Experienced Workers Bring Old Issues to New Jobs

Last Updated Sep 4, 2008 2:23 PM EDT

The Takeaway: When sifting through a pile of resumes, it's common HR practice to give precedence to candidates who have held a similar position before. They'll require less training, the thinking goes, and be more productive. But new research reveals a flaw in this seemingly sensible thinking: namely, human psychology and bad habits.

Experienced workers certainly learned things at their previous job. The problem is that these aren't always good things, or things that are compatible with the new company's culture or business model. Take the case of executives at an insurance company that hired,

"a talented and highly trained adjustor from another insurance company. While the hiring company provided high-end insurance with a strong emphasis on customer service, the adjustor came from a company that was more focused on keeping costs down... the adjustor just could not help himself from "nickel and diming" customers on their claims, even though that attitude conflicted sharply with the firm's strategic direction and culture."
Wharton professor Nancy Rothbard, who conducted the research along with co-authors Gina Dokko and Steffanie Wilk, notes that hiring managers often "assume people are cogs that can be plugged in and they will perform similarly in different environments." But things don't work that way, especially in some industries. "For example, consulting firms have very large differences in culture and strategy and mission. It can be very difficult to overcome the years of acculturation you get from one firm," she comments.

Instead of simply hiring the most experienced candidate and trusting that she will adapt to the new role, Rothbard suggests considering a fresh recruit and molding them to the company's needs and culture, especially if your company has a distinct way of doing business that differs from competitors. Or, if experience is essential (and assumedly it is in a majority of posts), offer mentoring to help socialize even experienced new hires into the company.

Those interested in the truly deep dive into the issue can check out the complete paper: "Unpacking Prior Experience: How Career History Effects Job Performance" by Rothbard and co-authors.
The Question: Will this research make you look at candidates with experience at competitor firms in a new (and less flattering) light?

(Image of baggage by Bethany L King, CC 2.0)

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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.