Employing staff: 10 times the experience or 1 experience 10 times?

recruitmentAre you about to employ a new staff member?  Or bringing together a new project team?

Are you sure the person or people who you’ve identified as your ‘ideal’ candidate is really going to be productive from day one?  Are they actually competent in what is required in the role?

Employment advertisements generally ask for experience, and employers place emphasis on this when selecting candidates.

Experience is a poor indicator of an individual having the skill, knowledge or attitude to perform a role competently.  Two individuals may have 10 years’ experience, but the breadth and depth of that experience will vary.

A simple example that demonstrates this is recruiting for an archival role.  Many people choose to live their archiving passion throughout their entire employment.  An applicant who has worked competently across multiple organisations and a variety of archiving projects, will have greater ability to make decisions on appropriate process or appraisal of different record types, than a person who has worked exclusively in a single organisation.  The latter is likely to have had the same experience each year for ten years and need a high level of support to work in a new environment.

The more senior the role, the more difficult experience is to assess because a broader range of actual skill and knowledge requires assessment.  Many applicants can write an excellent resume, and present well in interviews, using all the appropriate industry language we want to hear in an interview, but then display huge gaps when it comes to performing the role.

All the standard tips for conducting worthwhile interviews apply; let the candidate do 80% of the talking, ask open questions, etc., which you need to apply.  But to truly evaluate the value of a candidates experience you’ll need to dig a little deeper when reviewing the application, and during the interview.  Sometimes it may mean exploring less ‘professional’ resumes and progressing people to interview to uncover the full experience through conversation.

Discover actual competence and capability

Can a candidate actually do what they state?

Working within different organisations provides breadth of experience.  Each organisation will conduct their records management practices with a slightly different approach, and a competent candidate will have learnt what works in different circumstances.  A candidate who has learnt from this experience will be able to describe:

  • Alternate approaches or solutions AND the logic behind selecting them
  • What they have experienced that has not been the best approach AND why
  • Situations where they have learnt and been able to apply continuous improvement as a result.

Merely describing actions taken in previous roles is inadequate to indicate the depth of knowledge required to display competence.

Where a candidate actually describes their experience in these open and honest terms in their cover letter and resume they should be on your short list!  If not, delve into it during the interview.

Examine the pattern of employment

Identify if the pattern of employment has actually added experience.

The reasons for changing employment need to be explored.  If your organisation is seeking a leader who can take on new challenges and bring new approaches, then you will be looking for someone who has been employed by multiple organisations.  The pattern of employment you are seeking may be a person who has changed roles every two years, with an overall upward progression.

Why they have changed roles needs investigating.  Has the person moved on following the completion of a project; at the point when they have fulfilled the contract and are ready for a new challenge?   Or did the majority of prior contracts finish because the manager/team/vendor/etc. was difficult to work with and it was time to get out?

Candidates can have very plausible reasons for moving on, and they may be the true reasons.  But if the reason indicates a continuing pattern then it is likely to recur with your organisation.  The candidate may have excellent the skills you need right now, but not the overall capability to see the role through.  That’s not necessarily a reason for not employing the candidate, but you will need to build a development program and overcome the identified weakness.  Otherwise the same pattern will be repeated.

Apply rigour with referees

Be courageous and ask the tough questions.

Candidates provide referees they anticipate will provide a favourable assessment of their competence and capability.  That makes it very hard for the potential employer to gain any valuable information on true experience.  In addition, my experience is, potential employers ask very polite questions that allow the referee to provide shallow answers.

Review the past employment history, and if there is a particular role you’d really like to explore more, ask the candidate if you may contact that employer as a referee.  There is nothing to lose with this question.  You need to make it clear the importance of matching the right person with the role, and they have the opportunity to honestly provide any reason for not contacting the former employer.

When talking to a previous employer explain that weaknesses are not a reason for turning a candidate down, and ask them to identify areas of weakness.  Knowing a person’s weaknesses or areas where development is necessary enable you to put in place support strategies for the role.  It also avoid the disappointment of underperformance that impacts relationships with new employees and is difficult to recover from.

It is rare to find a ‘perfect’ match for job roles.  But it is possible to identify the actual strengths and weaknesses of the best candidate, and start the new role with the right expectations in place for everyone.


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