Hiring for Potential or Experience?

HR executives have mixed feelings about whether it is best to hire for potential or experience. A new report by background check veteran Michael Klazema delves into the topic and offers arguments for both. Let’s take a closer look.

December 6, 2017 – It’s one of the biggest questions asked by first-time hiring managers: Is it better to hire people based on their experience or their potential?

A cursory Google search reveals that the most popular answer to this question is “potential.” Most hiring experts seem to think that hiring someone for what they could do in the future is smarter than hiring someone because of what they’ve done in the past. The truth, however, is more gray than black and white, according to a new report authored by Michael Klazema, who develops products for criminal background checks and for improving online customer experiences in the background screening industry.

In the report, Mr. Klazema outlined opposing arguments as to why one might hire based on either experience or potential, and how to incorporate the best of both approaches to achieve good results.

Hiring for Experience

“Let’s start with experience – the thing that most hiring experts don’t choose first,” said Mr. Klazema. It’s important to note that the ‘experts say you should hire based on potential’ narrative is an oversimplification. If hiring managers really thought hiring based on experience was a bad idea, then it wouldn’t be standard operating procedure to require all new applicants to submit resumes. After all, the resume is a document that primarily exists to tell employers about a person’s previous experience.”

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Certainly, hiring based on experience has its benefits. A person with experience performing a similar role to the one you are filling offers more certainty than someone who is unproven, the report said. “If someone in your applicant pool has already performed all the key responsibilities of the job in a professional setting, it can be comforting to hire that person,” Mr. Klazema said. Theoretically, you won’t have to do as much training or hand-holding. The person will just be able to hit the ground running.

Such benefits exist for any job. Hiring for experience, however, is something that is most often done for extremely high-level positions. “When it comes to filling executive, presidential and other leadership-oriented roles within an organization, companies are more likely to conduct what is called an ‘executive search’ than they are to hire internally or conduct a standard recruitment process,” Mr. Klazema said. “There are companies that specialize in helping businesses with executive search. Experience is a huge part of these searches, because businesses simply aren’t willing to hand high-profile responsibilities over to unproven candidates.”

Why Hire for Potential, Not Experience
Hiring experienced talent has always been a challenge. Luring talent away from rivals, and then onboarding and training them to work successfully within an organization’s parameters, can be difficult. That’s why retention rates for experienced hires at many concerns are abysmal.

An example of “hiring for experience” can be found in professional or college athletics. When it comes to hiring head coaches, most teams or programs won’t take a chance on inexperienced (or even relatively inexperienced) people, said the report. Prospects need to have held big coaching jobs and have strong win-loss records with previous teams to be considered. Businesses often take a similar approach with an executive search, simply because too much is at stake to bet on potential.

Hiring for Potential

Of course, most hiring processes are not as high-stakes as appointing a new CEO or pro sports head coach. It’s with lower-stakes jobs and recruitment processes that the argument to “hire for potential” really holds water.

“There are a lot of reasons to hire based on potential rather than just experience,” said Mr. Klazema. “Experience listed on a resume might make an applicant look like the perfect fit, but is it all true? Without background checks and verification checks, you really can’t put all your eggs in that basket. Assessing a person’s character, demeanor, skills and cultural fit can give you a better picture of who they are as an employee—not just who they want you to think they are.”

Of course, the pursuit of cultural fit can be a convincing argument for hiring based on potential. “Someone with minimal experience who meshes well with your team will almost always deliver more positive results than someone who clashes with your culture but has extensive experience,” said Mr. Klazema. “No employee exists in a vacuum, so thinking about how every hire you make will impact the morale and effectiveness of your team is essential. This kind of consideration is more about potential than experience by nature.”

Looking at a person’s work experience and education alone leaves many unanswered questions. For instance, is the person passionate about your company? Someone who asks a lot of questions about what you do, your company values, or the projects you are working on is clearly interested in getting this job, not just a job, said the report. “That person is almost certainly going to put more effort into their work than someone who doesn’t care as deeply – regardless of which person is more ‘experienced’ on paper,” said Mr. Klazema.

Close the Book on Searches and Hire the Best Candidates Quickly
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“If you only hire based on experience, you miss the chance to get in on the ground floor with brilliant young professionals,” he said. “Plenty of recent graduates have the passion, talent, ambition and potential to change your business for the better.” Some might be future leaders of your organization, while others have innovations in the making that could help produce a lot of money for your company, said the report. If you ignore everything but experience, you will never have an opportunity to discover the next big talent in your industry.

Planning a Smart Hiring Process

So it is that potential matters in the hiring process, but so does experience. “Without considering education and experience, you risk ending up with a person who is completely unqualified for the job at hand,” said Mr. Klazema. “Without thinking about potential, you risk hiring someone who is completely mismatched with your culture or who can’t break bad habits from past jobs.”

The best strategy is to mix approaches, the report concluded. Conduct your hiring processes based on potential, looking for the people who you think fit best in your business or bring the most to the table. At the same time, don’t think that because someone seems charming in the interview that they automatically have “potential” in your company.

“Your judgments on future potential can and should be informed by experience, from the skills a person has accumulated to what their last employer had to say about them during the reference check,” said Mr. Klazema. “By blending experience and potential into one hiring mentality, you’ll find better people, minimize turnover and protect your company culture.”

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor; and Will Schatz, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media

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