Assessing job candidates inevitably involves weighing two important types of information: what they’ve accomplished in the past (their experience) and how they’re likely to perform in the future (their potential).
Most people who’ve been involved in the hiring process would agree that both types of information provide useful clues into how a candidate might perform in a particular role. However, as we’ve seen firsthand by working with thousands of employers, sussing out exactly which information matters most isn’t always clear-cut.
Even when objective candidate data is available and a structured hiring process is in place, hiring decisions can boil down to a bunch of smart people in a room, each with a slightly different position on a candidate, each making their case with different pieces of evidence.
In an attempt to get some clarity about this common dilemma, a recent Wonderlic survey polled over 500 HR professionals and 500 hiring managers about how they use experience and potential as hiring criteria in a variety of situations. The survey defined “experience” as a candidate’s education, employment background, and/or accomplishments as they relate to the job opening. Meanwhile, “potential” was defined as a candidate’s intelligence, personality, and/or motivation as they relate to the job opening.
The survey’s findings unearthed a number of interesting differences in attitude and approach between respondents. Most significantly, it showed a lack of consensus about what matters most when vetting entry-level candidates.
Experience vs Potential
For starters, the survey revealed that HR pros and hiring managers weighted experience similarly for manager, director, and VP+ positions. Between 92% and 95% of respondents said they would weigh either “experience only,” “mostly experience,” or an “equal combo of experience and potential” for such roles.
However, when assessing entry-level candidates, responses were considerably more varied and evenly split:
- 30.3% said they’d weigh mostly or only experience
- 35.3% said they’d weigh experience and potential equally
- 34.4% said they’d weigh mostly or only potential
Now here’s where things get even more interesting. Such differences on how to evaluate entry-level candidates were considerably more stark when respondents’ own job experience was factored in.
Of those hiring managers with only one to two years’ experience on the job, 38.6% said they’d weigh mostly or only experience. By comparison, only 22.3% with 10+ years’ experience gave the same response.
On the flip side, only 31.6% of the less tenured group said they’d weigh mostly or only potential, vs. 47.8% of the more tenured group. In other words, the more tenure, the likelier a hiring manager was to value potential over experience.
What about HR professionals? A whopping 56.2% of HR pros with only one to two years’ experience said they’d weigh mostly or only experience when hiring entry-level candidates. By comparison, only 17.4% of HR pros with 10+ years’ experience gave the same response.
On the flip side, only 14.9% of the less tenured group said they’d weigh mostly or only potential, vs. 43.8% of the more tenured group.
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Again, the greater the tenure, the greater the emphasis on hiring for potential.
So What Might These Findings Mean?
Not surprisingly, when it comes to evaluating entry-level candidates, HR pros and hiring managers weigh potential more, because there’s so little experience to consider. But the varying degrees to which respondents weighed potential (or didn’t) also seems to point to a broad range of perspectives into what matters most when hiring for entry-level roles.
Whether these differences are a byproduct of varying personal biases about what inexperienced workers need to succeed or the confidence respondents had in their company’s ability to train entry-level workers to succeed isn’t clear. More research would need to be conducted to understand connections between attitudes about hiring for potential and attitudes about one’s company’s training and development programs.
As for the variations related to job tenure, it’s worth asking: Could less-experienced hiring managers and HR pros assign less value to potential because they feel less competent at evaluating potential than they do experience?
To someone with less time on the job, a candidate’s education, employment history, and accomplishments may feel more concrete, and therefore more reliable, than indicators of potential derived from interviews and assessments.
It’s also possible that HR pros and hiring managers with relatively little job experience haven’t had the opportunity to witness the development of as many employees hired on potential as their more tenured peers have. Therefore, they’ve acquired less anecdotal proof that potential can eventually transform into job success.
In any case, it’s clear that a disparity of opinions continues to persist on the perennial question of hiring for experience vs potential.
Want to learn more? Read the full Wonderlic report here.