How Important Is Past Experience in Predicting Job Performance?

By Roshan Thiran|22-01-2020 | 1 Min Read

Throughout the world, hiring managers interview people on a daily basis and one of the most common questions is, “Can you tell me about your experience?”

The English writer Aldous Huxley wrote that “Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him.” As managers, we’ve traditionally looked at experience as an indication of quality in a candidate. Someone interviewing for a sales job who has five years of sales experience must be a high-potential candidate, right?

Any hiring manager will know that the interview process can be lengthy, and so it makes sense that interview questions should get to the heart of a candidate’s suitability for the role. On the surface, experience feels like the most accurate indicator of a person’s qualification, and the question has been the primary focus for most organisations.

However, researchers from Florida State University discovered some interesting findings from a review of 81 studies comparing employees’ past experience with job performance levels in their current roles.

Astonishingly, they found that there was a very weak correlation between a person’s past experience and the standard of their work in their latest organisation. They also discovered that an employee’s likelihood of staying long-term in a new organisation had no bearing on how long they stayed on at previous jobs.

The lead researcher, Prof. Chad H. Van Iddekinge, would have been surprised at such findings, given how much importance is placed on candidates’ previous experience. The studies covered mainstream industries including emergency services, sales and customer service, and most participants were people on the floor – there were no senior executive participants. So, if previous experience doesn’t matter so much, why do we still focus on it – and what should we look for instead?

As mentioned, experience is simply the quickest way to get an idea of someone. If you interview a sales exec with eight years’ experience, there’s every chance you’ll have them ahead of the fresh graduate who’s had very little working experience. Perhaps we have a bias towards those with more ‘life experience’, although this can work against organisations: a longer work history doesn’t necessarily equate to an effective, creative candidate.

Rather than using experience as a benchmark indicator, Prof. Van Iddekinge recommends looking at three other areas: knowledge, skills, and personality traits. Education should also be included in considering a potential hire. However trendy it might be these days to overlook qualifications, they still matter as they provide some insight into a person’s level of competency and skill set.

For example, a person might have been a licensed therapist for 20 years. While that sounds impressive, it really doesn’t tell us much on its own. How many hours has the person logged in the last year or two? If it’s the bare minimum to maintain their licence, then perhaps the candidate with five years’ experience who has logged two or three times as many hours might be the better choice.

And what about skills? Is the person with 20 years’ experience up-to-date on the latest research, methods and techniques? Or have they become comfortable in ‘what they know’? How many training seminars have they attended? How do they interact and work with others? Are they open to learning new ideas and approaches, or closed off to the idea? Do they see a supervisor or coach to help them continue in their development? Are they still as enthusiastic about what they do or are they simply in a comfortable rut?

All of these questions highlight why focusing primarily on experience isn’t as helpful as we initially believed. Managers might say that the probationary period helps us to get a sense of a person’s suitability; however, quite often, the bar is set low at this point: so long as the new hire performs sufficiently during those three or six months, they are – more often than not – confirmed as a permanent team member.

You may be interested in: Skill Will Only Get You So Far – Hard Work Matters Too

As leaders, we talk about the need to adapt and innovate to keep our edge and ensure we are maximising our organisation’s potential. On the basis of Prof. Van Iddekinge’s research, we might need to start considering new ways of approaching how we assess and recruit new hires.

It’s not that experience should be disregarded completely, but that we need to look more closely at who we consider bringing into the organisation if we want to welcome the best people to work alongside us.

So, the question is: what can we do to ensure that our process is robust and covers all the angles that need to be looked at before we think of writing up the offer letter?

I’d be interested to hear the thoughts from those among my connections who make hiring decisions within their organisations. Would it be difficult to change the way we interview for hires? If yes, why? If not, what changes would you make and how do you think they would impact an organisation?

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Roshan is the Founder and CEO of the Leaderonomics Group. He believes that everyone can be a leader and "make a dent in the universe", in their own special ways. He is constantly featured on TV, radio and numerous publications sharing the Science of Building Leaders and on leadership development. Follow him at www.roshanthiran.com
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