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Should you hire for potential or for experience?

September, 2022
Adam Richardson

With salary inflation rampant over the last twelve months and some roles proving very difficult to fill due to skills’ shortages, there’s been a noticeable increase in companies willing to consider relatively unproven candidates. It is an option that has positives as well as negatives and so long as employers recognise these before making the hire it can prove a very effective strategy.

The pros of experience

“Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM” is among the most famous marketing mantra of all time and hiring a candidate with a proven track record generally provides reassurance and confidence that they will be at least capable in the new role. 

Individuals who have already demonstrated their potential to operate at a certain level will normally be able to replicate past accomplishments when they move on and the confidence that comes with experience and their networks of contacts should provide a sound foundation for a relatively smooth transition. Because they are able to hit the ground running, they will likely need comparatively little supervision and management.  

However, the fact that these individuals can already demonstrate that they’re capable of performing the role raises the question “Why they are not striving for the next step on the ladder?”. There can be many good reasons, for example increasing numbers of candidates are prioritising work-life balance over maximising their career potential, but this too has implications for how they will perform if offered the job. 

The pros of raw potential

The most common and compelling reasons for hiring candidates yet to prove they can operate at the level the role requires are cost (they will almost always be cheaper) and availability (there are always more candidates willing to make an upwards move than a sideways or backwards one). However, those are not the only compelling reasons.  

Candidates without the preconceived ideas that come from experience are often more willing to learn and adapt than those who have already developed a proven approach. While sometimes it can lead to them reinventing the wheel, it can equally drive innovation. 

The fact that these candidates are looking to progress their careers is often an indication of their ambition. As a result, and because of the insecurity that comes with moving beyond their comfort-zone, it is common for them to consistently go the extra mile if they are appointed. 

Experience, potential and company culture

The decision to hire for potential rather than experience should take into account cultural-fit.

In start-ups hiring for potential has long been a common strategy. Innovation is fundamental to continued success, budgets are typically limited, career paths relatively unformed and hierarchies very flat. The cultures of these young companies may require everyone to pitch in as needed rather than sticking rigidly to their job description but there is often a “fail fast” mentality with an emphasis on making things happen quickly even if this will lead to mistakes. Furthermore, small team sizes mean that individuals tend to get recognition for the impact they make irrespective of seniority enabling them to achieve rapid career advances - a win-win for organisation and employee. 

Established companies tend to be naturally risk averse, favouring structured career paths and rigid remuneration schemes. The result is organisations that favour a slow and steady approach. In other words many of the traits that ambitious, unproven individuals bring and benefit from in start-ups may have a negative impact in more bureaucratic environments. With neither a proven track record nor the ability to prove themselves quickly, it can also be difficult for inexperienced candidates to earn the confidence of colleagues resulting in increased staff turnover and therefore yet more hiring costs. Irrespective, if the company is expecting the new employee to be a relatively cheap, safe pair of hands then factor in comparatively high needs for support from colleagues and managers as they learn the ropes of their new role. 

Is a bad hire better than no hire?

If a recruiter is unable to find the perfect candidate, it raises the question of whether leaving the role vacant will be more or less harmful than filling it with the best available candidate?

Even the best candidates, carefully vetted and interviewed, with relevant experience sometimes don’t work out in a role. Similarly, having been given both the chance to prove themselves and the right support, many unproven candidates excel. 

While, if possible, it may be advisable to rethink the role or restructure the team, the majority of the time the best idea is simply to hire the best available candidate and give them all the support available.

If you would like further details about any of the trends or would like to speak with us about how we can support you then please email me: or call 0330 174 6801.

About the author:

Adam Richardson - Managing Director

Adam has over 20 years’ experience recruiting procurement and commercial professionals across the construction sector.

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