Experience: I do not think it means what you think it means

Whether you’re hiring an entry-level sales associate, a seasoned software developer, or a talented hair stylist, one thing is almost certain: “years of experience required” is somewhere in the job description.

This “measure” of knowledge and ability is frequently used to screen applicants. But does it tell you anything about a candidate’s future success on the job?

Hiring managers have to digest a lot of information (read: thousands of resumes) in a short period of time, so they inevitably look for mental shortcuts to help them sift through their growing pile of applicants. Everyone looks for past work experience because it’s a discrete number that can quickly be found and compared against a benchmark in a just a few seconds. Poof, pile eliminated!

The truth is that years of work experience (even if it’s in a particular field) doesn’t necessarily equate to good job performance. Even worse, experience has become a poor proxy for a number of other legitimate concerns that employers face when searching for new talent.

At HireArt, we’ve helped employers post and write over 2,000 job descriptions. After working with hiring managers and probing them about their hiring needs, we’ve learned that, by not being clear and upfront about their expectations, employers often end up wasting time on bad fits and missing out on great candidates when they rely too heavily on the experience requirement.

Below are some of the assumptions that employers make based on a candidate’s work experience, along with suggestions on how to better address those concerns.

Salary Expectations

The Assumption: Some employers set maximum years of experience because they’re worried that an experienced candidate will expect a high salary.

Maybe you’re hiring for an entry-level position, or you’re a budding start-up without a lot of funds. In either case, you probably don’t want to spend time interviewing an awesome candidate who will end up turning down your offer.

By basing your decision on experience, you could end up eliminating excellent candidates who would be okay with a pay cut. Many job seekers are willing to make compromises if they’re going through a career change, or if they really like your company.

The Alternative: List the salary up front. If you’re worried about giving up negotiating power, try setting a range instead of a hard number, or note that the salary is “negotiable.” By explicitly stating something about salary in your job description, you filter out job seekers with incompatible expectations (and save time by skipping the interview).

Lifestyle Expectations

The Assumption: Many jobs are known for requiring employees to work well beyond the 40-hour work week—investment bankers, doctors, lawyers, consultants, and of course, start-up employees. Some employers assume that older candidates are not willing to work the 60, 80, or 100+ hours per week needed for those roles and use their graduation year or “years in the workforce” to filter them out.

The Alternative: Paint an accurate picture of the role in your job description. Mention how joining an early-stage startup requires a willingness to go the extra mile (and remember to add that it’s incredibly fulfilling). Employers generally aren’t shy about other hard-line requirements like “Must be able to lift 50 pounds,” or “Must be available to work weekends.” Let my 60-year-old mom decide for herself what she is or isn’t willing to do for a paycheck.

Moldability

The Assumption: Some employers explicitly request candidates with little to no experience. This is often because they need someone who can easily learn or adjust to an unfamiliar system. Maybe your company is trying to disrupt the traditional sales process, and you’re worried that experienced salespeople will fall into old habits; the thinking is that, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

The Alternative: What you should really be looking for is coachability and adaptability. Sure, it’s a lot easier to start with a blank slate – someone with no bad habits to wean off of. But imagine hiring an employee who is not only an incredibly fast learner but also has a solid understanding of existing standards, benefits, and pitfalls. That person is a goldmine, and you don’t want to miss out on all they have to offer because you set an arbitrary requirement.

Established Networks

The Assumption: Some of the positions we screen for at HireArt, especially outward-facing roles like sales and recruiting, require candidates with more experience. This is because employers want to tap into their established network of contacts.

The Alternative: This one is tough. If your company is aiming for rapid revenue growth, hiring a candidate with an address book of 500 new prospects is very appealing. But again, the more upfront you can be about your expectations and needs, the better impression you can leave with candidates.

Culture Fit

The Assumption: It’s the phrase we all use but have come to hate. Unfortunately, ‘experience’ is often the closed-mouth way for an employer to be ageist. As numerous articles about hiring have stated, people have a tendency to hire others like themselves based on the belief that you’ll get along better in the workplace. That could mean seeking out people who went to the same school, people from the same hometown, or in this case, people born during the same decade.

The Alternative: We’ve learned a lot about the benefits of diversity in the workplace, especially in the tech industry. Because of this, companies have started to rethink what kind of “culture” they want to embody. As those values move further away from late nights, free snacks, and ping-pong tables, and closer to aspirations like innovation, respect, and boldness, people will start to realize that the qualities they are looking for in new hires are unrelated to their years of work experience.

Look for candidates who have goals that are inline with your company’s future and who share a common philosophy about how to achieve those goals. Those should be the factors you screen for, not whether the interviewee is a fellow gamer, a vegetarian, etc.

Conclusion

Experience has it’s place. Sometimes you need an employee who can hit the ground running and doesn’t need a ramp-up period. You might need someone who knows a particular piece of software, is familiar with ticketing systems, or can handle hiring and firing people. If those are the skills the job requires, the biggest favor you can do for yourself (and for your candidates) is to say exactly that.

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