Work experience is usually measured in years. If time is a valid measurement of work experience, then it is logical to conclude that two employees working for the same period of time in the same profession (and for the sake of simplicity at the same company and department) will have similar work experiences. Is this a reasonable assumption?
The answer is clearly no.
The assumption, work experience can be measured in years is closely related to the belief that learning is a reaction to the environment, where the environment shapes the human behavior. This environmentalist point of view emphasizes the environment as a trigger of learning processes and underestimates intra-individual differences in interests, motivation and personality. Respectively, résumés focus not on the individual but on the environment: where we graduated, for whom and for how long we have worked, where we got a specialization (not sure about this? Then just think about who would get a job faster, a self-taught engineer or a Harvard graduate?).
However, we are not passive beings delivered to our environment, but active creatures who constantly interact with our environment, influencing and transforming it at the same pace that our environment transforms us. We are not an outcome of our environment, but the result of a continuous and reciprocal influence.
In the last decades, numerous researches have been conducted focusing on intelligence and human behavioral genetics. Many personality traits are partially genetically determined and intelligence is known to have a heritability of about 50% (Devlin, 1997). Based on experiments with adopted children, Scarr and McCartney (1983) have postulated three types of interaction between intelligence genotype and its environment, which can easily be transferred to the context of working in the adulthood:
The influence of the work environment over the individual, i. e. transmitted knowledge, trained skills and internalized values.
“Environmental influences that most heavily contribute to many aspects of personality are nonshared experiences that make individuals different from each other. Genetically influenced attributes will affect the behavior of others toward him or her” (Shaffer, 2009).
In other words, a highly analytical engineer might be frequently designated to work on advanced projects while his extrovert colleague might be invited to hold an important speech at a conference.
Individuals prefer and search for environments which are most compatible to their genetic dispositions or will encourage and reinforce their personality. This means that an ambitious employee might actively get involved in challenging projects while a fearful person might decline a promotion to a supervising position.
According to Scarr and McCartey, the relative importance of those three influences changes over the course of development. The passive effect is more important in our first life years, when our routine is highly structured by our parents. Later, active genetic influences will continuously increase till adulthood.
When HR recruiters measure experience in years, they are mostly measuring the passive effects of the personal development. However, adopted children with higher IQ, living in families with lower IQ, will also achieve the intelligence level of their genetic family, despite of their environment. In the same way, working skills and knowledge are more prone to be influenced by active and evocative interactions. In other words, our development is most influenced by who we are and not by where we have been and for how long.
Therefore, we cannot expect the amount of work experience to be linear, or even try to quantify or classify it. Consequently, recruiters and managers should concentrate their selection process more on the candidate himself and less on where he has been and for which period of time.
The conclusion: Stop looking at company names and ask your candidate: Who are you? You will be amazed how much personal potential you have been throwing away.
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Graphic: Shaffer, D. (2009). Social and Personality Development. Wadsworth.
Devlin, B.; Daniels, M.; Roeder, K. (1997). The heritability of IQ. Nature 388 (6641)
Scarr, S.; McCartney, K. (1983). How people make their own environment: a theory of genotype –> environment effects. Child Development, Vol. 54, No. 2
Shaffer, D. (2009). Social and Personality Development. Wadsworth.