Recently I worked with an entrepreneur who continually asked me how old job candidates were as they were considered for positions in his company. His concern was about the “culture” that he was creating and would not admit it, but, did not want older people in his company. His perspective was driven by money and moldability. Young, inexperienced people are less expensive than older people. They are more willing to accept a constantly evolving workplace than older employees who may have kids, families or other activities and seek stability. They also have fewer habits of doing things a certain way.

I disagreed with his perspective, which got me to wondering about the value of experience and what comes with it, or the converse, the risk of inexperience and what does not come with it.

When I was a teenager, still new at driving, I had two small parking lot accidents and one traffic accident. All three accidents were completely avoidable and 100% my fault. No one was ever hurt, but, my lack of experience about what to watch for and where to watch for it cost me in the performance of my responsibility driving a car and cost me insurance premium increases and repairs.Driver Fatality Risk Graphic

That personal history got me to wondering about experience, age and car driving and whether there was data to demonstrate the risks of being a young car driver. Driving requires a great deal of experience to become really proficient and accomplish safely, day in and day out. The less experience you have, which is generally the younger the driver, the greater possibility that an accident will have a fatality. What actual data reveals is that quite literally, as experience increases, the risk of a fatal car accident declines, by a lot. The numbers in the chart are rather stunning.

Teenagers have by far more fatal auto accidents. By the time a person is 30 or 10-15 years of experience, the risk of that person having a fatal accident is half as great as it was when they first started driving.

I understand that business is not driving, nor is the risk of a fatal incident at work very common (thanks to modern safety laws). The data draws a parallel though between experience at  driving and the likely value of experience at professional activity. When you hire someone with 10-20 years of experience, you are far LESS likely to have a mishap of some kind, be it mishandling of inventory, mishandling of customers, errors on reports, etc.. Largely, experience at work creates individual mechanisms to avoid mishaps. Mishaps get you fired, can enrage customers or can create uncomfortable meetings with management. Experience works to avoid those outcomes. Inexperience works to push the work along, often oblivious to the downside possibilities.

As an employer then, the question we ask ourselves is whether or not the mishaps that are going to be created by the inexperienced are a tolerable occurrence relative to what they may cost a business in reputation, down time, lost money, etc.

Having written a post already about a business not being able to become “scalable” until it stops defining itself as a startup (continually reinforced by Seth Godin), I now also believe the sooner a new business stops trying to define its culture by age and starts defining it by performance, the sooner it will scale. Facebook, Dell, Google, HP and virtually all other businesses for which we know how they started, now look nothing like how they started culturally. Culture is defined by how people think, not how old they are. It’s the work that gets done and the satisfied customers that appreciate the work and pay for it. Customers pay for performance.

The smarter play to achieve high levels of consistent performance early, it now seems to me, is to hire people who have experience over those that do not. Yes, at an added cost, but, at a higher proficiency and a far lower risk of calamity or just plain errors.

BTW, I have not had a traffic accident since my teenage years.