For as long as I can remember, there has been this false belief that years of experience directly relates to proficiency in skills. For example, I pulled up a job posting on Indeed this morning that indicated that, in order to apply, “Qualified candidates must have 15 or more years of experience managing large teams of more than 100 team members.” As I went through another 20+ job descriptions, more than 77% indicated a specific number of “years of experience” were a must.

If you’ve been a corporate or agency recruiter for more than a day, you’ve experienced a similar situation. You receive a job description that lists a certain number of “required years of experience” doing function X. Let’s say it’s 15 years. You begin to source the ideal candidate who fits the job like a glove. When you finally strike gold, you realize that individual only has 11 years of experience. Regardless, you decide to present the candidate, as well as your case, to the hiring leader, and he declines because of the candidate’s “lack of experience.” But what does that really mean? How do you, let alone the manager who hasn’t spoken to the candidate yet, know that he can or can’t do the job? And, this is a big one, since when did years of experience equal a skill?

The problem with this scenario is that it’s based solely on assumptions and not on fact or performance. In reality, it actually inadvertently penalizes both the superstar candidates and the companies in need of new employees.

The Danger of Assumptions

Let’s first break down the assumptions our hiring leader made in the previous situation:

• He assumed that all candidates are created equal. By mandating years of experience, we assume that, because it took one person 15 years to master a specific function, it will take everyone the same amount of time to master it. For this to be true, we must assume that everyone learns at the same rate—something we all know, as a fact, to be untrue.

• He assumed that less experience means less skill. Although repetition is important, high-potential candidates regularly pick up skills faster than others who may be more complacent in taking things slowly. Although not a capacity described in my first point, some candidates prefer to ease into a role and its responsibilities. Others prefer to jump right in. This is more about attitude than aptitude.

• He assumed that years of experience are more important than the “what.” As recruiters, we often stop short of asking our hiring manager the right questions. We need to drill deeper and uncover the “what” behind the years of experience. What do you assume they know as a result of years of experience? What do you need them to do as a result of the experience? If they have 15 years of leadership experience, what about leadership do they need to understand?

If we assume years of experience are critical, then we run the risk of discounting superstar candidates who learn faster, might work harder, and who could actually produce better, more consistent results than a candidate with more years. If we start to focus on the bigger questions, like what the candidate needs to know, not what the candidate can do, we can eliminate missing out on great candidates and open our pool.

In this employment market, we need to be much smarter and focus on abilities and results, not titles and years!