What's the first thing people look for when scanning a job ad? Usually, it's whether they have the required experience to apply. Most of us know that for our résumé​ to even get a look we must demonstrate we've done similar work. 

But what if this first and most fundamental hoop employers use to sort out promising candidates from the rest of the pile was actually completely useless? What if job seekers without relevant experience were just as likely to be successful as those with years behind them in similar roles? 

It sounds totally outlandish, but that's exactly what a massive new review of 81 studies found. Simply checking for past experience will tell you next to nothing about how a candidate will perform at your company, study co-author Chad Van Iddekinge insisted in a recent Harvard Business Review interview

Sorry, it's totally counterintuitive but it's also true

That's crazy, you might be thinking. What kinds of jobs did this guy and his team look at? The answer is tons of them. 

From studies of police officers to sales reps to blue collar workers like sewing machine operators, they sifted through thousands of studies to select 81 with the most relevant data. They then crunched the numbers to see how well past experience predicted future success. The conclusion was surprising but crystal clear. 

"We discovered a very weak relationship between pre-hire experience and performance, both in training and on the job. We also found zero correlation between work experience with earlier employers and retention," Van Iddekinge reports. 

What little difference they did see between the performance of experienced and unexperienced new hires was largely in the first three months. Unsurprisingly, people who had done the job before got up to speed more quickly, but they weren't any better at it over the long haul. 

That's perplexing. How could experience and the learning that should come with it not improve a new employee's ability to do the job? Van Iddekinge can't be sure on the basis of this study, but he points out the yawning chasm between holding a certain type of job previously and doing it well previously. 

"Many measures of experience are pretty basic: the number of jobs you've held, tenure at your previous employers, years of total work, whether you've previously worked in a similar role. Those metrics tell us whether a candidate possesses experience but not about the quality or significance of that experience," he says. "The person might have failed or stagnated in previous jobs." 

Better ways to screen than past experience

Which brings us to a crucial distinction for those left scratching their heads by this research: While just checking if someone has done the job before and for how long is completely useless, digging into whether they were any good at their past jobs isn't.

The problem isn't really asking about past experience. It's being lazy and doing nothing else to verify that the experience actually translates into knowledge and skills.

Just like Google's former HR boss, Van Iddekinge suggests hiring managers use behavioral interview questions along the lines of "Tell me about a time when you ... " to assess a candidate's actual abilities. (Be warned that not everyone is a fan of these questions. Wharton's Adam Grant has called them unfair and suggested an alternative.) 

He also recommends job-relevant tests and more fine-grained screening tools, such as asking for the number of hours a candidate spent performing a specific task rather than the number of years in a broad role. Overall, though, he suggests each company should be guided by its own data to find better ways to screen candidates. 

"Let's say there's a role you need to fill in the sales department, and you've seen over time that people who majored in marketing tend to stay longer and get better customer reviews than those who studied other subjects. That could be a viable screen. For another job, it could be having some certification," Van Iddekinge explains. 

But whatever techniques you use, don't just do the easy thing and assume that years on the job translates into relevant skills and a greater likelihood of success. It doesn't. In fact, an obsession with past experience may actually be causing you to miss out on talent who will truly shine in your organization.  

"Today, when everyone is complaining about the skills shortage and the war for talent, companies can't afford to knock out candidates who would do really well but don't have the experience that someone has chosen to put in the job description," he cautions. 

Do you agree that companies' overreliance on past experience to screen candidates means they miss out on great talent? 

Published on: Oct 15, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.