The Most Classic Hiring Mistake

The most common hiring mistake is to hire someone who has the right experience. We know that this sounds counterintuitive, but hear us out.

(This is from our book How to Hire and Develop Your Next Top Performer, 2nd edition: The Qualities That Make Salespeople Great, @2012, McGraw-Hill Professional; reprinted with permission of the publisher. )

When you’re putting together a help-wanted ad, what’s the first thing you write?

“Needed, a salesperson with at least one year of experience.”

No. Wait a minute. This is a much more important job. Let’s say, “Needed, five years’ experience.”

Experience is what we look for in job candidates.

If two candidates seem equally qualified for a position, and one has slightly more experience, the decision seems easy. Experience wins. Some executives even will look in their competitors’ backyards for individuals who are ready to make a move. Conventional wisdom is that an experienced individual will hit the ground running.

But how many times have you come across someone who has five years of experience that adds up to just one year’s bad experience repeated five times?

Our advice is not to hire from your competitors — unless you want to do them a favor.

Don’t fall into the trap of relying too heavily on experience. It is an easy approach, but it can be very costly. Let your competitors steal from each other.

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Instead of focusing on what someone has done, look, instead, to what they can do — to their potential.

Andrew Marshall, the former director of corporate sector and SMB at Virgin Media, told us:

We learned to avoid hiring from our main competitors. There are two other key competitors in our space, and some of our biggest failures have come from hiring from them. Because we are the third largest telecommunications firm in the United Kingdom, when we hire from our competitors, we find that they are not used to truly being competitive. They’ve come from much larger organizations and, we found, have succeeded based on the brand they were representing, not because of their particular skills. In addition, they just don’t fit into our corporate culture, which is very agile and where we expect people to take on a lot of ownership for their own decisions. When we’ve hired salespeople from our competitors, they’re more used to going through a lengthy bureaucratic process to arrive at a decision. So they have a difficult time adapting to the agility of our organization.

Mark Dennis, vice president of sales and marketing at Veolia Environmental Services, put it succinctly: “I have finally come to the point where I could care less whether somebody has industry experience. I’ve had way too many instances of hiring people who have industry experience who just get in their own way because they are set in their ways. They believe they know it all. And they are not open, willing, or flexible enough to want to change, to look at the industry from our perspective. So training them can become an absolute nightmare.”

Mark told us: “I’ve learned the hard way that often when we bring in somebody who has ‘industry experience,’ we’re just recycling inept salespeople through organizations — just because they have experience. It can be appealing to the sales manager who is under pressure to bring new people up to speed faster. But it can be very deceptive. Because whatever they did at their prior company — good, bad, or indifferent — whatever they did there, they’re going to do at your company, whether you like it or not.”

And your competitor is probably thanking you. Immensely.

Experience, it turns out, often can keep you where you are rather than helping you to move forward and see new possibilities.

Herb Greenberg, Ph.D. is the founder and chief executive officer and Patrick Sweeney is president of Caliper, an international management consulting firm, which, for over a half-century, has assessed the potential of more than three million applicants and employees for over 28,000 companies around the world.


20 Comments on “The Most Classic Hiring Mistake

  1. This is correct but not entirely for the reasons suggested. Others can provide anecdotal evidence of great hiring based on experience. Anecdotes aren’t enough. The real reason that not hiring on experience is correct is that experience is a poor predictor of performance. This is a conclusion from decades of research and evidence and is widely understood – though not widely applied. What predicts performance is mostly not what appears on the resume. Hiring is a complex science and art but the starting point surely must be to rely on what predicts performance – to increase the likelihood of hiring top performers. Doing this requires validated assessments and scientific processes, like other more advanced business processes. One day, I am confident, recruitment will catch up.

  2. This is a great point. Experience is certainly important in letting you know if a candidate could complete similar tasks in the past. But the most important key to future success in your company is potential. In the interview, whether in person or through video interview, see what the candidate looks forward to learning and what they have already learned. If your candidate is stuck in their ways, pass. You need an employee who will never want to stop learning, no matter what level of experience they’ve already attained.

  3. Hire on aptitude!!! You would never buy a stock based upon its past performance (other than perhaps mutual funds) but rather based upon its future potential. So why invest in a person based upon their past?

    It means that as a hiring manager, you have to do a lot more thinking about the position and craft questions which will elicit responses based upon a person’s capabilities. So don’t be a lazy hiring manager!

  4. Is this seriously the type of information you are going to include in your book? What garbage!

    Can we please stop using as a marketing tool for someone’s book? If you have something worthwhile to contribute, just post it and stop trying to make a buck off us.

  5. …and yet the recruiters who are often the gatekeepers for many roles are so quick to eliminate candidates based on their lack of industry experience – despite these candidates having aptitude in abundance. There’s a lot of merit in the above argument, alas I’m yet to see it reflected in the job market.

  6. I am confused because scientific research has led to the conclusion that only experiences can possibly indicate how well or bad somebody can handle business situations. That is why competency testing is very popular. The candidate has to describe exactly how he/she handled a business situation and from that experience we can understand the candidate’s behavior and a range of skills when conducting business. What you describe is recruitment based on dreams, people who think they can do something but actually never have done it.

  7. Very Narrow thoughts from Recruitment prespective.
    You mean to say that we look out for ‘Potentials’ with no relevant experience but to consider on basis of what they can do – This implies to when the position is open to freshers.

    I also disagree on forbidding hiring candidates from ‘competitors’ – in some skills as sales,marketing,dealer development,scm,etc bringing candidates from competition will bring in new prospects for dealers,market etc. You ahve missed this point.

    If background verification , references from reliable source is conducted before we onboard a candidate (hire), then i guess the problem of wrong hiring is solved considerably….

  8. It all depends on the psychological makeup of the interviewer / recruiter and the culture of the organization. I have personally come across situations where a candidate’s experience became an impediment to the final selection as the recruiter perceived the past experience as a disqualification. Question is how qualified (or otherwise) the recruiter is in executing the task entrusted i.e. recruiting.

  9. @ Paul B: You’re correct, and if employers did what has been proven to work and avoid what doesn’t work, the vast majority of recruiters and providers of recruiting-related products and services would be out of business. It’s not fact- and evidence-based decision-making that gets people hired and recruiting related goods/services sold, it’s the GAFI Principles rearing its shaggy head yet again: the greed, arrogance, fear, and ignorance/incompetence of those who make the decisions. Think I’m wrong, Folks? Then show me the evidence of largely rational decision-making in our business. (There is some, but not much; enough to keep the whole rotten edifice from collapsing, I suppose….)

    @Adrian: Maybe the article is “piffle”, maybe it’s not. Why do YOU think it is?

    @Paul T: It disturbs me when I read the comments of people who don’t realize that the purpose of ERE is self-promotion of one kind or another- some quite blatant, some more subtle. If we didn’t have the infomercials and advertorials.-reports on the latest recruiting snake-oil or common-place wisdom dressed up as fancy new knowledge, with a few exceptions (you know who you are), there would be very little in ERE at all. It’s like watching Fox News and complaining about it not being an objective, even-handed news organization.

    @ Peter: not sure what scientific research you’re talking about. ISTM that if anything, using past behavior as predictor of future behavior makes sense if the future behavior is very similar to the past. An example: someone may be a really great typist (110 WPM) and very effective in all types of office settings. It doesn’t mean they would be a great sales rep, bookkeeper, or office manager.

    @ Buzza: Show me a hiring manager that wants me to hire for aptitude, and I’ll find people with great aptitude. Meanwhile, I won’t hold my breath waiting for it…



  10. Experience is an invitation to probe more for details. It’s not the what you did for the years, it’s the why you did that versus other options, and how why and what you did mattered both in results and added capabilities. The details of experience tell you about the candidate – not the number of years.

    Ironically, it’s possible that for many companies with limited or no training/knowledge transfer capabilities the reliance on years of experience is an acknlowledgement of a sink-swim environment.

    That said, some of the advice – namely don’t hire from a competitor – is highly dependent on whether the candidate and competitor offer you something you currently and in the future need.

    For a current example, explore why Apple is currently seeking people with extensive Google Maps experience. Does that mean a candidate with 5 years Google Maps experience is the best? Maybe, maybe not depending on how far Apple has to go. My guess is though that Apple will be focusing on specific areas of expertise in Google Maps. My guess is that the early experience gained from long-time Google Mappers is probably a little less valuable than recent years because Apple Maps may not be starting at square one. For a team member, perhaps months or just a few years experience is appropriate. But for someone leading or pushing the project through signficant, unknown growth and obstacles, those years could be very signficant as they bring wisdom and connections that less-experienced candidates may have.

    The one universal in hiring, if there even is such a thing, is that companies/managers should always hire candidates who make the organization better and have the ability to grow and adapt.

    The most classic hiring mistake, in my opinion, is that too many people who don’t understand how to build today- and tomorrow-focused team or who are so backed against the wall for survival today simply aren’t making good future-adaptable hiring decisions.

    The best fix happens when managers are rewarded for the quality of their hiring decisions both immediately and long-term. How often does that happen? I’ve yet to hear many tales of hiring managers being thanked for hiring decisions they’ve made years removed, but you can bet they hear it or get penalized when a candidate washes out. So hiring managers (unless they’re hiring at a more senior or executive level) tend to think about getting the best person with the quickest time to full performance with the least investment required.

    And the years of experience cycle begins yet again.

    Again, I’d suggest years of experience is just an opportunity to get more precision on matching today and estimating tomorrow’s potential. It’s not a mistake if executed properly.

  11. @ Darryl: “The one universal in hiring, if there even is such a thing, is that companies/managers should always hire candidates who make the organization better and have the ability to grow and adapt.” Better for whom? It would be foolish for a manager to hire someone who’d be better for the group, department, or company, if that person made the manager look worse in comparison. Remember: GAFI Principles (Greed, Arrogance, Fear, and Ignorance/ Incompetence of the decision-makers) decide most things in organizations.



  12. @Keith: As we know “Nothing Succeeds like Success”. Management principles (or the so-called theories on management) are hardly based on scientific facts (replication is one suspect). It is majorly based on human experiences – one theory leads to another or give away to yet another. Though in most part @Keith seems to be right, there are instances (from many fields the world over) where GAFI may not be entirely based on firm grounds.

  13. I recruit for companies selling high tech medical devices. the reason they don’t hire from competitors is lack of credibility. When a sales person spends years telling a surgeon that their product is the best, how can he maintain any credibility if he changes companies and starts telling the same clients that he is NOW selling the best product?!

  14. @Keith,

    Yes, GAFI is very real and lurks everywhere so we agree on that. I’m pointing out though that the original premise of hiring based on experience is flawed is flawed most often because hiring organizations fail to find out what that experience truly brings. Some hiring decisions over-rely on experience out of laziness just as much as GAFI. Either too lazy to spend time bringing new employees up to speed or too lazy to even find out why a candidate with less years of experience might offer more relevant experience.

  15. See the cartoon on this subject at:

    1) The most classic hiring mistake is NOT looking FIRST for insightfulness. Acuity, perceptiveness, alertness, insightfulness — the most important skill today. This is the skill that trumps every other skill. Without it, nothing else matters — experience, attitude, or talent.

    2) There’s little potential without insightfulness.

    3) GAFI exists because the decision-makers themselves were not hired/trained for insightfulness.

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