Why you should ignore experience when it comes to recruitment!

Many companies recruit candidates based on their experience. I believe a person’s skills are much more important for finding a good fit. This is why.

Don’t be fooled by experience alone. It can be much better to recruit new employees based on their skills.


Everyone seems to follow the same paradigm when it comes to recruiting employees. When it’s time for a company or organization to find new talent, what tends to happen is that those in charge often ignore recruitment processes and default to their ways. In most cases, this means looking at a CV’s experience list and, sometimes, letting unconscious biases affect their decisions.


A different approach can provide much better results for finding the best candidates for a job opening.


I’m talking about focusing primarily on skills. Not the ones someone can learn but the innate abilities that make a person perfect for a specific position. In this article, I will share my process for recruiting people and why experience isn’t the best indicator of someone’s potential.


How Recruitment Normally Works

If you need to bring someone new into the business, most companies will usually default to a standard logical but ineffective process. No matter who is in charge of the recruiting, in most cases, their process will look something like this:


First, they will approach one or more agencies and get some CVs, often they might also publish an ad with some details about the opening and the ideal profile, again calling for CVs.


All applicants that show an interest and send the documentation (which in some cases, although less each day, includes a more personalized cover letter) will then be transcribed into a spreadsheet.


From there, they will pick the people that have the most relevant experience for the job - admittedly while also considering other factors like salary expectations, education, locations, but experience is often the most important factor.


Lastly, the person will be asked to attend an in-person or remote interview which often won’t be thought through in terms of what that interview is trying to assess - and will often also result in the candidate being recruited who the interviewer likes most or impresses best.


In most cases, the result of the entire process will be based on a gut feeling. There is little science to it; the recruiter will select a few candidates from the initial list and call them. Then, they will pick the one they consider to be the best fit for the job - or the one they liked the best. Lastly, the person will be offered the job.

The problem? Many times, the person will turn out to be a less-than-perfect fit for the role because so much weight is given to experience and what really matters is missed. This has huge costs, not just in terms of the additional agency fees and the wasted cost of paying a salary and training someone who doesn’t work out. The biggest cost is often the fact that the business has to manage without that much needed member of the team for so long.

The Problem With Recruitment Processes

The above process is considered quite standard. However, it is far from ideal. The main reason is that we are not identifying what it the characteristics of the perfect candidate are and as a result we are not testing to see if the candidate has those characteristics… and it’s full of opportunities for bias and discrimination.


Even if we manage to get rid of those preconceptions and be as neutral as possible, there is still an issue: The recruitment process, as explained, is not particularly scientific. A lot of candidates will be selected based on either experience or that gut feeling I mentioned that is rather difficult to explain but familiar to most people. You can explain why a person might feel like the right choice, but when faced with many good CVs, the ultimate choice can sometimes come down to personality.


For a while now, there’s been a debate over which is the most crucial factor when recruiting a new person for a job opening. Is it potential, or is it experience? Traditionally, experience was considered a better indicator. It makes sense; someone who has spent years or decades doing something and receiving training in a particular field will indeed have extensive knowledge to draw from in their new job. However, hiring for skills is a better choice.


The Different Recruiting Levels

Let’s start from the beginning. There are five different levels at which you can (or should) recruit. These are:

  • Skills

  • Values

  • Motivations

  • Behaviours

  • Experience

Experience is probably the easiest thing to review and change. As you go up the list, however, things get more complex. Behaviours are more challenging to change, and values are nearly impossible to bend (not that it's something you should aim for!).


The question is: Can you give people specific skills? Well, you can teach someone to drive a car. But the skill part, in that case, will have more to do with a person’s ability to, for example, react fast. Skills, in my opinion, refer more to the abilities with which you are born. Things like your capacity to do maths, your people skills, your empathy, or your curiosity. These are not things you can give someone; we all have them to different degrees.


So, going back to the list I mentioned above, if you recruit based on experience, according to Lorraine Makepeace, you will have a 25% chance of finding the perfect candidate. However, if you recruit on Skills, that number increases to 75%. That's quite a difference. And the main issue is: You can give someone experience, but you can't change a person's natural skills. Is there, then, a way to recruit talent based on these abilities?

Recruiting for Skills

If you want to be truly successful in your recruitment, it's better if you try to recruit by focusing on your candidate's skills. To do this, it’s important first to identify the skills required for the role.


We usually start with a job definition and then really think what it is that will make that person successful in the role. You can look at what the job entails and what talents are needed to do those things well. You can also think about previous people who have been successful and what it was that made them good, and look at people who haven’t been successful and think through what they lacked.


Once you are clear on the skills you need you need to work out how to test them.


Sometimes a specific interview question or approach might test for a skill. For example, if you are testing for curiosity, then whether the person asks questions during the interview might be a good measure. I don’t mean the standard questions at the end that they have rehearsed, I mean when you tell them they something about yourself say, do they enquire further, do they say nothing or do they talk about themselves.


But the best path to learn about a person's skills is not always via an interview. There are a myriad of other ways you can find and evaluate a candidate's skills.


If you want to test someone for organizational ability, something you could do is ask the person to accomplish a quick exercise. For example, when I was looking for a new EA, I asked the candidates to prepare a spreadsheet of possible flights to New York. This helped me see how they dealt with researching and organizing the different types of information involved in planning such a trip. If I wanted to test for something else, for example, IQ, I could use some psychometric tests. Or I could ask someone to write a cover letter if I wanted to test for literacy. Or answer specific questions in English if I wanted to check their language skills.


These are just some examples. There is no limit to the ways in which you can test people to see if they have the skills you require, and only you will know what exactly you want to prioritize when looking for new talent.


Collecting Skill Data

The best recruitment process is the one that can identify the skills you need for a role, whatever these might be. It's always better if you draw a plan before you go asking for CVs.


In a lot of cases, CVs might not even be necessary as a first step. You can instead use an application form with a set of relevant questions. For example, asking why the person wants the job. Or you can use an exercise to test, on the fly, whether someone has the required skills. If you focus on these factors every time you interview someone, you won't have to worry about being biassed.


Conclusion

If you follow the standard recruitment process and start by looking at someone's experience list and then calling for an immediate interview, you are likely to fail in finding the right candidate. Success comes with having a rigorous process to understand what you want and to make sure you get it. The planning of these evaluations or considerations to find the skills should be an important (if not the most important) part of the recruitment process.


Experience is usually a deciding factor when employers need to hire someone urgently. Someone who is perceived to have high "potential" doesn't provide an immediate return on investment compared to another candidate with years of experience and a history of consistent performance. What do you think? Are risk-averse employers suffering from perspective blindness and missing a trick when it comes to hiring top talent?