Experience Is Overrated — Arguments for Hiring Talented Individuals Without Perfect Credentials

Southwest Airlines listening centerOrville Wright did not have a pilot’s license –slogan used at Facebook to warn hiring managers not to overly focus on credentials

I, the lead author, have 40 years of experience working in the talent space. But given that experience, I still don’t understand why recruiters and hiring managers place such an unwavering emphasis on hiring only individuals with “direct experience” (i.e. experience working with the specific job title that they’ve applied for). So despite my extensive personal experience and education, I agree with the conclusion reached by Google, Facebook, and most startups that many of the best hires are those whose education, experience, and other credentials are not a perfect “fit” for a job opening.

The Track Record of Those With No Direct Experience or Weak Credentials Is Impressive

There is obvious evidence showing that people without direct experience in a particular job title can succeed, because it happens every day … like when firms promote employees into a new position, when any employee is made a manager, when they place or hire an individual into a brand new job created by technology, and when they hire recent college grads with no direct experience. In a similar light, every new hire who starts at your company begins with zero experience at your firm, but somehow they learn, adapt, and succeed.

Perhaps the best example of success without “direct experience” is when firms select CEOs, most of whom have never held the title before. You need to look no further than Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates to find individuals who have been wildly successful without an ideal education or previous direct experience.

Firms like Southwest Airlines, Ritz-Carlton, and Zappos have had tremendous success by using a non-credential based approach known as “hire for attitude and train for skill.” Finally, if you need further evidence of the low predictive value of formal credentials, simply look at those who win the anonymous technical contests like TopCoder, WizardHunt.net, and Code Jam. Firms that recruit the winners like Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft have found that quite frequently the winners don’t have anything close to ideal formal credentials.

An Ugly Example of How Not to Do It

As the lead author, I raise the topic of credentials now because recently a startup-like tech firm considered hiring one of my protégés into a technical recruiting job. And although everyone from the CEO down loved her knowledge, capability, and passion, the recruiting staff vacillated. Why? Because even though she had sufficient recruiting experience and knowledge of the technology space, it froze, because she never actually had “the title” of a technical recruiter. It never directly tested her capabilities; it simply assumed that not having the perfect matching title made her too high of a risk (ironic since startup leaders are supposed to be risk-takers).

Well, it blew it big time, because she is destined to become a superstar in the recruiting field and they will eventually learn that once she has achieved the title of technical recruiter, she would never again consider working at such a risk-averse firm.

The lesson that recruiters and hiring managers need to learn from this example is that there are many reasons to hire individuals without “experience in the same exact job.”

Working together, we have researched and identified the 20 best arguments supporting a lowered emphasis on credentials. They are listed below, where they are split into four categories.

The Many Advantages of Hiring Those With Lesser Credentials

Many hiring managers and almost all recruiters have failed to fully assess the advantages and the positive business impacts resulting from hiring those without direct experience and ideal credentials. Even though there might be a small risk involved in hiring them, we have found that their ROI and the returns that they produce more than justify taking a small perceived risk.

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  • A lack of direct experience may be an asset — the new hires’ lack of direct experience may actually serve as an asset, because with less history to cloud their vision, they may see problems in a new way and from a fresh perspective. This fresh perspective may result in them generating many new ideas and innovations. Less-experienced new hires may be willing to take more risks because they haven’t developed the fear level that often comes with extensive corporate experience. A fresh perspective will also undoubtedly result in new hires questioning existing practices, and these inquiries may result in new approaches, ideas, and innovations. Because their lack of credentials in previous jobs may have increased the pressure on them to continually prove themselves, these lower-experienced new hires may have been forced to excel in other important areas including building relationships, creating stronger support networks, learning how to work harder, and how to bring a “find-a-way” approach to their work.
  • Diversity really does matter — we know that having a diverse team, especially in the areas of product design and customer contact, can have a positive impact on business results. However, if you broaden your definition of diversity to include people with lower levels of credentials, it makes sense to expect that their presence will also shake things up and provide diverse perspectives.
  • Hiring a relative unknown may be an opportunity to get a superstar — taking a chance on an “unknown quantity” (because of the limited credentials) may be your firm’s opportunity to acquire a superstar. This hidden-talent opportunity is revealed regularly in professional sports when lower draft picks and the undrafted (those with weak credentials) surprise almost everyone by becoming superstars. When you hire someone with experience (unknown quantity), you probably already know that they aren’t a superstar. However, when you hire someone with no direct experience, there is a reasonable chance that you may be actually acquiring a “diamond in the rough” who may quickly become a superstar.
  • They are easier to hire and they are cheaper — the fierce competition for talented prospects with perfect credentials is well known. However, when you recruit someone who doesn’t appear on the surface to be a perfect fit, there will be fewer recruiters attempting to land them. Because they are in less demand, people with weaker formal credentials are almost always willing to work for less money than someone with perfect credentials.
  • At lesser-known firms, your only chance to hire them may be when they don’t have the right credentials — if your firm is a startup, a little-known firm, or one with a weak employer branding reputation, you may not be able to attract proven talent, so your best option might be to consider the under-credentialed. Because of your limited image, targeting them when their credentials are weak (or when they are fresh out of school) may be your only chance of landing them. This is because once they establish their formal credentials, they will be in high demand and it’s unlikely that they will at that point even consider your firm.
  • Those with weak credentials are likely to stay longer — when you hire an individual with weak credentials they will likely be grateful that you took a chance on them and gave them an exciting opportunity when others wouldn’t. That loyalty, coupled with the fact that they will likely have learned so much, may cause them to stay longer. And because they don’t have ideal credentials, recruiters from other firms will likely pass them by.
  • Experience may actually be a detriment — in fast-moving industries, firms often find that when they hire someone with a great deal of experience,  the experiences, those learned patterns, and habits have to be “unlearned” first, before they can succeed under a brand new approach. In addition, more experience may bring with it burnout, and the “I-know-it-all already” attitude. Well-experienced hires may only be able to fix existing things, rather than the more desirable capability of being able to create new things from scratch. If you are at a startup or a smaller firm, be aware that an experienced individual who comes from a larger firm with great support systems may simply fail in your environment, where that support is nonexistent.

“It took 18 months for me to undo all of my Andersen Consulting experience to allow me to become an entrepreneur” — Legendary Inventor James Dyson

Eliminate the Uncertainty by Simply Testing Them

Instead of speculating or relying on an interview to assess the capability of a less-than-perfectly credentialed candidate, directly assess their work capability using one of the following approaches.

  • Give them a technical problem — identify a technical problem that only a member of your staff with the required amount of experience can solve. Write it up and give it to the top candidate with the perfect credentials and the top candidate with everything but the required credentials. Keep their solutions anonymous. Then have someone on your staff select the best solution and hire whichever candidate came up with it. Alternatively, you can also give the under-credentialed candidate one of your broken processes and ask them to identify the weak points. Finally, you can simply require them to provide a solution to a relevant problem as a precondition to receiving a job offer.
  • Use online assessment tools — if the job is in a technical or customer service field, you will find that there are many online assessment tools available. Use them at least to assess an under-credentialed candidate’s technical capabilities and skills. Eventually, firms will have access to virtual reality simulations for candidate assessment (the U.S. Army has led the way in this area).
  • Source candidates using a contest — if you source prospects using an anonymous online technical contest, you can be assured that the winners have the ability to do the technical aspects of the job, regardless of their credentials.
  • Hire them as a temp — the ultimate test of someone’s capability is how well he or she does on the actual job. So why not give them an extremely brief technical assignment that they can do over one or two evenings and assess them on their solution? Alternatively, consider hiring them as a temp, contractor, consultant, or bring them in for a weekend assignment. This approach also allows you to judge their teamwork capabilities.
  • Look for unbroken patterns of success — in the case of the previously mentioned protégé, the hiring organization failed to note that she had a long continuous history of being successful in numerous positions where she had no direct experience. Failing to recognize that pattern was a mistake. Because a long unbroken track record of achievement and exceptional results that is achieved by learning quickly, successfully adapting to a variety of new situations and producing exceptional results each time is actually a more predictive hiring criteria than formal credentials.

Check Your Own Staff to See if Credentials Predict Success

Hiring managers routinely select an unrealistic set of credentials for their job openings. You can find out if the credential requirements are excessive by using one of the following approaches.

  • Check your own staff’s level of credentials — many hiring managers are shocked to learn that they themselves and many key members of their team wouldn’t qualify for hiring under the credentials that they propose for a new job. Hiring managers should identify the percentage of their current team that started with credentials that were lower than the required amount. If they find that the percentage exceeds 40 percent of their team, they should lower the level of credentials required for that job.
  • Check for a correlation — you can also statistically calculate the correlation between the percentage of credentials that a member of your staff had (when they were hired) and their on-the-job performance. Don’t be surprised when the statistics indicate that there is little connection between job performance and formal credentials.
  • Check for transferable experience that has shown to predict success — as a result of numerous layoffs, mergers, and internal promotion/transfer systems, it is quite common these days for individuals to shift careers. Obviously, if you’re considering hiring someone who is shifting careers, you already know that it is extremely unlikely for them to have the perfect credentials. But if you analyze past successful career shifts and inter-department transfers, you may find that in some functional areas, the skills and experiences are directly transferable. That’s true even in HR, where many have successfully shifted internally from sales to recruiting, from engineer to technical recruiter, from finance to HR metrics, and from marketing to employer branding. If you find a success pattern between functional areas either inside or outside your organization, alter your job requirements so that they accept these alternative credentials and skill sets.
  • Realize that in some jobs you must start without credentials — in fields like technical recruiting, because you simply can’t get a college degree in it, everyone has no choice but to start without “previously having held the title of technical recruiter.”

Experience and Education “Ain’t What They Used to be”

Everything’s changing so quickly and dramatically that what you did or learned yesterday may be of little value in today’s environment. And faster the world changes, the more important it becomes that you at least consider “discounting the value” of experience and education in a candidate.

  • Experience, knowledge, and answers now rapidly become obsolete — recruiters and hiring managers need to learn that they can no longer rely on the old adage that “more experience is better” in an applicant. This is because products and processes now change at Internet speed. As a result, “the established way” loses value so fast that approaches that were effective as little as 12 months ago can quickly become obsolete. And continuing to use them may actually cost the firm money.
  • Education also rapidly becomes obsolete — because information, research, and tools change so rapidly these days, academic degrees also now have a rapidly diminishing shelf life. This means that recruiters need to look at the “age” of college degrees because the knowledge gained in some degree programs may be obsolete in as few as four years.
  • Experience varies in importance, depending on several factors — experience is not the same thing as performance, because you can do something for a long period of time without doing it well. You can also do the same thing year after year over a three-year period, but the reality is you will still only have the equivalent of one year of actual experience. The firm where you obtained your experience is also important because not every firm utilizes the most effective approaches.
  • There may be capabilities that are superior to experience — when it comes to fast-changing fields like recruiting, medicine, and technology, experience may have less value than the ability to learn, adapt, and to change. Since all experience is historic, a focus on the future, which may involve thinking about the future, forecasting, and planning, may be more valuable traits (“you can’t have experience in the future”). In a similar light, experience may not be relevant in brand-new innovative fields, simply because by definition, innovation is brand-new.

Final Thoughts

When we write this type of article we call it a “think piece,” because it is designed to force the reader to rethink a traditional “sacred concept” in recruiting. We have reached the conclusion that experience is overrated because despite our work with firms and our extensive research, we have not been able to find a single firm that has successfully correlated a specific type of work experience with on-the-job success. We have however been able to find academic studies that demonstrate the low predictive value of experience; for example, Schmidt and Hunter in the Psychological Bulletin found that the number of years of experience ranked number 9 out of 12 in predicting on-the-job performance, and years of education was ranked dead last.

So our final recommendation is that we urge recruiters and hiring managers alike to reassess the value of credentials that have not been statistically validated. And instead, to give a second look at those candidates who have everything else … but perfect credentials!

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," Staffing.org called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website www.drjohnsullivan.com and on staging.ere.net. He lives in Pacifica, California.


Trena Luong is an experienced recruiter and manager currently partnering with Dr. John Sullivan on several projects including: How to Recruit STEM Women, Recruiting Best Practices, and Metrics. During her two-plus years of experience in human resources, she worked in all areas of recruiting full cycle recruiting, placing direct hires and temporary candidates in various positions. She has also worked in (organization) management, and HR consulting. With a tremendous lack of diversity in tech in the Silicon Valley, she is focused toward recruiting STEM women into key impacting jobs (engineering, sales, customer service, design, and C level), identifying the barriers that STEM women have in each phase of a recruiting process.


10 Comments on “Experience Is Overrated — Arguments for Hiring Talented Individuals Without Perfect Credentials

  1. So many questions…..why would you vet a less than perfect fit more than an apparent perfect fit ? We know that simulation is one of the most valid pre hire assessment methods. Who thinks that Southwest airlines hires uncredentialed pilots and mechanics? These articles really should scream at the top; APPLIES TO LIBERAL ARTS, because I don’t want to see uncredentialed civil engineers and nurses running around either.

    Tech company CEO’s are no different than other kinds of CEO’s; it ain’t that demanding a job in many cases. Look at that great experiment in credentialing known as the US congress- most of those folks would be hopeless in industry.

    And the vaunted speed of change, or “Internet” speed? Totally overstated. Sure there is rapid change in digital technology- but in the economic reality of most organizations? A pretty huge slice of the economy has not materially changed since 1960.

    Medium intensity brainwork has been over credentialed and over rewarded for decades. THAT’s a huge change, it hits people right in the credentials, but it only affects maybe 1/3 of the jobs….

  2. John, music to my ears and the primary genesis for starting RIVS in the first place…to help companies, who like my last company, are emphasizing all the wrong things (experience, skills, credentials) in their search for new employees. It wasn’t until my last company started hiring for attitude, personality, and communication skills that we saw enormous growth and success in our business. Once we realized this, we at RIVS saw a big opportunity to build out those discovery tools for others to use.

    Thanks again!

  3. My feeling on this: for functions that clearly NEED appropriate credentials, like a medical doctor, a nurse, an attorney, etc. – yes absolutely the right credentials matter. For for roles like, say, recruiting, where there aren’t even any formalized degree programs one can pursue, there are no ‘perfect credentials’ and therefore there really isn’t any basis for ruling someone in or out based on credentials 🙂 My own situation is a perfect case for this: my degree is in exercise and sport science – clearly I was suited for a career in talent acquisition!? Nope – but it was because someone gave me the chance to prove myself that I discovered it was a great path to take, and when I think about where I’m at now vs. where I’ve come from (and hopefully where I’ll be heading in the future!) I can’t help but wonder what might have happened if my unrelated credentials had knocked me out of consideration at any step along the way…

    Thanks for this article, John and Trena 🙂

  4. Dr. Sullivan,

    Last week you wrote an article about hiring ‘overqualified’ candidates. This week it’s about hiring candidates with no relevant experience and you say

    “We have reached the conclusion that experience is overrated because
    despite our work with firms and our extensive research, we have not been
    able to find a single firm that has successfully correlated a specific
    type of work experience with on-the-job success.”

    So I ask how can someone be ‘overqualified’ if the experience they have that make’s them ‘overqualified’, is overrated?

    It’s always easy to make these arguments in hindsight…and point out the Mark Zuckerberg’s of the world,

  5. “Technology is accelerating at unprecedented rates” well, yes, some technology is. And the technology that is fast changing is high impact; digital life and genetic medicine are already transformative to human existence.

    OTH, a visitor from 50 years ago could adapt to life today in very short order, and much of it would be essentially identical. Furthermore, much of the adaptation within a lifetime takes place culturally outside the workplace, so mass swaths of economic skills are rarely just completely displaced.

    Auto-didacticism is widely misunderstood and self-selecting in the computer arts, where truly complex undertakings occur with little formal education. That’s a special niche in the big picture, and I don’t think the influence is all that wholesome for the perceived value of formal education. As they say, it does not scale….

  6. Hi John
    I agree with your observations However you ask the question “why” do employers do this. In my 30 years of recruiting experience I put it down to 2 main reasons.
    1. Risk management – employing on past experience is seen as a way of reducing the possible chance of failure as the experienced candidate is theoretically known to be able to do the job.
    2. “Hitting the ground running”- employers prefer to have someone who is going to be productive and bring about ROI quickly. This is especially true of those companies with inadequate/no training and development programs.
    Whilst these are real concerns, in my experience “new kids on the block” have more to prove and often turn out to be star performers rather than average ones.
    An example I would like to share was with a major international medical devices company who preferred to employ technical sales reps from outside their industry. This company was capable of training new employees in their product, but weren’t set up, nor could they take the risk of employing candidates without proven technical selling experience. Bad past experiences had told them to avoid these candidates. Therefore Theatre personnel (who had used the equipment) with no sales experience were not considered but photocopier salespeople were. So in this instance your observations were only partially applied based upon ROI and risk management factors.

    I always get great pleasure out of being involved in the recruitment of a candidate who stretches those criteria boundaries and goes on to kick butt!
    Likewise my favourite clients are those who are prepared to take that chance.

  7. Another article that points out a very simple thing: the hiring process is broken. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be much research into what would truly predict success. And if we’re talking about hiring for attitude and training for skills, then there’s two major roadblocks to get over. One, most companies have totally decimated their training programs and offer little in that regard. Two, hiring someone with a great attitude won’t work in many organizations, because someone with an upbeat, can-do attitude will have the living hell pummeled out of them in many companies, often times by their very own manager, if not those above that person. I worked for such a company not so long ago, and they were hell bent on hiring Winners!, and were dead sure all the wonderful Opportunity! they had would keep people there. Objectively speaking the reality was:

    There was near zero opportunity. Few if any people got promoted, when I first arrived no one had been promoted internally in years. When I left it was at least being asked, “Can anyone internally fill this role?” But the same MASSIVE hesitation to promote anyone was still in place.

    The upper management were a bunch of screaming, cursing lunatics, who ran around regularly hollering and insulting and screaming at people at the top of their lungs. It wasn’t unusual to hear people crying in the bathroom. People got fired at the drop of the hat, with HR often having to step in to stop people from being fired for ridiculous reasons.

    And of course, this company has repeatedly branded themselves as a great place to work, with literally tons of opportunity and good times to be had, and a ‘relaxed’ work environment. Oh, and their pay rates were routinely 25% or more below the market’s 50th percentile rate.

    So the real issue is the hiring process is broken, and even when it’s not, companies like this are often at the delivery end, looking for candidates. So revamped methods for hiring will never happen because what will happen if we come up with a great, reliable, productive hiring model that produces results galore is that it will throw these companies and their incompetent management under the bus, because at that point there will be no pushing the blame off on HR or recruiting, or market conditions, etc. So, don’t expect people to change much at all. It’s easier to have a half assed but totally known system that allows everyone involved to deflect responsibility.

  8. This is consistent with research conducted by NYU and Wharton showing that prior experience had a negative effect on performance. This is due to employees’ learned behaviors interfering with their ability to adapt to the new work environment.

    Boris Groysberg at HBS has also conducted a lot of research on the portability of prior work experience. He found that it’s dependent on (1) how company-specific the knowledge required to perform is and (2) how dependent your success is on how well your colleagues perform.

    Hopefully, these types of findings will enable managers and recruiters to make more thoughtful hiring decisions.

  9. I don’t understand this article. I worked a tech company for almost 40 years. NOBODY cares about credentials. Bring in the young kids-they learn fast. The only credentials they want are good grades and good worth ethic. Plenty of long time employees with good , solid experience went back to school got an degree, then got NOTHING for it. The company dragged it’s feet until they left. They want the young ones- fast brains, brand new education- they rise thru promotion after promotion faster than the Enterprise with transwarp drive. They just save us old timers for the grunt work nobody wants.

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