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Five things you look for in a hire that are commonly misused

When you’re hunting for your next great hire, the first thing you probably do is create a job description with a list of requirements; 5-7 years of experience, BA/BS in something, MS/MBA preferred, must be a go-getter with great communication skills, and must be skilled or knowledgeable with this list of stuff. These common qualifications (or, in other words, how you’ve “qualified” an applicant) are well used because they work, right?

Well, not really …

If used correctly, common qualifications could be very effective to find the right people for the job. If used incorrectly, they will remove great candidates from the pool, add unnecessary bias to your selection process, or worst of all, lead you down the path to hiring the wrong fit (or a “bad hire”).

So, are your qualifiers going to help or hinder you when looking for the right candidate? Here are five qualifications that are commonly misused, and how you can start using them effectively.

1. Years of experience

Common wisdom: The candidate with the most number of years of relevant experience will be the best fit for the job.

After all, they’ve already learned by doing, meaning there’ll likely require less onboarding and on-the-job training.

More experience means more success; it seems logical, right? After all, experience means the candidate has already learned by doing so they are going to require less onboarding and on-the-job training. Well, maybe. Before assuming more experience in the job is better, consider what you need from this employee to be successful.

For example, say you’re looking for an ambitious go-getter. You’re unlikely to find one who’s been sitting in the same job for years. Go-getter candidates tend to move quickly from role to role as promotions and opportunities come their way.

Or maybe you want to find someone creative who’ll bring a fresh perspective to the company. In this scenario, isn’t it better to find someone with varied experience who can bring new ideas, rather than a person who’s been working in the same industry or same role for most of their career?

If you’re hiring for a senior position and want someone who is reliable and can be left alone to get the job done, then a candidate who’s worked in the same role for years might be ideal. On the other hand, if you’re looking for someone who needs to be taught to do the job in a very specific way, then years of experience may have no impact at all, since it can be just as time consuming to train fresh talent than to retrain someone with years of experience doing things the same old way.

So before applying “more is better” to years of experience, make sure those years are going to result in better fitting candidates.

2. Education

Common wisdom: The candidate with the best degree from the better school will make the best candidate.

Similar to experience, it seems a natural assumption that for education ‘more is better’ and ‘more prestigious is better’. You want the Ivy League over the state school, the Masters over the Bachelors degree. Now for the million-dollar question - why? Are you getting value from your education requirements or are you just paying for it?

For one thing, education can be costly. You’ll typically pay college grads up to 30% more than non-graduates who can often perform the job nearly or equally as well. Also, some certifications and degrees (particularly in fast-moving industries like tech) become rapidly outdated.

There are plenty of jobs that do require a specific degree—you’d be nuts to hire a doctor without an M.D. and the proper board certification. But there are also plenty that really don’t. A recent study by Harvard Business School found that 67% of production supervisor jobs posted in 2015 listed a college degree as a requirement—but only 16% of employed production supervisors had one, and they were doing just fine.

Education can also be a culprit of unconscious bias if not used properly. For example, a prestigious school can make you unwittingly favor one candidate over another, even if both candidates are equally qualified.

What are you really looking for when asking for the degree? Is it the specific education that the degree provided, or is it something else like problem solving skills, deep industry knowledge, or a great ability to learn. If it is not the content of the degree, why not instead test for these traits directly?

Tip: The job may not actually require a degree if the area of study is not specified or if there are several areas of study listed along with an “or equivalent”.

3. Hard skills

Common wisdom: The job requires certain hard skills, so the ideal candidate must have all those skills before they step through the door.

Well sure, it would be great to find someone who already knows it all. But it’s unlikely any candidate will ever know everything they need for the job. That’s what training is for. The more skills you require, the harder it will be to find a qualified candidate. And, like education, you’re going to be paying for all those skills, some of which could easily be taught on the job.

It all comes down to a balance: which skills are required right off the bat, and which does the candidate have time to learn through experience or training? Which skills will require training no matter the experience (because of a unique or customized process). For trainable skills, how much time and money will be needed to conduct the training?

Prioritize the vital skills you’re looking for and set realistic expectations of what a candidate should be able to do. This will get you what you are looking for without disqualifying great candidates that may just require a reasonable amount of training.

4. Soft skills and traits

Common wisdom: All great candidates share common traits that the interview process will shine a light on.

First, if all great candidates shared the same traits, wouldn’t we all be striving to be the same person? The reality is it takes all types of people for a smooth running organization. And while there are traits that seem to be undeniably attractive, they’re not always necessary (and might even be detrimental) for the job at hand.

Take the idea of a “go-getter.” It sounds great. But let’s say you need someone dependable who’ll work diligently on a highly specific task, like a lab technician measuring samples over a long period of time. Instead of a go-getter who might get bored and make a mistake, what you really need is a focus on reliability.

Another common requirement of job ads is the “team player.” If you’re hiring for a team oriented role, like the coordinator of a marketing team, then that’s a must-have. But if you’re hiring for a software developer who’ll be expected to generate their own code and rarely need to check in with their colleagues on projects, then maybe a “lone ranger” will be happier in the role.

Even if you have spent the time identifying the right traits for your position, now there is a second challenge; measuring them. You can ask, but when have you ever heard a candidate tell you that they’re not a go-getter, that they’re massively unreliable, or that their communication is just the worst?

You can’t expect candidates to accurately represent their soft skills and traits, and you can’t always trust that you’ll spot them in an interview (some people are just better at interviewing than others). Defining which skills and traits you need and measuring for them objectively through assessments is the best way to find candidates who embody what you need.

5. Work history

Common wisdom: Gaps in the resume are bad, and small stints at a lot of different companies are undesirable.

Let’s start with gaps. Gaps can be a very bad thing… or not. There are a thousand good reasons for gaps. Without having all the information, gaps are no reason to think a candidate isn’t right for the job.

Just think about the 2008 recession. Did you know anyone who was affected; a solid performer who lost their job and struggled to find another? Or maybe you’ve been laid off in the past for a completely unavoidable reason (like the company downsizing) or took a break from work for your family? You would not want to be disqualified for these perfectly valid reasons, because life just happens sometimes.

In addition to not being fair, gaps can lead to bias against specific groups such as mothers trying to reenter the workforce after their kids enter school, or children taking a break to take care of their elderly parents. It doesn’t mean they can’t do the job—in fact, they might be even more enthusiastic than someone who’s been doing the same thing without a break for years.

Then there are candidates with a lot of little stints at companies but nothing longterm. It might look like they lack commitment or loyalty, but again, there are a thousand reasons this might happen. For example, Companies they’ve worked for might just have been acquired or shifted in focus. Or you are looking at one of those desirable go-getters, always on the lookout for the next challenge. Then there are those candidates hired for all the wrong reasons (see points 1-4 for reference) and end up leaving when they realize the job isn’t right for them.

The real question is: why do the gaps or short stints bother you? If you find yourself saying they indicate a deeper problem, like loyalty or effectiveness, then wouldn’t measuring for these traits make more sense (just like with soft skills)?

When it comes to work history; forget the gaps; forget the short stints. Focus on defining and measuring what it really is you need the candidate for.

Making qualifiers count

So time for the honest truth. Have you ever misused these or other qualifiers, relying on common ‘wisdom’ rather than what you really need? Maybe you’ve been on the receiving end of “common wisdom” during your own job hunt. It sucks, doesn’t it?

Put aside the ‘common wisdom’ and define what you need in a candidate to be successful for your jobs. You will find better candidates that will be better positioned for success all while reducing the risk of bias which is a win-win for everyone.

We can help.

At, we’ve developed a software solution that lets you find the candidates with the skills and traits actually required for the role. Candidates input hard skills first, followed by tests for soft skills, and the software uses this data to find the people best qualified for the job—without misleading common wisdom getting in the way.

Don’t let your qualifiers hurt the quality of your hires. To find out more about how can help, contact us today.

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