In Part I of this “Why is Hiring Broken?” series, I examined the myth of “hiring as an art,” in Part II, I discussed the myth of expert prediction, and in this Part III, I outline the myth of work experience. 11b1a12

Look around LinkedIn: Virtually every job posting contains a work experience requirement. On the surface it makes a lot of sense: The theory is that – through your prior related experience – you’ve gained the knowledge and skills needed to be productive faster and perform better than someone who’s inexperienced (Rynes, Orlitzky, & Bretz, 1997).

But is this true?

What industry leaders say

Google’s SVP of People Operations Laszlo Bock basically dismisses the value of experience:

“Most of the time the nonexpert will come up with the same answer [as an expert] because most of the time it’s not that hardSure, once in a while they will mess it up, but once in a while they’ll also come up with an answer that is totally new.”

Hubspot’s Chief Revenue Officer Mark Roberge found the conventional wisdom regarding work experience was wrong:

“For us, experience didn’t matter as muchI did a lot of experiments with experience level — like was it better to have 15 years of experience or no sales experience? — and there was a strong correlation between success at HubSpot and less prior experienceAs people have more experience, they become less moldable, which is important in our space because most reps have never sold something like our product before.”

Sales expert Anthony Iannarino thinks a focus on hiring for work experience is completely misguided:

“The shortest route [for hiring] is to find someone who has already done that job. But this approach is completely wrongEven without extensive experience people who innately possess [the desired] qualities, and who are coachable, may move to results faster than those who are rigid and inflexible. In fact, the more experience they have on their resume, the more bad habits they might have.”

Harvard Business School professor Gautam Mukunda’s research on leaders reveals the inconsistent effects of experience:

“If you choose an insider who you know can do the job well, most of the time that person won’t perform any differently from any other top candidate with lots of experience. Such insiders—I call them “filtered leaders”—might be good, but they probably won’t be brilliant. It’s the unfiltered leaders, the outsiders without lots of experience, who perform the very best.” But he cautions these inexperienced leaders are “also more likely to crash and burn.”

There’s a striking commonality here: Work experience might make someone a more dependable employee, but also a less adaptable one.

So why is work experience such a frustratingly inconsistent predictor of performance?

What research reveals about work experience and job performance

A meta-analysis with data from 31,428 salespeople found that work experience (measured as years of total selling experience) was indeed correlated with objective sales performance (Franke & Park, 2006).

However, the correlation is small enough that, although the more experienced salesperson will have higher sales on average, the researchers conclude, “there will be many exceptions to this pattern in most sales forces.”

What are these exceptions based on?

A fascinating 2009 study conducted by Professor Dokko and her colleagues provides insight on the costs and benefits of work experience. They found that work experience was positively correlated with work-related knowledge and skill, but once the effects of a person’s knowledge and skill were accounted for, experience and job performance were negatively related.

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Source: Dokko, G., Wilk, S. L., & Rothbard, N. P. (2009). Unpacking prior experience: How career history affects job performance. Organization Science, 20, 51-68.

These authors theorize that the costs of work experience are rooted in cognitive and behavioral rigidities learned in previous jobs that act as organizational baggage, hurting performance by “weighing down their responsiveness or ability to reflect in the new situation.”

Their theory of organizational baggage is supported by their findings that employees who were more adaptable and who felt they fit well with the culture of their current company displayed less of a detrimental effect of prior experience. The research converges amazingly well with what the industry leaders stated above.

So how much should you care about work experience when you’re hiring?

The takeaways

Industry experts and academics agree that it’s an unreliable predictor of future work performance. The unquestioned assumption of the predictive power of prior work experience is one of the biggest reasons why hiring is broken.

So why does everyone use it?

It’s an easy shortcut and it makes intuitive sense. Instead of using work experience as an imperfect proxy for work-related knowledge and skill, you can more accurately identify job candidates who are more likely to succeed by assessing their knowledge and skill directly.

To job candidates: Understand that you’re facing a big challenge when you don’t have the desired work experience. You need to think and work hard to best showcase your abilities and talent in lieu of work experience. For advice on how, read my post here.

To employers: Next time you post a job listing requiring “X years of experience,” ask yourself if your rationale for doing so is based on facts or because “it’s the way I’ve always done it.” It’s not always easy overcoming such an ingrained belief, but you might be ignoring the best talent if you don’t.

Got a question? Ask me in the comments below. Or tweet @ideal.

This is Part III of a 5-part series on Why is Hiring Broken?

Photo credit: topher via photopin cc

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Ji-A Min

Ji-A Min

Head Data Scientist at Ideal
Ji-A Min is the Head Data Scientist at Ideal. With a Master’s in Industrial-Organizational Psychology, Ji-A promotes best practices and data-based HR. She writes about trends and research in talent acquisition, people analytics, and workplace diversity.
Ji-A Min