People Strategy

7 Tips for Interviewing Candidates With Non-Traditional Experience

January 26, 2021
November 7, 2023
Christina Wells, Advisor at Flo Recruit
Lattice Team

We all dream big when we imagine who we want to hire. Traditional job descriptions bullet out the detailed (and sometimes unrealistic) criteria we feel are prerequisite to success.

Take it from me: Sometimes, you just need to look past those bullet points.

Hiring people with different perspectives is not only an act of inclusion, it’s good for business. Homogenous workforces experience limited creativity and innovation — and studies show women are less likely to apply for a role if they don’t feel qualified based on the job description.

Most skills are learned, and anyone with aptitude can succeed. Being open to non-traditional work experience is an excellent way to round out any team’s collective skill sets and value to the organization. Here’s how to get better at hiring individuals with non-traditional backgrounds.

1. Identify core competencies for each position. 

Every job description at your company probably has a list of job duties and the skills needed to succeed in the role. For those with non-traditional backgrounds, this type of job description hinders people with great potential from getting the job.

Consider identifying a handful of core competencies for each role. Customize and define what each competency means to your organization. Arming the interview team with this list will help them explore candidates’ abilities outside of their background and prior experience. I recommend partnering with hiring managers to define the list since they know the role best, and the recruiting team can provide example interview questions to guide the interviewers. 

2. Define which behavioral traits succeed.

When working with hiring managers to list out “must-have” and “nice-to-have” technical skills, make a concerted effort to ask the hiring manager about the behavioral traits that would add value to the role.

Psychologist and best-selling author Angela Duckworth believes that “grit,” a combination of passion and perseverance, is the hallmark of high achievers. Grit could be a behavioral trait that everyone is measured against. Your company could also define their own unique necessary traits. Whatever qualities you’re looking for, make it a consistent practice to probe every candidate for their behavioral skills.

3. Don’t lean solely on the resume.

Unless you're hiring for a content writer, don’t overemphasize what’s written on the resume and how it’s formatted. There are many ways to learn about a candidate’s skill set.

Various sources like personal portfolios, blogs, and Linkedin profiles are good places to start. Be kind to someone that misplaces a comma in their resume. Instead, focus on the person in front of you.

4. Ask forward-looking questions.

Be strategic about the time each interviewer spends with candidates. Go beyond asking generic questions like, “Tell me about your resume” and focus on the topics that matter. Split the interview into two parts:

1. Past accomplishments
2. How they would approach their new responsibilities

You’re looking at their critical thinking and planning skills with part two. Remember, no two companies are the same. Products, processes, and practices are always a little different. The key here is not to get stuck on the past and instead focus on transferable skills. 

5. Establish a plan for success. 

Before kicking off any candidate search, partner with the hiring manager to put together a detailed job packet. It should include a thorough job description, a detailed interview plan, and a new hire success plan.

The new hire success plan could be anywhere from a 90-day outline to an extended 12-month success plan. The plan should include the role’s expectations and a definition of what success looks like. Go over this plan with the entire hiring team before kicking off interviews. When all interviewers know what the future holds for the new hire, they can evaluate their non-traditional skills as a long-term investment rather than solely focusing on the here and now to fill immediate talent gaps.

6. Have empathy. 

As a recruiter, make it an effort to enlist an interview panel that is empathetic and inclusive. It benefits no one to create artificial stress on candidates inside interviews. No one gets every single question right, and the interviewer’s tone — if harsh — can cause the candidate to spiral.

Coach your interviewers to peel back the onion in their line of questioning. If a candidate gives an unexpected answer, don’t write them off immediately. Instead, coach interviewers to explore a bit and patiently see if the candidate arrives at the point you are looking for them to make. Perhaps the candidate may delight the interviewer with a unique perspective if allowed to share non-traditional experiences during the interview. 

7. Don’t forget about critical “soft skills.”

Soft skills are just as important as technical skills. I was once interviewing an engineer for a tech startup who, on paper, checked all the boxes. His educational background was impressive, as was the long list of well-known companies filling his resume.

Based on skills alone, extending an offer would have been a no-brainer. But then there was his attitude. It turned every single interviewer off. When the interview team debriefed , we agreed he could do the job, but he failed every part of the soft skills assessment. We decided that we’d rather hire someone who was less technically qualified but was excited to do the job.

Here’s the bottom line: No one is born with all of the technical skills you're looking for. Skills-building never ends and is a lifetime exercise. We all have to start somewhere, and recruiters are uniquely positioned to help others do just that.

About the Author

Christina Wells is the VP, People at PLANOLY and a regular contributor on the Flo Recruit blog. Connect with her about recruiting and HR best practices on Linkedin.

Want to learn more about opportunities for better tracking and managing virtual hiring events? Visit the Flo Recruit website here.