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  • Writer's pictureBen Kettle

The Experience Myth

Updated: Jan 3, 2022

What are we really talking about when we talk about experience?

In 3 Quick and Easy Ways to Make Better Hires we saw that “Years of Experience” was the worst predictor of candidate success (coming in at a paltry 3%). Yet an “Experience” requirement is ubiquitous on nearly every single job description. What is going on?

Bernie Madoff
Bernie Madoff, trusted investment advisor with over 40 years experience

We all know that experience is just one variable in a much more complex decision, and that’s fair. But I don’t think that’s the issue here.

The problem is that “experience” is a catchall term that means different things to different people. Consider all the things you could be talking about when you talk about “experience” (this list is far from exhaustive):

  • Can communicate in the industry or company jargon

  • Industry-specific network or existing book of business

  • Years performing a role or working in an industry (regardless of effectiveness or success)

  • Wise judgment and solid decision-making skills

  • Done the exact thing you need done before (or so you think)

  • Older (or looks older)

  • Works with integrity and has a moral compass

If any of the above traits are important to you or your team, why not just ask or evaluate for those instead?¹ For example, instead of saying “We didn’t like them because they didn’t have enough experience” isn’t it much better to say “We measured their decision-making skills and well, they weren’t very good compared to the other candidates”?

All of which poses the question: which of the many meanings of experience predicts candidate performance? The unsatisfying answer is, “it depends” - what you need is almost entirely contextual. Next week I’ll talk about ways we can meaningfully evaluate and prioritize the things we think we’re talking about when we talk about experience.

For now, ask yourself (and your team) what you really mean by experience. The answers may surprise you.

Other thoughts on “Years of Experience”

  • Thankfully, there’s an increasing number of companies rethinking the experience and what it means. A recent article from the New York Times on the impact of worker’s leverage in our current economy has some great examples of the long-overdue adjustments companies are making in a tight labor market.

  • Like its bias-welcoming cousin “culture fit,” “experience” is much too vague to mean anything meaningful. Anytime there’s a lack of specificity you can bet that bias is present. Be wary. If someone on the hiring committee says a candidate didn’t have enough experience, ask them to be more specific.


1 Except age. At the risk of stating the obvious, please don’t ask someone’s age in a job interview.

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