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What Makes a Good Hire: Experience or Attitude?

Imagine you’re a Hiring Manager with two applicants to consider:

  • Candidate A has extensive experience in the job skills you need to fill the position, but their attitude is overbearing and arrogant. They know they have the skills and are way too eager to show them. You worry the team will view Candidate A as an aggressive know-it-all.
  • Candidate B lacks all of the relevant experience of Candidate A, but has an incredible attitude and work ethic. You get the impression that they would put in extra hours and go above and beyond to excel in this job. Culturally, you know Candidate B would fit in as a collaborative team player eager to learn new skills.

Which candidate would you choose?


Most Hiring Managers would say that experience generally wins the day, but in this scenario would Candidate A make your existing team so upset that they look for greener pastures? Would Candidate B’s eagerness to learn overcome any lack of experience?

There is a body of research on the issue and what it shows may surprise you.

Experience or Attitude—What the Research Says

The Harvard Business Review interviewed a Florida State University researcher who studied the link between an employee’s work experience and on-the-job performance. What they found was that experience does not predict the success of a new hire.

The lead researcher stated:

“We discovered a very weak relationship between prehire experience and performance, both in training and on the job. We also found zero correlation between work experience with earlier employers and retention, or the likelihood that a person would stick with his or her new organization.”

Researchers looked at job board ads and found that 82% of the roles listed required or had a strong preference for prior experience. However, the research shows that experience only matters in the first few months of the job, when the candidate is just getting started. Over time, that prehire experience became less important to the overall output of the employee.

The idea is that experience is the prerequisite for performance. Most Hiring Managers believe experience is important even for entry-level jobs. But the Harvard article suggests knowledge, skills, and personality traits are a better indicator of future performance than experience or even educational background. This leads us to another Harvard Business Review article called “Your Approach to Hiring is All Wrong.”

What Are We Doing Wrong?

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Peter Cappelli’s Harvard Business Review article points out that companies are failing their existing employees by not doing more promotion from within. Instead, companies seem more focused on sourcing the currently employed candidate, while perhaps neglecting solid employees already working under their own brand logo.

Cappelli suggests if employers promote more from within, they can hire more entry-level workers at a lower cost and groom them to move up the chain. He points out that prior to World War II, most jobs were filled in this manner.

Cappelli says, “The recruiting and hiring function has been eviscerated” by current practices that focus more on the passive candidate and the latest software that uses machine learning algorithms to pick out resume keywords.

Cappelli says that instead of focusing on new technologies and driving down costs, we should focus on making better hires. He says we can do that by:

  • Designing more realistic job requirements. Today’s job descriptions are like a Hiring Manager’s fantasy employee. How many Hiring Managers and Recruiters have looked at a job ad and realized it’s a fairy tale—no candidate has all the experience listed.
  • Improving your internal promotion process and focusing on attitude, not experience, in the job search.
  • Increasing the volume of employee referrals. Most Hiring Managers say these candidates are a known quantity with verifiable track records that make them attractive as employees.
  • Going for quality, not quantity, in the candidate hiring pool. Creating a smaller but better qualified applicant funnel will increase the hiring yield. Cappelli points out that every applicant costs the company money, particularly those that end up ghosting the employer.

If companies reinvent their recruiting processes by taking Cappelli’s suggestions, and if hiring teams start to look more closely at attitude over experience, what job skills should Recruiters pay attention to in order to improve their new hire retention rate?

Hiring for Attitude Over Experience

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Measuring for experience is easy. Every job description quantifies the number of years of experience the job supposedly requires. Do you have five years of experience as a Graphic Designer? Have you managed people in the past? These are easy questions to answer or screen for.

Ferreting out skills over experience is harder, but in today’s talent war context, Hiring Managers can’t afford to toss out candidates just because they have only three years of experience instead of five. Yet we all know that this still happens.

Screening for job skills over experience takes more work but it widens the candidate pool at a time when most Hiring Managers are scouring the earth for additional talent.

The typical measures used during a candidate screening include the number of jobs held, for how long, and whether the applicant worked in a similar position. However, the Harvard article points out that these metrics show experience but don’t quantify the quality of the work.

The interviewer should screen for high-quality work in the prior job through references, a portfolio, or other measures. Still, past behavior in these jobs are not necessarily predictors for future behavior at your organization.

For example, a poor culture fit in your organization could negate the positive impact of the candidate’s work output. Or the candidate could have been stagnant in a prior role and would excel with a new opportunity and a fresh team. Performance in one organization is also affected by how the team is structured. If the candidate consistently produced high-quality work in a past job, do you have similar tools and structures in place to help replicate that performance?

With these considerations in mind, what should you look for in a job candidate? Let’s turn to some world-renowned leaders to find out what criteria they use.

Mega investor Warren Buffett looks for:

  • Intelligence
    Buffet says he looks for emotional intelligence as well as the mental capacity to do the job. A college degree isn’t an indicator of intelligence, nor is years of experience doing a particular job.
  • Energy
    Buffet’s definition of energy means someone who takes initiative. Can the employee make things happen? How is their work ethic? Are they entrepreneurial and curious?
  • Integrity
    Honesty matters to Buffet, who says having a smart go-getter means nothing if he can’t trust them.

Lacking even one of these characteristics is a deal-breaker for the guy that regularly tops all the lists of highest income earners in the U.S.

What do other business leaders have to say about the experience versus aptitude debate?

Oprah Winfrey famously said:

"Lots of people want to ride with you in the limo, but what you want is someone
who will take the bus with you when the limo breaks down."

That quote has nothing to do with experience in fixing the bus; it’s about the employee’s attitude to stick with their boss even when the going gets tough.

In Leading Apple with Steve Jobs: Management Lessons from a Controversial Genius, the late computer and business wiz wrote:

"When you have really good people, you don't have to baby them. By expecting them to do great things, you can get them to do great things. A-plus players like to work together, and they don't like it if you tolerate B-grade work."

Jobs quote seems to express that he was more concerned about current on-the-job behaviors over what happened in the past.

Hiring teams can learn lessons from these leaders, as well as the prior research to change how they source and screen candidates. It’s a bit scary to think that you’d walk away from a work veteran and consider a newbie, but, really, it’s all about finding the right candidate.

To do this you need to ask the right questions.

Best Questions to Measure Attitude

Working behavioral questions into your interviewing process is an important way to measure past behaviors and outcomes. You can also use questions to discern the attitudes of a candidate.

Start by going back to the job description to determine the personality type that would fit best in the role. Think about the people in the department that the candidate will interact with and determine what traits would work well and which would rock the boat. What corporate values should the candidate exhibit in their attitude and approach to the work?

Try to develop a candidate persona that fits the characteristics you’re seeking. Write down the attitudinal traits that fit the ideal candidate, such as:

  • Tolerance for criticism
  • High energy
  • Honesty
  • Communication
  • Perseverance
  • Initiative
  • Curiosity
  • Empathy
  • Hard-working

Next, develop questions that will find out what makes the candidate tick. Develop questions to determine:

  • What motivates them
  • How they like to be managed
  • What makes them unique

As you begin to form an idea of the perfect candidate attitude, work on a series of questions that get to the heart of the candidate’s core character.

Here are 20 questions to get you started:

  1. How do you define success?
  2. Can you describe your perfect failure and tell us what you learned?
  3. If you became the manager in your last job, what would you change?
  4. Describe a major obstacle from your last job and how you overcame it?
  5. Imagine your dream job. What would it look like every day?
  6. When was the last time you helped someone without it benefiting you?
  7. What new skills did you learn in your last job that you’d bring to our team?
  8. Are you lucky or hardworking?
  9. Tell me about a time when you went against the grain at work?
  10. How have you previously handled difficult clients?
  11. Describe the person you liked least at your last job?
  12. What is your biggest pet peeve?
  13. What do you think your first 90 days would be like on the job?
  14. What makes you the best candidate for this job?
  15. If money weren’t part of this job, what would motivate you to do it?
  16. What traits do you bring that fit with our company culture?
  17. Imagine you just got home from work and said, “Today was the perfect day.” Tell me what happened that day.
  18. If you were the interviewer, what three qualities would you look for in a candidate applying for this job?
  19. Tell me about a time when you had to do something that violated your personal code of ethics?
  20. Name three things about yourself that you’d like to improve in your next job?

Most of these questions aren’t appropriate for the first round of interviews. For example, if you’re asking about how the candidate feels they fit into corporate culture, they may not be able to answer that at the first meeting.

Try to ask questions that elicit an emotional response. Use your instincts to determine if the candidate is inventing their response or truly believes what they’re saying. Pass on candidates who won’t admit failure—every leader has failed. There have been lots of leaders who have even been fired on their way to the top.

Hire Right the First Time with Artisan Talent

Screening for experience is easy. But the science says screening for attitude will help you find a better long-term employee. Artisan Talent works closely with Hiring Managers to screen candidates for the best mix of attitude and experience in the creative fields. Talk to us about how our approach is different and more effective than our competitors.

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