By Mary Faulkner
When you work in talent acquisition, you’re constantly trying to balance art and science.
On the one hand, you have data that shows you what is happening with talent within your organization and the market at large, you measure your recruiting process efficiency, and track metrics like cost per hire and candidate experience. If someone asks you what’s happening with the hiring process, you can produce a dashboard to highlight successes and challenges like a champ.
On the other hand, there’s a tendency to rely on intuition. Hiring managers and recruiters who have been in the game for a while may throw away all data and rely on a “hunch” about whether a candidate will be successful in the role. When you ask one of these decision-makers why they decided on one candidate over another, the answer typically includes some variation of, “Years of experience doing this told me this was the right person.” And we nod wisely and move on.
This unshakeable belief that experience trumps all carries over to job postings. You see entry-level positions requiring three to five years of experience, much to the frustration of many job seekers. And for some reason, 10+ years is the magical threshold for leadership positions. Not nine years — goodness no, you need that additional year of experience before you can be responsible for a department budget.
If you’re detecting a touch of sarcasm, good job. You must have enough years of experience to recognize it. I’ve never fully bought into the notion that time served equals ability to do the job. Is there an expectation that you learn something during the time you’re in a role? Of course. But I’m sure each of us can think of a person who has been doing the same work for decades, yet still needs someone to show them how to save the file.
My skepticism has been rewarded. A recent article reports that a study by the Journal of Applied Psychology found “years of experience” ranked 23rd of 24 criteria for a successful selection. It beat out “openness to experience,” so I guess that’s something. Once again, the study found structured interviews are the best option for finding a successful candidate, followed closely by assessments on job knowledge.
So why do companies (read: hiring managers) still insist on placing so much emphasis on years of experience?
Point factoring is a common method to price roles. It breaks a position down into quantifiable elements that are then scored and priced, and one of those elements just happens to be years of experience. Unfortunately, this method doesn’t always take into account market rates, skills demands, or other mitigating factors.
The tech industry has adapted more quickly than other industries to distance itself from experience out of necessity. Things move too fast to expect someone to bring five years of experience to every role. The rest of the market needs to catch up with this way of thinking, but that could take an entire overhaul of how the world of work thinks about compensation.
In general, hiring managers try to hire someone who has already done the job. They don’t have time or inclination to train a newbie the skills they need to be successful. They barely have time to explain how to log into the computer, so they try to hire someone who can jump in and do the work on Day One.
Chronic understaffing and overwhelmed managers contribute to this practice, and it will continue as long as organizations maintain the mindset that it’s easier to hire than develop.
Sometimes it’s just easier to do it the way you’ve always done it. After all, it sounds like someone with seven years of experience would be a better hire than someone with two years. Besides, that’s how you were hired, and look at where you are today.
Forging a new hiring path can be difficult. It’s why organizations ignore data that supports structured interviews over seat-of-your-pants conversations. Inertia is real, and it’s shaping how we hire candidates over and over again.
Some of my best hires were Point factoring hires. They were evaluated for things beyond simple job training — learning agility, skills, critical thinking. I have never regretted hiring someone who, on paper, didn’t seem to fit the profile, because I used proven interview and assessment techniques.
When I moved to an organization in the public sector, that option was removed because of bureaucratic rules that stated the job qualifications had to be fully met to even consider a candidate. I understood the desire to ensure an equitable hiring process, but when the qualifications may themselves be inequitable, it’s a tough pill to swallow.
My advice is to review your job descriptions and decide whether experience translates into ability for the role. Are there jobs where you want people to have a certain amount of experience? Of course. Brain surgeon comes to mind. So does an electrician. Both of those roles have an apprentice-type system of learning and evaluation that ensure the person is able to perform the work to an acceptable standard. But most roles don’t follow that formula, so maybe it’s time to rethink your approach.