Interviewing job candidates? Experience isn’t everything — here’s why

“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Though Einstein may have not actually said this, it is a valuable maxim. Not everyone is going to be good at everything, so we need to find the things we are good at and be judged by those metrics.

It seems obvious but we overlook it every day, especially in the hiring process. Not all questions or analyses are meaningful. Different roles require different skill sets. Different company cultures require different personalities. By not looking critically at how we evaluate candidates, we’re wasting our time and potentially burning a bridge with a strong potential employee.

As a leader, you’re looking to find the person who is the best fit, which requires looking at specific metrics that are relevant to your company and the specific role. If you’re judging a candidate on their statistical analysis abilities when they’re unlikely to even open a spreadsheet in their job, you’re not getting any useful information that would indicate their potential.

But, at the same time, you want to make sure you’re standardizing your process to eliminate biases and create a strong company culture. It takes a diversity of skills and backgrounds but also an alignment on your mission.

How do you strike the balance?

How structure improves outcomes

I believe in a level playing field, especially when recruiting talent. I want to make sure we are evaluating candidates on a consistent set of metrics, ones that matter — to our company at large and for the individual role. Unstructured interviews have little value in predicting job performance. Aside from helping us find the best fit, a structured hiring process minimizes biases. They have higher rates of reliability and validity compared to unstructured hiring processes.

Of course, we need space to be flexible, ask follow up questions, and get to know the candidate outside of predetermined questions. That’s why we ask our structured questions ahead of time using forms. Forms ensure that our entire team is on the same page on what needs to be asked and that the candidates are given the same questions in the same context. From the hiring side, it’s easy to compare answers and prepare for the in-person interviews.

If you have ever tried to get a job at a tech company, you’re familiar with the problem-solving questions. These questions veer into the territory of brainteasers. At face value, they are deceptively simple but require some on-the-spot analysis. In the beginning, they were intended to assess critical thinking, but, as the model has become famous, they have become something of a hallmark of interviews at tech companies, whether the skillset they’re testing is relevant or not.

Not everyone is great at thinking on the spot. It’s good to look for real-time agility during the hiring process if it’s part of the job. You want whoever you hire for a sales role to be able to think on their feet, so it makes sense that you’d pressure-test that skill in an interview. But, for many roles, a quick answer is less important than a thoughtful one.

For roles that require more deep diving, see what questions you can provide in advance. If you include these in your form, you can test written communication skills, which are crucial for how we work and harder to come by than you’d think. If the candidate is more likely to be giving presentations than writing project briefs, giving them time to prepare allows you to assess their ideas as well as their performance.

Figure out what matters

Experience does not indicate job performance. This feels counterintuitive to how almost everyone approaches hiring, but it’s true. The problem with using experience as a primary metric to determine fit for a role is that it doesn’t tell the whole story. Five years of project management experience doesn’t encompass how a candidate led their team forward after a bumpy launch or how they dropped the ball on an important deadline. Experience is fairly neutral information. It’s the quality of the experience that matters.

Professor Van Iddekinge of FSU recommends screening for traits, skills, and knowledge rather than experience. We often assume that because someone has the experience, they also have those characteristics that indicate success, but his research shows that is not the case. You need to figure out what traits, skills, and knowledge correlate to positive outcomes in a given role.

Luckily, you already have access to the subjects you need: your current employees. Were they recruited, did they apply, or were they hired from within? What was their last role and how long did they stay in it? What are their strengths and weaknesses? By measuring the results of your hiring process, you can find trends and learn what to look for in candidates that correlates with success.

By focusing on experience, you’re also missing what you actually should be hiring for: potential. You want someone to grow with your company, who has the capability to do more than the job you hired them to do. Unfortunately, potential is hard to measure. We can’t predict the future. Instead, we look for signifiers. Are they passionate? Confident? Agile? Depending on the role and team, the questions that indicate potential may be a little different.

I’ve found that I learn just as much about a candidate’s potential from their questions as I do from their answers. A smart, ambitious candidate will ask questions that go beyond the immediate scope of the role. I’m confident that I can get a new employee up to speed quickly on the information they’ll need to be successful at Jotform. What I can’t teach is the curiosity that is innate in innovators. That early training required for less experienced, high potential employees is worth the ideas and passion they bring to the table.

An investment in your hiring process is an investment in the future of your company. By spending time structuring your process around what’s most important, you’re setting the conditions for success.

Aytekin Tank is the Founder and CEO of JotForm. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from JotForm users. You can reach Aytekin from AytekinTank@JotForm.com

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