by Herbert M. Greenberg, Ph.D. and Harold P. Weinstein, Ph.D.

When it comes to hiring, we are still trapped by the past.

Experience is what we look for in job candidates. We often view experience as the ultimate tie-breaker when making a final decision. If there are two seemingly equally-qualified candidates for a position and one has slightly more experience, the decision seems easy. Experience wins.

Some executives will even use experience as the primary factor in attracting job candidates. The first place they look is their competitors' back yard. They hope to come across highly productive individuals who are ready to make a move. Conventional wisdom is that experience will poise someone to hit the ground running. But the price can be high for taking this easy road.

Pirating is often simply a way of doing your competition a favor by recirculating mediocrity. All too frequently, "experienced" job seekers don't live up to their claims. How often have you come across people who have twelve years of experience, which adds up to just one year's bad experience repeated a dozen times?

In the end, effective hiring has less to do with experience than with potential.

This has become strikingly evident as we have begun helping companies hire in the Czech Republic - where virtually no one has "experience." There, as the country moves into a free market economy, new ways are needed to supervise staff, manage projects, sell products, and service customers. Without experienced candidates, executives are seeking ways to identify people who possess the inner ability to benefit from the extensive, expensive training that is required.

Just think about how that changes the way these executives are hiring. They are looking for managers without a track record who can lead, inspire, organize, and provide vision and momentum. They are searching for salespeople, with absolutely no experience, who will be able to persuade prospects, understand where clients are coming from, and handle rejection. And from unseasoned customer service representatives they must select those who are conscientious, motivated to please others, and enjoy solving problems.

Since they cannot rely upon experience, our clients in the Czech Republic are uncovering the potential of job candidates by finding out what they are made of psychologically. They've discovered that motivation, dedication and sales or customer service talent have far more to do with who applicants are than with what jobs they have held previously. And this approach is proving extremely profitable for Holland Chemical Inc. and several other multi-national companies who are participating in a pilot project.

We aren't surprised, for we first confirmed this truth in a somewhat similar experiment conducted in this country more than a quarter of a century ago. In the late 1960's, there was a similar experiment in this country. We were involved in several government programs which resulted in hiring more than 3,000 so-called "hard-core unemployed" people for 72 companies in San Juan, Puerto Rico and New York City. None of these people had much experience by any stretch of the definition, either. If trapped by traditional hiring criteria, none of them would stand a chance of getting past the resume review. What the majority of them did have, however, was the motivation and talent to succeed. All they needed was the opportunity to have their strengths recognized and matched to the jobs offered. When this happened, they performed at least as well as candidates who had experience in these jobs. For, in the final analysis, experience alone is neither a reliable nor a predictive guide.

There were hundreds of startling success stories, but perhaps most striking were the two welfare recipients who were given a chance and hired through this project - because, through psychological testing, we were able to determine that they had the motivation and the drive needed to succeed. Not only did these two previously unemployed individuals set new production records, but they both recently retired as multi-millionaires for the same investment firm.

Based on more than three decades of assessing the potential of nearly one million employees and applicants, it is clear to us that most companies are mistaken in greatly over-emphasizing experience in their hiring decisions. Top-flight managers, salespeople, and customer service representatives can and routinely are being discovered among former engineers, production-line and other factory workers, software developers, and so on.

Mark Steinberg, managing director of Allmerica Financial, a diversified group of insurance and financial services companies, says he has hired experienced people "who have fallen flat on their faces," but on the other side of the spectrum, has seen "former nurses and teachers become highly successful in the financial services industry."

And at Avis Rent A Car, Thomas Byrnes, vice president of sales, says that, when searching for entry-level salespeople, the company has had "the most success in hiring people with little or no sales experience."

We have found, in fact, that one of every four people in the general population has better potential to succeed in sales than 50% of the people already working in the sales profession. And in reviewing the performance of employees for thousands of large, medium and small companies, we have found that nearly 80% of their employees are not filling the jobs best suited to their talents, abilities and potential.

With technological advance driving wave after wave of restructurings and reshapings of markets and industries, even changing the nature of many jobs, it just does not make sense to base staffing decisions solely - or even largely - on the myth of experience.

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