rethinking experience

Breaking the years’ experience job requirement for a diverse workforce

A demand for experience could be hampering recruitment and reducing diversity. Skills-focused hiring could be the answer.

Picture a typical job advert. A paragraph or two outlining the role followed by a short list of the skills. This is followed by a stipulation of previous experience. “Must have at least three years in a similar role,” or “experience within the industry required.” It’s a traditional approach to filtering candidates right at the top of the recruitment funnel. Those with the right experience – as laid out in the ad – can proceed. And those who don’t meet the listed criteria can look elsewhere.

By being absolutely clear about the track record required for the role, employers ensure that only suitable candidates apply. But there’s a problem. A demand for “experience” may be undermining plans to embrace diversity.

Diversity has become an imperative. A growing body of research suggests businesses that put diversity – along with equity and inclusion – at the heart of their recruitment processes outperform their more homogeneous counterparts. As Forbes Council member, Thomas Helfrich pointed out, diversity within a business is a driver of performance, he noted that racially and ethnically diverse teams are more likely to work more effectively. Even more striking, the research suggested diverse businesses are 70 percent more likely to penetrate new markets. There is today, a broad consensus that diversity leads to better decision-making. Consequently, many organisations have committed themselves to diverse recruitment and career development policies.

That is why it is important to look at recruitment practices themselves and, in particular, the tendency to focus on inflexible experience criteria.

The Experience Deterrent

By asking for relevant experiences organisations are – usually unintentionally – favouring some candidates at the expense of others. For instance, research conducted by Hewlett Packard and reported by the HBR suggests that women seldom apply for jobs unless 100% qualified. Men send a CV if they meet just 60% of the requirements. In other words, men are much more likely to take a punt and apply for jobs even if they don’t tick all the boxes. This disadvantages women.

And according to a 2023 McKinsey Report, women – and in particular women of colour – are still underrepresented in the workforce. That is particularly telling at higher levels. Only one out of four C-suite executives are women, the report says. And there’s a link here with recruitment. To nurture the high flyers of tomorrow a pipeline is required.

Ethnic minorities are also under-represented but the picture here is quite complicated. Research by the Joseph Rowntree Trust suggests there is considerable variation across communities. In some groups, such as people of Indian subcontinent heritage, unemployment is low and there is high penetration into certain professions. However, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development research finds that people of colour hold only 6% of senior management positions.

And according to the CIPD, people from ethnic minority backgrounds still face barriers when seeking to progress their careers within organisations. In practice, this could mean an individual acquires skills that are not reflected in the job title. For instance, someone who has managed several projects might not have ever been promoted and officially recognised as a project manager.

That’s not necessarily a problem in the short term. Doubtless, the money associated with a promotion would be welcome, but acquisition of skills will always make a CV look more impressive. But what happens when the time comes to seek a new job?

Let’s say an employer wants project management experience and the candidate has acquired all the necessary skills. We should be looking at a perfect match but if the employer defines experience in terms of a job title, the candidate may be excluded from the role, despite an abundance of skills.

The phrase “recent experience” might also be a hurdle. It could, for instance, rule out a female candidate who has taken five years out to look after children or indeed pursue a different career. After that length of time spent away from the industry front line, the candidate could find her experience discounted.

Skills Based Hiring

A new approach is required – one based on skills and personal qualities rather than job titles and what they say about experience.

And what we’re seeing among some companies at least is a move to “skills-based hiring.”

As reported by Forbes, last year, companies are now more willing to consider applicants who don’t have, say, a college degree or relevant experience. Instead, the employers take time to assess the skills of applicants and whether they match the requirements.

Further research tells a similar story. The professional services company’s research identifies a growing number of businesses that are decoupling jobs – and the idea of job title – from the tasks being carried out within their organisations. The research quotes Anish Singh, Head of HR at Unilever, as saying that each role is now being seen as a collection of skills.

A skills-based approach to recruitment has the potential to open up organisations to much more diversity, with all the associated benefits. And there are other potential wins. Since the pandemic, many businesses have struggled to find suitable candidates. Greater emphasis on skills and a shift away from a reliance on experience should increase the applicant pool, making it easier to fill vacancies.