The irrelevance of work experience

What stands as arguably the most critical function of human resources departments? Assuring that a firm’s workforce enables the organisation to achieve its performance objectives.

Some of the most critical components of organisational performance include, first, whether employees achieve or exceed expectations at their own individual levels and second, whether employees quit their jobs thus creating gaps in work coverage, expense in recruitment and training, and uncertainty in future work task outcomes.

However, many employees’ accomplishments in their current roles miss the mark and, in aggregate, cause entities to often undershoot targets. Considering this, ever just take a moment in your office, look around at your colleagues and direct report employees, then mumble to yourself “how is he so slow balancing the books yet he has done this type of accounting job in other companies for over five years?” “Why do students find her to be such a bad lecturer, yet she has taught for the past 10 years?” “Why does this project manager never finish tasks on time but in his interview, he stated his 15-year history in project management?” “Why are her actuarial figures each year never correct and cause us to underprice our insurance products compared to the risk taken?”

Experience trap

Perhaps a large sign should be placed in corporate offices across Kenya: “Calling all human resources managers — do not get fooled by the experience trap.”

Human resources professionals and hiring managers often fall for their cognitive biases that employees with work experience in a field are more likely to perform better in a new job role. Inasmuch, such CVs highlighting work experience in exactly the type of role currently advertised in a firm confirm the employer’s opinions that the job applicant can therefore do the work and succeed.

A job seeker in each of the above four scenarios might include phrases such as “solid accounting experience”, “ten years’ experience as a business lecturer”, “fifteen years of project management successes”, or “multiple actuarial roles in several insurance companies”, in their job applications. The three above very typical cover letter or CV statements relate to their amount, duration, and type of experience. The allure of such phrases fools hiring managers and human resources gurus the world over.

But if a job applicant champions these experience only related items in their candidacy, be very wary of the individual. Essentially, dismal employees delivering poor performance for a long time does not miraculously turn them into stellar employees when they take on new jobs and responsibilities. Research by Chad Van Iddekinge, John Arnold, Rachel Frieder, and Philip Roth show that such amount, duration, and type of pre-hire experience proves fairly useless in success at future jobs. Prior work experience proved only a very tiny correlation with an employee’s current work performance across 81 different workplace sample groups. Further, past experience in similar work roles held no relationship with that employee’s intention to quit.

Instead, look for job candidates who discuss actual achievements and accomplishments during their work life. Examples include “increased client base 50 per cent over the three-year period”, “uncovered Sh40 million of fraud in the last twelve-months”, “scored a five out of five on student satisfaction with my lecturing”, or “accurately predicted the insurance firm’s risk of loss for the past three years in a row”. Then incorporate reference checks to confirm the achievement claims, not to simply hear overflowing subjective praises from an applicant’s former colleagues.

In short, the pre-hire litany of experience indicators that most organisations utilise to filter and prioritise employment seekers typically do a poor job of actually predicting future employee success and turnover that then impacts an organisation’s performance.

Look at and confirm prior work achievements and successes rather than experience in roles held from job applicants