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Stop only checking boxes: Hiring for potential over experience

hiring for potential

Some hiring managers have a very clear idea of who they’re looking for to fill a role.

Too often, this causes them to fixate on requirements for job candidates that they assume are critical – but actually may not be all that important in practice. For example, hiring managers want someone with X years of experience in their industry, preferably working X years at certain companies. Candidates must have mastered a variety of skills from A-Z. Or, especially for entry-level roles, hiring managers may target graduates from a certain school, with a specific major and minimum GPA.

In some cases, such as hiring for prominent, highly skilled roles or positions that truly call for unique candidates, this recruiting approach makes sense. For the vast majority of jobs, it doesn’t – instead, it can limit companies into an arbitrary box and lead to a long, frustrating recruiting process searching for the “perfect candidate” who likely doesn’t exist … except for on paper.

During the ongoing talent shortage compounded by The Great Resignation, when companies are having a much harder time finding and retaining talent, such a rigid recruiting approach can be even more problematic. You may find your team chronically understaffed!

Today and going forward, companies must compromise. Part of that involves hiring for potential versus hiring for every box checked on your ever-growing list of requirements.

What is “hiring for potential?”

No, this doesn’t mean hiring unqualified or significantly inexperienced candidates – to the detriment of your company.

What does it mean? You’re looking at what someone has the potential to do versus what they’ve actually done already.

To be clear, you’re always looking for smart, motivated people. They just may not have the extensive industry experience or a diploma from your preferred school.

As a business leader or a hiring manager, you must be willing to:

  • Broaden your own narrow definition of what a successful new hire is
  • Consider candidates who may not have the “appropriate experience” as you originally saw it
  • Seek to learn more about candidates and ask them follow-up questions rather than dismissing them outright
  • Prioritize soft skills, or at least give them equal weight as hard skills
  • Evaluate candidates holistically rather than how they check off boxes

For example, maybe you could look at:

  • Military veterans who don’t have X years of experience in your industry, but who do have comparable experience in a different environment
  • Candidates with alternative experience and education that could translate well into the role
  • People with gaps in their resumes (possibly stay-at-home parents or people who left the workforce a few years ago as part of the pandemic-induced SHEcession)
  • Candidates who are possibly more “green,” but who demonstrate aptitude and eagerness
  • Candidates with minor criminal records (depending on the role)

Benefits of hiring for potential

Don’t view this practice of hiring for potential as “settling” for a lesser candidate than what you would want in an optimal job market.

To the contrary, incredibly good things happen when you don’t set stringent requirements for job candidates. In fact, by hiring an “outside the box” candidate, your company may be able to:

  • Spend less time recruiting and fill jobs faster
  • Save money on new hires
  • Introduce much-needed fresh insights and innovation to your team (and combat groupthink!)
  • Reach a more diverse pool of candidates, thereby enhancing diversity initiatives
  • Tap into the mindset of learning, development and growth that all employees have and, as a result, improve their engagement and retention
  • Strengthen employee loyalty to your company and boost employee performance, as a result of giving people opportunities
  • Find outstanding talent that you would have otherwise overlooked

You may even be able to start identifying patterns in people who seem to do really well that have nothing to do with experience and academics. This can take your company in a whole new and exciting recruiting direction and really enhance the effectiveness of your team!

Your guide to hiring for potential

1. Put less weight on the things you once thought mattered

Repeat after us: There is no “perfect candidate.” So, you must shift your expectations.

Don’t get mired in job requirements that ultimately don’t matter much to the role or the success of new hires.

When you think about all the requirements you used to have for job candidates, challenge why you had those to begin with. Think about the job itself, and which types of knowledge and skills are crucial to have at the outset versus what can be trained and acquired over time.

Consider this: what other types of experience, knowledge and skills could be relevant and transfer well to your open role?

Furthermore, pick out employees who have done well at your company – and study what they share in common.

2. Learn to identify high potential

Some candidate characteristics matter just as much – if not more than – already knowing how to do the job. Look for candidates who:

To the last point, you may not be hiring for a manager position right now, but you never know how the role will change over time or which path the new hire may ultimately take within your company.

In your job descriptions, spend less time overwhelming job seekers with a long list of must-have requirements, which can scare off would-be applicants and diminish your pool of candidates. Instead, focus on a short list of critical requirements and allot more real estate to discussing your company’s values and culture and all the soft skills you prioritize. This will encourage desirable candidates to apply.

When you review resumes and job applications, read between the lines to identify these traits.

During job interviews, ask candidates certain questions to figure out the extent to which they embody these characteristics. This involves a combination of behavioral and situational questions.

Examples of behavioral questions:

  • Tell me about your ability to work effectively under pressure.
  • How do you approach challenges?
  • How do you collaborate within a team?
  • How do you set goals and go about achieving them?
  • What do you do if you disagree with someone at work?

Examples of situation questions:

  • Describe a time when you had to work with a difficult colleague, manager or client, and how you worked through it.
  • Tell me about a time when you received criticism, and how you reacted.
  • Describe a situation in which you needed to persuade someone to accept your point of view or convince them to change something. What did you do?
  • Talk about a time when you needed to take initiative and how you rose to the occasion.
  • Describe a time when you made a mistake at work, and how you handled it.

3. Set new hires up for success.

Your company should have a standard framework for training and development already in place for any new hire – beyond a general orientation to introduce them to the company culture and policies. For example, require every hire in a certain role to complete a set of targeted and relevant skills- and knowledge-based courses to prepare them for their specific job.

However, be prepared to deviate from that basic structure depending on the individual needs of new hires. Some new hires may need additional learning opportunities or an assigned mentor to be able to flourish in their roles. If you hired for potential, you will likely need to dedicate more time upfront into those workers’ development.

Before hiring any employee, consider how much time and which resources you have to dedicate to getting them up to speed, and be sure that your work environment is conducive to learning.

Summing it all up

Contrary to what many hiring managers may think, hiring for potential isn’t about lowering expectations or hiring someone who’s unqualified. It simply means shifting expectations to consider candidates outside a traditional – and often overly rigid and erroneous – definition of what a successful candidate means. This means embracing candidates with diverse – yet relevant – experiences, skill sets, education and knowledge. To get started, reconsider which candidate qualities are critical at the outset versus what you can develop over time. Focus on the universal qualities and soft skills that can often impact the long-term success of new hires to an even greater degree. Make sure you have the learning structures in place to get new hires up to speed.

To learn more about expanding your workforce with successful, more diverse hires, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to managing organizational growth.