Performance is not predicted by experience

Counter intuitive ah-hahs are so intriguing, aren’t they? Well this is a big one. 

Who was hired at your company (or your prior company) and *should* have performed spectacularly, but spectacularly fizzled? This dream hire had checked all the boxes on experience in the role plus cultural alignment and values. He or she started out strong and was amazing for the first few months, performing at or above expectations. But then something happened. Your seemingly perfect new hire stopped meeting (much less exceeding) expectations. What happened? 

Well, recent research from Florida State University (a meta-analysis of research—it’s the gold standard for validity) has a revelation that could (and should) completely change how you evaluate a candidate: past experience is not a predictor of performance.

Wait, what? We’re not saying that past experience should be ignored, but it should be down-graded from the starring role to a film extra. Let’s get into why. 

Totally Common Mistake #1:
Over-reliance on experience

We’ve likely all done it. Assumed that past experience taught someone all the skills and knowledge they needed to perform at the job. Hiring executives and recruiters tend to INFER skills, knowledge and ability based on what they see as “experience” on a resume, WEIGH it (too much), and PREFER it (feel comfortable). 

But according to Chad Van Iddekinge, “Our research found a very small relationship between the amount or type of experience that employees possessed when they came into a new organization and how they ultimately performed in that job. There’s almost no relationship in most cases.” 

Um, what? Insert a head tilt here. Even though it seems intuitive that someone’s past experience matters, the fact is, it doesn’t. The findings reveal that the types of (pre-hire) experience measures organizations currently use to screen job applicants are poor predictors of future performance and duration of how long they stay (i.e. turnover). 

Totally Common Mistake #2:
Bias against “job hopping”

Speaking of turnover, it’s a topic we all care about. No one wants to invest a lot of time (or: money) into onboarding someone new only to have them leave in a short period of time. But as our own Andrea Yelle recently stated in our Interview series, before you write off that candidate who has switched from job to job or maybe has gaps in his or her career, it does not tell the whole story about their capability or future performance. Before you jump to seeing them as a flight risk, consider opening your mind to look at other (less obvious) factors. 

The research found “literally zero correlation” between the duration of the prior work experience and whether they would stay with their future employer or leave. In our collective experience at Forshay, we have found the *why* behind people leaving is where to probe, and looking at time stamps on a resume is the fast-thinking bias that can dismiss excellent talent you actually want.

Just last week, we were reviewing a resume with a client who said ‘Oh, she was only at that company for 18 months…that feels like a red flag to me’. When we probed the candidate for the why, we learned she started on a six-month consulting project and was so indispensable that the company asked her to lead the team, but after 18 months she had achieved the goals she was asked to deliver, and wanted to relocate closer to family (not an unfamiliar issue).

What it means for Executive Search

What this research means is that recruiters and hiring managers need to completely re-evaluate how they are searching for and narrowing down their pool of candidates. And that can present some challenges. Experience is easy to assess. Have you worked in sales for 3-5 years? Have you managed a budget before? All of these questions can be put into an algorithm, scanned quickly on a resume to help sort out candidates, and require a yes or no answer. 

On the other hand, past performance and existing knowledge and skills are much more difficult to figure out (especially if all you have is an application or a résumé). One thing that has stayed important and valid is that past behavior predicts future behavior. But pre-hire experience isn’t a measure of behavior. The person might have failed (in managing that budget) or languished in previous jobs, even though they are listed on their resume. So, the action item is to use those behavioral interviewing questions to delve into pre-hire performance. 

We also want to know what (and whether) candidates have learned from their prior experiences. Our complex brains can forget, explain away, or just simply have blind spots from our prior experience. And, last, we need to consider that experience in one organization might not help—and might even hurt—performance in another if they don’t operate the same way or have similar cultures. Why? Prior experience has an entirely different context based on the structures, systems, norms, processes, habits, routines, social networks, etc. of a previous company. 

What it means for Interim Expertise (or “Fractional Executives”)

Although the relationship between past experience and future performance was weak at the two- and five-year marks, it was stronger at three months, so experience does help people as they are getting started, and this is a great insight for how interim experts should have that experience you’re looking for on a resumethey can hit the ground running and aren’t sticking around for when that experience no longer is an accelerant (and actually might work against their performance). 

Clear actions for better recruiting with a more diverse pipeline of candidates

The good news is that past behavior and performance remains predictive of future performance. So, recruiters and hiring managers can get craftier at digging down to discover a candidate’s past performance, skills, and knowledge for the job rather than just experience or education. What has the candidate learned from experience. 

What’s still true? Ask behavioral questions, suggests Van Iddekinge in an HBR interview: “How have you previously handled difficult clients? Tell me about a specific situation, what you did, what you learned, and what the outcome was.”

Another major positive implication is how much of an impact this new research has on sourcing and hiring for diverse teams. Too often, not having the “right experience” would limit the applicant pool. Similarly, we’ve seen where education “requirements” aren’t really needed for a particular job (but hiring executives can feel more comfortable when applicants have it), and removing that requirement offers up a more diverse applicant pool. What’s important here is continuing to question what really matters, and ensuring job descriptions reflect the latest science for hiring who will likely be the highest performer in the role, which might be a little different than how we previously thought of the “most qualified person”. 

One thing to note: experience shouldn’t be the main criteria when hiring someone, but it should remain important when promoting someone. Experience in their current role and total work experience (pre-hire + current) does still correlate with performance. So, where the experience happened (because of the context) is important.You’ve probably heard that modern careers are more like jungle gyms and less like ladders, and now there’s meta analysis to support it! 

Do you have your own stories to share about a hire who didn’t have the typical experience you were looking for and turned out to be an amazing performer? We’d love to hear it! As a community learning and applying the latest science to make work better together, we love to hear your voice! #inclusion #learning #futureofwork #betterhiring  Head over to LinkedIn to share. 


Work is a team sport. We are on your team — drop us a line to tell us how we can help.