Attitude or experience: what’s the best indicator of future performance?

By Paul Slezak - May. 29, 2012
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performance based hiring, personality based hiring, performance profiles, interviewingThe saying ‘past behaviour is the best predictor of future performance’ is one that recruitment guru Lou Adler stands by. He believes the way to predict someone’s ability to succeed in a role is to look at what they’ve achieved in the past.

Others are more inclined to ‘go with their gut’, basing their hiring decisions on the candidate’s attitude and non-professional achievements as indicators of their ability to succeed.

Liz Elting, CEO of Transperfect, is one such believer in attitude. In a recent article she said ‘You can’t train for enthusiasm, work ethic or interpersonal skills. So if in doubt, I always hire for attitude. My motto is, “If it’s to be, it’s up to me.”’

So which of these is the ‘right way’ to make a hire? Let’s look at both schools of thought in more detail.

Performance-based hiring

According to the Adler camp, performance based hiring can be reduced to a ‘systematic business process’, if applied to all aspects of the recruiting procedure. This involves writing performance profiles rather than job descriptions, sourcing potential candidates in non-traditional ways and asking performance-based questions at the interview stage.

Performance profiles

While a job description merely lists required skills and qualifications, a performance profile describes the challenges and opportunities offered by a position. This is designed to attract the interest of top performers, who are passive candidates, not actively seeking a new job.

The performance profile defines what the candidate would need to do to be considered great at this job. It throws out a challenge and offers opportunities to excel, which may be lacking in their current position.

Sourcing candidates

Just as traditional job descriptions don’t appeal to top performers, so traditional sourcing methods don’t work either. According to advocates of performance-based advertising, top performers must be wooed, not pursued. Rather than using job boards such as Seek, where they rarely go, networking sites such as Linkedin are better places to spread the word to top performers through friends and colleagues.


A performance-based interview should consist of two types of questions. The first would go something like ‘What has been your most significant accomplishment in your career?’ This relates directly to their past experience and, if followed with more specific questions, can determine whether they have demonstrated in their past the ability to achieve similar performance objectives to those you are seeking.

The second type of question is more hypothetical and would be something like ‘How would you solve this particular problem if you were given this role?’. This shows the candidate’s ability to plan, strategise and solve work-related problems. Again, you should ask for specific examples from their previous jobs.

According to Adler, ‘The ability to visualize a problem and offer alternative solutions in combination with a track record of successful comparable past performance in a similar environment is a strong predictor of on-the-job success.’

Personality based hiring

Hiring for attitude is a school of thought that also has a large following. The theory behind it is that you can teach the right person the skills they need to perform the role, but only if they have the right temperament.

It’s particularly popular in customer service-based industries, where attitude is so important. An example of how successful it has been for some companies is that of Southwest Airlines in the US.

Their hiring process begins by putting a group of applicants in a room and observing how they interact. Those who exhibit a sociable attitude are then interviewed individually to determine if they have the right personality to fit with the company culture (i.e. must like being around people, have a strong work ethic and know how to have fun).

Southwest’s ability to identify the right type of person has led to a flood of like-minded candidates applying, who see themselves as fitting the mould; a kind of self-selection process. Southwest now has a huge pool of potential job applicants and the lowest staff turnover rate in the industry.

It’s important with attitude-based hiring not to go too far and hire someone just because they think like you do. After all, you don’t want a team of ‘mini-me’s’, but a team of people who will make your business successful.

So which recruitment philosophy makes the most sense?

As with most arguments, no one theory has all the answers and the middle ground is often the firmest. Both schools of thought have something to offer, so perhaps the best approach would be to take something from each.

Success is a product of skill, attitude and motivation. Past performance should be assessed along with the right attitude and if both boxes are ticked, you can be fairly certain you’ve found the right person for the job.

Cofounder and CEO at RecruitLoop. I've been a hands on recruiter, manager, trainer, coach, mentor, and regular speaker for the recruitment industry for nearly 25 years.


Paul Slezak

Cofounder and CEO at RecruitLoop. I've been a hands on recruiter, manager, trainer, coach, mentor, and regular speaker for the recruitment industry for nearly 25 years.

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