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Hiring Entry-Level Employees: Experience vs. Potential

August 20, 2021

By Sheila Hoover, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

We have talked previously about the most effective ways to assess job candidates – generally, experienced candidates.  Do we assess entry-level candidates the same way?  Assessing any candidate 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).  The question is, can we assess entry-level candidates past work experience?

I think most talent acquisition professionals would agree that both types of information provide useful clues into how a candidate might perform in a particular role. However, figuring 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.  

A recent Wonderlic survey attempted to get some clarity about this common dilemma.  They 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. “Potential” was defined as a candidate’s intelligence, personality, and/or motivation related to the job opening. 

The survey’s findings revealed 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. 

The survey revealed that human resources and hiring managers weighed experience and potential considerably different 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 different 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 would 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 would 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 professionals with only one to two years’ experience said they would weigh mostly or only experience when hiring entry-level candidates. By comparison, only 17.4% of HR professionals with 10+ years’ experience gave the same response 

On the flip side, only 14.9% of the less tenured group said they would weigh mostly or only potential vs. 43.8% of the more tenured group. 

Again, the greater the tenure, the greater the emphasis on hiring for potential.  

So, when it comes to evaluating entry-level candidates, HR and hiring managers weigh potential more, because there’s so little experience to consider. But the varying degrees to which respondents weighed potential also seems to point to a broad range of perspectives into what matters most when hiring for entry-level roles.

Are these differences a byproduct of varying personal biases on what inexperienced employees need to succeed or the confidence respondents had in their company’s ability to train entry-level employees to succeed?  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 human resources professionals 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 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

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