Should You Hire Your Next Employee Based on Experience or Potential?

Close-up image of a firm handshake between colleagues in office. Interview

By Michael Klazema, lead author and editor for Backgroundchecks.com

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?

From a cursory Google search, you will see 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 a smarter choice than hiring someone because of what they’ve already done. However, the truth is that there is more nuance to this discussion than either answer. Below, we’ve outlined opposing arguments for why you might hire based on either experience or potential, and how you can incorporate the best of both approaches to achieve results.

Hiring for Experience

Let’s start with experience—the thing that most hiring experts don’t choose first.

First, 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.

Certainly, there are benefits to hiring based on experience. A person with experience performing a similar role to the one you are filling is a more certain hire than someone who is unproven. 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. Theoretically, you won’t have to do as much training or hand-holding. The person will just be able to hit the ground running.

These benefits exist for any job. However, hiring for experience 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. 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.

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. Prospects need to have held big coaching jobs and have strong win-loss records with former teams to be considered. Businesses will often take a similar approach with an executive search, simply because there is too much 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. 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 is a huge 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. 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.

Beyond culture, there is so much that you can’t learn about by looking at a person’s work experience and education. 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. 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.

If you only hire based on experience, you miss the chance to get in on the ground floor with brilliant young professionals. 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 up their sleeves that could help make your company a ton of money. 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

As you can see, 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. 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. 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. By blending experience and potential into one hiring mentality, you’ll find better people, minimize turnover and protect your company culture.

Michael Klazema has been developing products for criminal background check and improving online customer experiences in the background screening industry since 2009. He is the lead author and editor for Backgroundchecks.com. He lives in Dallas, Texas, with his family and enjoys the rich culinary histories of various old and new world countries.

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