how much does industry knowledge matter? (not at all)

When hiring, how much does knowledge of your industry matter? It’s a nice bonus, but in most cases it shouldn’t be a driving force behind your hiring decisions. But too often I see hiring managers over-valuing this sort of knowledge, and hiring the wrong candidates.

If you hire someone smart and motivated, they will learn your issue or industry. Hire for the things you can’t teach, like intelligence, work ethic, communication skills, integrity, and whatever non-teachable skills the open position truly requires. It may take your new hire a little extra time to get up to speed, but once that happens, he or she will blow away that mediocre candidate whose main advantage would have been starting out with industry knowledge.

I’ve been thinking about this because I was recently talking to someone who was hesitant to hire a seemingly great candidate because the guy didn’t have any knowledge of or experience in the area they work in, and the job — sort of a spokesman/grassroots organizing role — would require him to quickly learn the topic inside and out. He was nervous that the candidate wouldn’t be able to learn the area thoroughly enough, largely because he’d made a similar hire last year and that candidate had never managed to master the topic.

He, like me, is all about having candidates do simulations or exercises related to the work they’d be doing on the job, so he was contemplating asking the candidate to cram to learn the topic and then do a mock question and answer session with him on it. I advised him against it, because no candidate is going to be able to learn a complex, nuanced topic in a day or two, and he’d be testing the wrong thing; it wouldn’t provide a realistic feel for how well he would do after spending a month on the job learning the issue.

What my friend should have been looking to test for was a specific type of smarts: whether the candidate could learn a complicated issue and make a compelling, intelligent argument for it, whatever that issue is. So why not take an issue he already knows well (you could let him pick or maybe there’s something obvious from his background) and have him debate that instead? This would give a much better feel for how his brain works on a subject he’s comfortable and familiar with — it would reveal whether he can make compelling arguments, respond logically, shoot down straw men, be persuasive without being a jerk, etc. If he can do that for one issue, it’s reasonable to assume he can learn another issue and do the same thing.

It seems to me this leads to a good way to evaluate what will actually matter on the job, and avoid making hiring decisions based on factors that really will only matter for the first month or so. Assuming you’re not hiring for a position that truly requires a particular knowledge set (like, say, a pharmacist or an engineer), smart people will learn what they need to know. Test for smarts and hire for smarts.

{ 4 comments… read them below }

  1. HR Maven*

    I have hired the last four people in HR who have had no direct HR experience. Each brought such an incredible skill set – people, technical, communication and financial experience that it was easy to ‘see’ them in their respective positions. With the right combo of mentoring, training, education and experience, they have been (and are) exceptional employees.

    I frequently encourage hiring departments to see beyond the concrete. We do and it has paid off handsomely.

  2. Wally Bock*

    A fine, well-reasoned post Alison, but I disagree. I think that you have to ask for every position if there is indeed specific experience (industry, specialty, relationship, whatever) that a person needs to bring to the party. I’ve also come to think that the “industry-specific” experience is more likely to be important, the higher up in the organization the position to be filled is located. The more experience people have, the more likely they are to see the world through the lens of that experience.

  3. Rich Milgram*

    I agree with your article that hiring decisions should not be based on industry knowledge and skills alone. At, we look for candidates that would be a good fit within our corporate culture and team environment. Although skills and qualifications are important, these attributes can be learned, but the ability to work well in a team is more difficult to find. We believe that team collaboration is major factor to our company’s success. Every level of our organization (from new-hires to senior management) comes to build friendships, grow professionally and contribute to, which has allowed us to quickly expand our operations and position ourselves for future growth.

  4. Rachel Robbins*

    I think if i you’re in HR it matters because the environment can be so different. For example I went from manufacturing to a non-profit in human services. HR is HR however these two environments are completely different.

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