Why Higher Credentials on Job Apps Don't Promise Stronger Job Candidates

Ira S. Wolfe

President, Success Performance Solutions

Every organization wants to hire top performers on a consistent basis. Unfortunately, this doesn't happen very often. In fact, in most cases, organizations fail miserably. One reason for this rate of failure is "credential creep": the act of raising minimum job requirements in the hope of hiring more qualified employees.

Ironically, credential creep leads to the opposite result of what is intended and expected. For example, requiring an executive assistant or construction supervisor to have a bachelor's degree strangles the flow of qualified candidates and increases time-to-fill dramatically. Sure, setting a higher bar, in theory, isn't a bad idea. But education alone is a poor predictor of job success. In other words, "higher" isn't always "better."

I often see managers grasp at arbitrary minimums for experience, determine random years of education needed to apply, and develop unreliable personality stereotypes and label it "the perfect applicant". Most organizations are flinging ideas and efforts against the wall and hoping something sticks. Then they wonder why so many superstar-like candidates fizzle out as employees.

Here's how the process usually goes: Bob worked for his previous employer for three years. He started work straight out of high school, but earned his two-year associate's degree along the way. He did a great job at first, but now he's struggling to keep up. Last year you hired Joe to do the same job as Bob. Joe also has three years of experience but he has a bachelor's degree. Joe exceeds everyone's expectations and knocks the job out of the park.

When another position opens, managers decide that the difference between Bob and Joe's performance must be the four-year college degree. So when Harry shows up with 10 years of experience but only a high school diploma and a handful of college credits, his application lands in the unqualified folder.

What evidence is there that 10 years of experience isn't better and more predictive than a degree? What other factors—professional and personal—might impact Bob's performance? HR professionals or managers rarely have reliable evidence to back up the hiring decisions they make. Therefore, the pass or fail of a new hire is left to chance, and conventional hiring practices are as reliable as flipping a coin.

And yet this scenario is repeated thousands of times in organizations ranging from small businesses to global enterprises. Whenever a new employee exceeds expectations, his experience, education and personality profile become the new template for all future hires.

There are ways, however, to use education and experience more reliably. Namely, as markers of success and job fit. The solution is asking investigative type interview questions focused on a candidate's education and previous experience, such as:

Education Interview Questions:

  • What influenced you to pursue that field?
  • How much effort did you put in as a student?
  • What courses were required in the degree program?
  • What elective and general courses did you take?
  • What extra-curricular experiences do you have?
  • If education was interrupted, what did you do in the interim?

Experience Interview Questions:

  • How relevant was the experience to the current or future job?
  • How varied was the experience? How transferable is the experience?
  • How dynamic were the environments of previous jobs? (This is especially important for start-ups and innovative companies.)
  • How different was your experience on the last day of your most current job compared to your first day?
  • What additional experiences (work or non-work related) might contribute to your success or failure?

Don't fall into the trap of setting application rules, or creating position "credentials," required for success based on a hiring process that isn't evidence based. Rather, spend your time and energy creating solid job profiles: determining the appropriate minimums and mix of education, experiences and character traits needed to set your candidate up to succeed.

Photo: Creative Commons

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