What I learned from recruiting social workers

Beware 'experience bias' when hiring - it can mean you miss out on the best person for the job, argues Blair McPherson

Picture credit: emiliezhang/fotolia
Picture credit: emiliezhang/fotolia

by Blair McPherson

“On this occasion you have not been successful, you did a good interview but the post went to a candidate with more experience/ more relevant experience.”

Well you can’t argue with that or can you? As far as feedback goes this is meant to make you feel better but is it an example of, “experience bias”?

I mean if the decision on who to appoint was based on experience then they knew from the application forms who had the most experience. Was it a waste of time the rest of us turning up? The feeling can be quite raw after an interview.

I have sat both sides of the interview table and seen how experience bias can operate. It starts well before the candidates find themselves in front of the interview panel when the person specification is being drawn up.

Why state how many years experience an individual must have when what you really want to know is the range and depth of experience? What is better – 10 years’ experience which on examination is one years’ experience reaped ten times or three years in which every year brought new challenges and new learning opportunities?

What the interview panel want to find out is what the candidate has learnt from their experience that would better equip them for the post.

“Must have experience of client group”, is an essential criteria I frequently came across in social services. I was guilty of this when recruiting a manager for a residential care home for older people. I was rightly challenged on this and quickly saw the benefits of not putting in unnecessary restrictions.

For a start this opened up the post to a wider range of candidates and it refocused the questions from,” tell us about your experience of working with older people”, to “tell us what you consider to be best practice and the values that underpin your practice”.

As a result we appointed a young person with a background in learning disabilities who turned out to be an excellent appointment who wouldn’t even have been able to apply had we stuck to the original criteria.

I applied the same thinking to social work posts. As a manager of a specialist team for older people I was more interested in a candidates response to risk in relation to dementia and how they would challenge appropriately medical staff who were risk adverse than which client group they had previously worked with.

Which means I would consider a social worker with a child care background for a specialist adult care team. Perhaps more controversially I see no reason why a social worker with a background in adult services can’t transfer to a specialist child protection post provided they have the skills and can demonstrate the specialist knowledge.

Beware of experience bias. You may be ruling out the best candidate.

Blair McPherson is an ex-social worker and former director of social services. 

6 Responses to What I learned from recruiting social workers

  1. Joe Godden April 19, 2017 at 12:16 pm #

    Good advice Blair, which I agree with. It applies to NQSWs too, many of whom have a lot of skills and knowledge and pre qualification experience, which if the advert says must have “Minimum two years post qualification experience” blocks a lot of people from even being able to apply

  2. kerry jacklin April 19, 2017 at 1:02 pm #

    Re: Learnt from social work recruiting
    I found this enlightening as I am employed as a discharge coordinator. My role and function is primarily as an unqualified social worker, discharging anyone requiring support on discharge from hospital. conduct capacity assessments, best interest meetings, Multi disciplinary meetings with hospital staff, attend DTOC meetings to see if we can improve on discharges etc. I recently wished to apply for a different position but because the advert said qualified social worker I couldn’t be considered. The person who was successful shadowed me! I clearly did a good job of training her!

  3. christina Adamou April 19, 2017 at 2:41 pm #

    We cannot ignore the fact that someone with less experience and less qualifications starts on a lower pay scale, therefore is also cheaper to employ initially.

  4. Nell April 19, 2017 at 3:06 pm #

    Totally agree. I have sometimes had to walk the gauntlet of disbelief when I have appointed the person I knew could do the better job but had less obvious experience and demonstrated skills – it isn’t fashionable but my instinct never let me down – going on what I read and the experience they had sometimes really let me down.

  5. Rosaline April 20, 2017 at 2:22 pm #

    Social work knowledge and skills are transferrable. The challenge for organisations is to ensure they have clear induction, supervision, probation and appraisal processes alongside extensive training opportunities. This is how to support the transferable knowledge and skills within organisations.

  6. jane longshaw April 21, 2017 at 12:45 pm #

    This seems to change with age. I am currently an unemployed Social Worker with many, many years of experience and in a variety of settings also. Have failed to succeed in all my recent attempts to get a job – getting interviews but still not getting the job. And this despite being able to expand on my wealth of experience in my responses. Missing work!!