and find the perfect fit when acquiring talent.

Russell Porter

About Russell Porter

Russell Porter is part of the Business Transformation Advisory team with SAP SuccessFactors. He partners with HR and business leaders to help them identify, deliver and realise the value of innovative cloud-based Human Resources solutions – so that organisations can optimise their workforce and achieve their strategic business objectives. Based in Sydney, he provides industry thought leadership, strategic solution advice and expert consultation across the Asia Pacific region.