Harvard Business Review recently revealed a review of 81 studies that investigated the link between an employee’s prior work experience and their performance in a new organisation.  The HBR study found no significant correlation. Even when people had completed tasks, held roles, or worked in functions or industries relevant to their current ones, it did not translate into better performance inside a new organisation.

Their conclusion doesn’t surprise us – we know that experience isn’t a great predictor of a new recruits’ success.

It seems counterintuitive

It might seem intuitive that applicants who have general work experience or have already done the job that they’re applying for would be at an advantage.  But when HBR looked at the 81 studies, they discovered a very weak relationship between pre-hire experience and performance, both in training and on the job.  They also found zero correlation between work experience with earlier employers and retention, or the likelihood that a person would stick with their new organization.

Yet job related experience remains one of the top requirements of many employers when recruiting for a role.  Take a look at any job board and you will see that the majority of roles ask for experience even in non-skilled and entry level jobs.  Intuition might say that experience is important – but the evidence (and our experience as recruiters) doesn’t support the idea that candidates with more experience make for better employees.

Why not ‘experience’?

OK, so we haven’t conducted any formal studies – but anecdotal evidence over 22 years and thousands of positions filled suggests that the reason is that many employers measure ‘experience’ using the wrong metrics.  They sift CV’s based on how long an applicant was in a similar role or how many jobs someone has had. Often sifting out those with less or no direct experience.

The problem is that basic metrics like these say nothing about the quality or the significance of any experience gained, things that have more bearing on future performance.  Applicants with ‘experience’ can often impress with the use of industry jargon and what seem like industry related insight that gives the impression that that they will hit the ground running.  But it’s often not the case. Whilst past behaviour is a great predictor of future behaviour – basic metrics based on experience do not measure behaviours.  The applicant might have failed or stagnated in previous role – the key interview skill is to delve into what a candidate has learned from previous experience and how they actually performed.

Employers should also be considering what sort of organisational culture experience was gained in.  Bringing behaviours from an organisation that doesn’t operate in the same way you do can have a seriously negative effect of team dynamics and business performance.

Sadly, when individuals have been screened out because they lack traditional work experience, we lose the opportunity meet candidates who might impress with their answers and we miss the chance to explore behaviours that might be exactly those we want right for the role

What factors should we focus on?

Employers often assume that candidates with experience have gained appropriate knowledge and skills.  They can also think that certain types of previous roles – for instance sales – attract people with particular and much desired personality traits.  Our advice is to focus on knowledge, skills and traits during interview rather than relying on previous experience or even education.

We can understand why so many organisations ask for experience. Experience seems easy to assess. Have they worked in project management for at least five years? Have they managed people before? Have they got sale experience?  The answer is a binary yes or a no.  Past performance and existing knowledge and skills are more difficult to figure out, especially if all you have is an application form or a CV.

The reality is that at this time of high employment and when the best candidates have choices; companies simply can’t afford to select out candidates who would do really well but don’t have the experience that someone decided to put in the job description.  We live in a time when organisations need to expand the pool of people being considered.

If you would like to know more about how the First Base team can help you find the right people for your organisations please call Tricia Hay on 01453 755330 or email tricia.hay@first-base.co.uk.