The Experience Trap: How To Evaluate Experience When Selecting Staff


We place great emphasis on experience when selecting staff. Yet, in other areas of our lives, we know that there’s more to successful accomplishment than experience. Because an applicant has worked well in another company, doesn’t guarantee that he or she will work equally well for you.

Experience And Environment

In sport, a player may be an outstanding performer with one team but a mediocre performer with another. Some children perform poorly at one school but do very well at another. The child is no more or less intelligent. The sportsperson is no moreor less skilled. It’s the environment and culture that are different.

You’ve probably had an experience where you’ve recruited someone with a “sensational track record”. Unfortunately,they haven’t reproduced their past performance for you.

Reducing The Risk

Staff selection involves risk. It’s also very costly, even when successful. If you make an error the costs escalate. It’s most important to have an overall plan for staff selection. The process starts with job analysis and ends when the new employee is successful on the job.

The Experience Trap

It’s odd. Because someone did a job successfully for someone else in another company, doesn’t automatically mean they’ll do your job successfully for you in yours. I call this overemphasis on experience  ”The Experience Trap”. There’s another potential problem too.

The Next Level Issue

At least some of the people seeking a job in your company are looking for one at level above what they’re currently doing. You offer them the “next level”. They have little or no experience doing the job you have vacant. You justify the appointment based on experience at a lower level.

This is most likely to occur where applicants have a strong technical background. They have superior technical skills in trades, sales, accounting, science or other areas. You assume that they’re “ready for management” based on their technical background. Does this make sense?

Reference Checking

You may counter this risk by checking references.Ensure that your reference checking obtains information about your future requirements. Confirmation about past performance has limited value. Be very careful when assessing the quality of information revealed by reference checking. If you must do reference checking, make sure you ask this question “Would you employthis person in the job vacancy I have?”

The Vital Issues

• Testing: use tests to see whether applicants know what theysay they know and can do what they say they can do. If possible, when anapplicant says they can do something, get them to do it. Make these tests as realistic as possible. But also devise tests to see how well applicants fit your culture and systems.

• Interviewing: spend limited time discussing the past. Question applicants about the future. Describe real situations that occur in the vacant job. Ask questions about the candidate’s response to the real situations. Never ask questions starting with “What would you do if…?” These questions invite speculation. They’re no proof that the candidate would or could do what they say.

• Probation: if possible, include a three month probationary period when making the appointment. Specify performance goals to be met during that period.


Experience is important in selection. But the selection process is about deciding how well someone will do something for you in the future. And they may have little or no actual experience in that role.

Be careful. Ensure that your main focus in selection is future performance. Past performance is an indication. But that’s all.

Selection is about the future. It’s a very important business decision. It’s strange that it may be based largely on uncorroborated information about the past. I trust that my suggestions will help you avoid these sorts of errors.

2 Responses to The Experience Trap: How To Evaluate Experience When Selecting Staff
  1. Francois
    September 23, 2011 | 7:42 pm

    Leon, after reading the article I wonder how to evaluate someone who is applying for a job with tasks he or she hasn’t performed in the past. Are you proposing to primarily use (real life) tests for this, and nothing else? Can such tests be found somewhere or bought? Time and resources in a company are limited, especially small ones, and they would be helped when they could use or adapt ready made tests(scripts).

  2. Leon
    September 26, 2011 | 5:54 pm

    G’Day Francois,
    Many thanks for your comments. There are two specific blog posts already on my site about choosing inexperienced people: “Tips for Choosing Inexperienced People” published on Juiy 12, 2011 and “What to Do When You Can’t Find the Right Person” published on November 6, 2010.

    There’s lots of other material in the Selection category too. Two of the most important issues with inexperienced people are to use a probationary period and a carefully structured, results based induction. Using these two strategies allows either party to withdraw at their discretion.
    Please let me know if you have any other queries.




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