The journal Organization Science published a paper earlier this year entitled, “Unpacking Prior Experience: How Career History Affects Job Performance”. I’m still digesting the paper, but it’s an interesting analysis of a shared basic assumption among most hiring managers and recruiters:
Assumption: Candidates who are high performers at one company at a specific job (prior related experience) will be high performers at a different company.
As an IF/THEN statement: IF you have extensive prior experience (and achievement) in a job, THEN you will be a high performer here too.
But, this research supports other studies (and some of our gut instincts) that while the knowledge, skills, and abilities a candidate possesses has a proven link to performance, the prior work experience itself (tenure at a particular job) is actually a negative drag on performance in the new job.
Let’s turn that into a story…
Once upon a time, Tom the hiring manager hires Alice, who has 15 years of achievement as an account executive. Tom expects she’ll be a high performer here too. But after a year, she’s not a high performer. Tom grows resentful and fires Alice. Tom feels that surely he has been duped! Alice never had the experience she claimed. Tom inserts a replacement requisition for another experienced, high achieving account executive.
This paper says that Tom is wrong. Alice had the knowledge and skills she claimed, as well as an entire human being’s worth of other behaviors and operating assumptions about work, personal internal networks to get things done, goodwill among our co-workers, etc.
What Dokko, Wilk, and Rothbard found was that, yes, experience could predict performance, but it’s a ricochet shot. Their knowledge, skills, and abilities help predict performance; experience and tenure predict negative performance. Longer tenure predicts worse performance at the new job. Here’s a screen shot from the paper. Watch the + and – notations in their diagram.
Will this study change the face of recruiting? Well, no. Tomorrow, hiring managers will still want prior related experience as a core criteria for hiring. And it’ll work sometimes. But it’s interesting to parse out where the failures occur in the new talented hire. Maybe we can identify the root cause and do something about it?
Could we factor this problem into onboarding practices?
If it’s true that the negative elements of experience are in the “worn in grooves” in someone’s work patterns, the new hire’s old assumptions about work behavior creates the drag on performance, then immediate intervention and socialization of the new hire in the new work environment could turn into much higher performance later on. This may be counter-intuitive; we usually think that an experienced hire would need less onboarding assimilation activities. But perhaps more socialization and assimilation early on would return productivity much faster and higher.
I’d be interested in your perspectives on those thoughts.