Recruitment: is an experienced hire a better hire?

Recruitment Experience

Key Points 

  • Previous work experience doesn’t predict performance in a new job as much as you might believe
  • Previous work experience is also a poor predictor of training performance
  • The impact previous work experience can have on job performance may depend on the complexity of the job

How many times have you glanced through a job spec and seen “minimum 5 years’ experience required”? Work experience is often a major focus of recruiting practice and a key requirement of many hires. Job seekers highlight all their work experience in a CV, making sure any gaps are covered or explained. Such value is placed on previous experience that some companies spend a lot of money on software to filter job hopefuls based on their level of experience. They also pay hiring managers to check references to ensure that a candidate’s story checks out.

Many hiring managers believe experienced workers will perform better, and will need less training and less time to get “up to speed”. The importance of work experience is perceived to be so great that even entry-level jobs and internships call for it. This causes some frustration among graduates; to get a job, you need experience but to get experience, you need a job! The focus on experience has historically been so strong that its importance is now being called into question for early careers roles. Should we also be questioning its relevance for established workers? Also, does experience play a role in job performance and what about training performance?

Investigating the role of previous work experience in a new job

Chad Iddekinge, John Arnold, Rachel Frieder and Philip Roth published a meta-analysis based on 75 studies. They looked at the extent to which work experience predicts job performance and training performance.They focused their study on the work experience acquired before starting a new job.

They quantified work experience as the number of years of experience overall, experience in a similar job and the number of years in a job with similar tasks. They also considered if the experience was in a similar job, a similar organisation or in the same industry.  The researchers looked at job performance, training performance overall and at task performance i.e. successfully completing specific tasks. They also explored whether the complexity of a role has an influence on the importance of work experience.

An experienced hire might not be a better hire

The researchers found little evidence that work experience predicts job performance. This was true even when experience and job performance were considered in multiple ways. 

This may be true for a number of reasons. Jobs with the same job titles can be different in their requirements. Performance can suffer for many reasons. Low trust in the team, a low-performing manager, and a confusing onboarding process can all counteract someone’s previous experience.

So far we have found out that work experience alone is a poor predictor of performance at work. What about training? It is logical to imagine that work experience is useful when it comes to the level of training required. After all, a key reason why companies look for experienced workers is to try to save money and time. For hiring managers, an experienced candidate may perform better in on-the-job training. The evidence leads us to believe otherwise. Overall, previous work experience is not strongly related to how people perform in their new company training. Experience may require a candidate to “unlearn” their previous job’s procedures, while someone with limited experience might learn more quickly with a fresh perspective. 

When experience might matter

There might be some cases where previous experience is important. Depending on the complexity of a job, experience can matter when it comes to job performance. 

What is job complexity? A job is highly complex when it requires a wide range of abilities; think neurosurgeons, physicists, or air traffic controllers. Factory workers have a job with low complexity, while accountants or marketing managers have jobs with moderate complexity.

Overall, the evidence suggests:

  • For jobs with high and low complexity, previous experience somewhat predicts future job performance. The range and level of abilities required for a complex job might come from a variety of sources, including experience. 
  • Jobs with lower complexity often have repetitive tasks, for which experience might help; the more you repeat a task, the better you perform it.

When experience is measured at the task-level, the study found that experience is somewhat predictive of training performance. In other words, when newcomers have experience in a specific task, e.g. manipulating data in spreadsheets, they are probably going to perform better in the training course. 

Recruitment Experience
Takeaways for your practice

Since previous experience isn’t as good a predictor of performance for future hires as we may have thought, what should we base hiring decisions on? How should we rethink hiring practices in light of these findings? Here are some suggestions of where to start:

  • Now that we know what isn’t predictive of performance, find out what is! Conduct a job analysis to identify the key predictors of performance. This will help you understand the key requirements of the role before starting your recruitment process.
  • Base your hiring decision on data when recruiting: you can incorporate other methods that are effective in measuring someone’s potential such as an assessment of personality, situational judgment tests or aptitude tests. Once you have revamped your hiring process, you can find tips on how to communicate your new recruitment process here.
  • Only seek experience when it might make a difference (considering job complexity, for example). There may be  benefits to not having experience: bringing new ideas to the role and avoiding the trap of “this is how we’ve always done things”.
  • When conducting interviews, make sure the questions are structured and relevant to the job. Exploring experience is useful and helps you get to know the candidate and remain an approachable recruiter. Someone without relevant experience but with the right skills should be able to answer in a way that is relevant to the requirements of the job.
  • Be inclusive in your practice: being off work for a while while travelling, taking care of children or being ill shouldn’t be an indicator of how suitable the candidate is for the role.
  • Review your training and onboarding material to make sure inexperienced and experienced new hires are set up for success. Not sure how? This evidence summary can give you some insights.

Trustworthiness score

We critically evaluated the strength and quality of the study we used to inform this Evidence Summary. We found that the study design – a meta-analysis of cross-sectional studies – is moderately appropriate to demonstrate a causal relationship. Therefore we can conclude that it is likely that previous work experience is a poor predictor of work performance.

Learn how we critically appraise studies to assign them a Trustworthiness Score.

ScienceForWork is an independent, non-profit foundation of evidence-based practitioners who want to #MakeWorkBetter.

Our mission is to provide leaders and decision-makers with trustworthy and actionable insights from behavioural science.

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Iddekinge, CH, Arnold, JD, Frieder, RE, Roth, PL. A meta‐analysis of the criterion‐related validity of prehire work experience. Personnel Psychology. 2019;

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  1. Pingback: Dault’s Analysis: Is an Experienced Hire a Better Hire? – HPT Treasures – for Evidence Based Performance Improvement

  2. Ruta

    Thank you for the summary! I was wondering- would human resource manager fall under “medium complex job”? Thanks

    • Jenny

      Not at all!