If you have worked on a candidate search, you know the routine. First: a list is made of everything the new hire will have to do. In an ideal world, this newbie shows up on day one with HR paperwork complete, knowing where to hang her coat and whom to avoid in the employee break room, and of course, which reports are due when and how to complete them.

This is, of course, ridiculous. Every new employee needs to be on-boarded and trained, and that can be an involved process. Yet at the very least the company, organization, or school must find a candidate who can do all or most of the items in the job description.

Thus the job posting must include qualifications — some required, some preferred. When a candidate’s education, skills, and experience match the list — voila! — the best person for the job is found and everyone can go back to the business at hand.

But has the best person actually been found? The Harvard Business Review recently reported on research that suggests that a candidate's prior experience isn’t telling employers what they think it’s telling them. In “Experience Doesn’t Predict a New Hire’s Success,” Harvard Business Review looked at research led by Chad H. Van Iddekinge of Florida State University.

Van Iddekinge and his colleagues “reviewed 81 studies to investigate the link between an employee’s prior work experience and his or her performance in a new organization. They found no significant correlation between the two. 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.”

This can be expressed in two ways:

  1. People who had extensive experience in a particular industry or role did not perform better than people without that experience.
  2. Or, people who did not have extensive experience in a particular industry or role performed at least as well as those who did.

The researchers did not address why these correlations do or do not exist, but they suggest that perhaps many employers fail to ask candidates deep questions about their past performance, successes, and failures.

Another thought, hinted at in the article, is that institutional culture, the “way we do things,” may create a level playing field, where people without experience have to learn the job and people with experience have to learn how to translate their experience into a new context.

I see two takeaways for institutions that want to hire the best people:

  1. Read the bit in the article about interviewing for behavior. Experience doesn’t guarantee expertise, but asking better questions can qualify that experience.
  2. You now have a wider pool from which to hire. That great candidate who wows you with personality, drive, and achievements, but who also lacks direct experience, may be the best person for the job.

Read "Experience Doesn’t Predict a New Hire’s Success" to learn more about this research.