Open Thinkering


Why do we hire based on ‘experience’? HR, Automattic, and Open Badges

Green leaves

It’s 2016. Nobody can reasonably expect to have a ‘job for life’, or even work within the same organisation for more than a few years. As a result, you’re likely to dip into the jobs marketplace more often than your parents and grandparents did. That means it’s increasingly important to be able to prove:

  • who you are
  • what you know
  • who you know
  • what you can do

Unfortunately, hiring is still largely based on submitting a statement of skills and experience we call a ‘Curriculum Vitae’ (or résumé) along with a covering letter. This may lead to an interview and, if you like each other, the job is yours. We have safeguards in place at every step to ensure people don’t discriminate on age, gender, or postcode. Despite this, almost every part of the current process is woefully out-of-date. I’ve plenty to say about all of this, but will save most of it for another time.

In this post I’m particularly interested in why we include ‘job history’ or ‘experience’ when applying for new positions. Given that we have so little time and space to highlight everything we stand for, why do we bother including it? Academic credentials are bona fides, but job history is a bit more nebulous. Why is it still such a prominent feature of our LinkedIn profiles? Why do we email people CVs listing our ‘experience’?

Whether you think that looking at someone’s job history allows for a good ‘cultural fit’, or allows you to make assumptions about the network they bring with them, the reality is that we use job histories as a filter. They’re a useful shorthand. After all, if someone has been hired by Google or another big-name organisation, that’s a bit like saying they went to an elite university. We tend to believe in the judgments made by these kinds of organisations and institutions. We trust the filters. If the person was good enough for those organisations, we think, then they must be good enough for ours.

We like to tell ourselves that we live in a meritocratic world. If someone is good enough, so the story goes, then they can achieve the qualifications and experience necessary to get the job they want. Unfortunately, because of a combination of unconscious bias, innovation immune systems, and the new nepotism, some groups of people are effectively excluded from consideration. Don’t know the right people? Not good at interviews? Have skills too advanced or too new for qualifications to have been developed yet? Bad luck, buddy.

Another problem is that we tend to use what I call ‘chunky black box qualifications’ as proxies of the thing we’re trying to hire for. As an example, take jobs that require a degree ‘in any discipline’. What does that actually mean in practice? They want somebody who can think at a certain level, someone who is likely to come across as ‘professional’, someone who can submit work on time. However, we’re not directly looking at the assessment of the particular quality in this situation, we’re merely using an imperfect proxy.

There are many ways round the current status quo. For example, Automattic (the company behind WordPress which powers a lot of websites) does hiring very differently to the standard model. As outlined in this post, when hiring developers they test candidates in real-world situations through paid trials. In fact, as Automattic is a globally-distributed company, communication happens mainly through text. Most candidates don’t have voice conversation with anyone at the organisation until they’re hired! Obviously this wouldn’t necessarily work in every sector, but it is a good example of thinking differently: focus on what the candidate can do, not what they claim to be able to do.

Another way to approach things differently in hiring is to seek wherever possible to break down those ‘chunky black box qualifications’ into more transparent, granular, and fluid credentials.

For example, when I say I worked for Mozilla it usually piques people’s interest. I then have to go on and explain what I did during my time there. This isn’t easy given the amount of different things you do and learn in an organisation that you were with for three years. Yes, I had two different job titles, but I learned a whole load of things that would take time to tease out: working across timezones on a daily basis? Check. Learning how to use GitHub for development? Check. Consensus-based decision-making? Check.

Not every organisation is in a position to offer a trial period like Auttomatic. Nor would every individual be able to take up their offer. However, much as some people start off as consultants for organisations and then end up employed by them, there is value in getting to know people in a better way than the traditional CV and interview process allows. If we need better filters then we need smaller sieves.

For the past five years I’ve been working on Open Badges, a web-native way to issue trusted, portable, digital credentials. In the situation under consideration, I think there there are a few ways in which badges can be used to unlock those chunky black box qualifications.

  1. Granularity – instead of looking at qualifications that act as proxies, we can evidence knowledge, skills, and behaviours directly.
  2. Evidence – whereas LinkedIn profiles and CVs are a bunch of claims, Open Badges can include a bunch of evidence. Proof that someone has done something is just a click away.
  3. Portability – instead of credentials being on separate pieces of paper or in various digital silos, Open Badges can be displayed together, in context, on the web. They are controlled and displayed at the earner’s discretion.

I’m excited by the resurgence in apprenticeships and vocational education. I’m delighted to see more and more alternative ways organisations are finding to hire people. What I’m optimistic about most of all, though, is the ability for organisations to find exactly the right fit based on new forms of credentialing. It’s going to take a cultural shift in hiring, but the benefits for those who take the leap will be profound.

Image via Nomad Pictures

8 thoughts on “Why do we hire based on ‘experience’? HR, Automattic, and Open Badges

  1. I’m interested in the evidence component; a few badges I’ve glanced at merely linked to the organization offering the very (glaring at you EDUCAUSE) or just to a conference schedule for a badge as having done a presentation.

    The place is there for a URL but what might be possible for showing real evidence rather than just a real link?

    My next project is for a certification and I’m just starting to dig in. Frankly I care more about clear demonstration of skill over the authentication of a provider (both in ideal world)

  2. Interesting article Doug. When I’ve been involved in hiring decisions there’s no doubt that a candidate having worked in a big-name school or having gone to a ‘top flight’ university works in their favour. I am well aware that good candidates could be being overlooked because of this bias though. I really like the hiring advice that they say they use at Timpson’s (John Timpson was a governor at a school I used to work at): “Hire character, train skills”

    1. I agree with this in principle, Tim, but in practice I’d be afraid that it might turn into ‘hire people from a similar background to me’.

  3. Hi Doug, very interesting article. The challenges you raise (evidence-based badges and badges as tokens of ‘proof of competence’ in a hiring context) are exactly those we try to tackle with our Belgian Open Badges platform htpp:// One of the ways to get more evidence in bagdes is by offering our issuers the possibility to add detailed proof in the badge-metadata. See for example two fields in our badge-issue process:


    Inform earners about the criteria they will need to meet in order to earn this badge
    Attendance / Participation

    Briefly describe here the most important (quality) criteria of the completed process (e.g. training). This enables other organizations to attach a value to a badge.
    Enter the following information and (optionally) add a link to your website
    – Modules, contents
    – Methodology
    – Conditions for participation (if any)

    Positive evaluation (when a test was administered)

    Briefly describe here the most important (quality) criteria of the test. This enables other organizations to attach a value to a badge. Enter the following information and (optionally) add a link to your website:
    – Fitness of the test
    – Fairness and objectivity of the test (culture and gender neutrality, accessibility for candidates with a disability, …)
    – Reliability of the test
    – Validity of the test
    – Standardization of the test
    – Scoring, cut-off as threshold, …
    – feedback

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