What I Learned About Hiring While Working in Retail

I worked in the retail sector for several years, managing retail teams as large as 120 employees. During this time, I was responsible for hiring and talent acquisition within my organizations. I led hiring both directly through screening and interviews, and through others within my team by providing direction on hiring strategy and tactics. It was during this time that I also completed my MBA at the Haskayne School of Business, where a significant segment of my courseload focused on Organizational Behavior. Topics such as motivation, leadership, high-performing teams, and conflict represented much of my field of study. This provided me with a unique opportunity to put many of the behaviors, skills, and strategies that I was learning about into practice in almost real time.

To give you a little more background, the seasonal nature of hiring in retail means that 2-3 times a year we were expanding and contracting our workforce to meet the needs of the business. Once a year, this meant doubling our workforce entirely. With these organizational demands, hiring was almost always top of mind. In my 5 years leading teams, I’d estimate that I personally interviewed over a hundred candidates for various roles from entry-level to mid-level manager, facilitated over 40 group interviews, and supported the onboarding of about 300 employees. While these numbers pale in comparison to those of an experienced HR professional, the unique position of both hiring and subsequently directly or indirectly managing the new hires through much of their tenure with the organization provided me with valuable insights toward successful people strategies through the lens of diversity and inclusion.

Here’s a little bit of what I learned.

Past Experience is a Poor Predictor of Future Success

During the Covid-19 pandemic, we had a significant influx of workers from other sectors applying for seasonal positions at one of the larger retailers that I was leading. My overall hiring philosophy holds a commitment to deep-level diversity and onboarding candidates whose resumes indicate transferable skills that would make them strong contributors to team success in their roles. In the retail context, this means either in guest-facing retail settings or process-focused “back of house” inventory settings. As a result of the Covid-19 disrupted workforce and this hiring philosophy, many of the employees that I hired had little or no retail experience on their resumes. We hired candidates who were qualified based on their skills and previous responsibilities in other roles and who performed well in interviews. In our evaluations, whether or not their previous work experience specifically included retail roles in either junior or senior-level positions was not a paramount concern.

In the transition from new hire to tenured employee, while I had a number of exceptional performers who had previously worked in the retail or service sector, I can recall just as many who had not. The reasoning behind this is that an employee’s previous work experience is often a poor predictor of their future performance, an insight backed by research. A 2019 meta-analysis on criterion-related validity of prehire work experience by Arnold, Frieder, and Roth examined the correlation between candidate experience and on-the-job performance and turnover. The meta-analysis synthesized data from 81 samples to determine a correlation of just 0.06 between previous experience and job performance, and 0.11 for previous experience and training performance. Moreover, there was zero correlation between previous experience and turnover. The exceptions to these findings were that pre-hire experience was somewhat more predictive of job performance when the employee was new to the role, and that previous experience was a marginally better predictive measure of training performance.

Intuitively, this makes sense. When you hire someone to work retail, in all likelihood, they’re familiar with many of the tasks associated with the role, though there will be variation in task execution from organization to organization, or even from team to team. They might also be a little easier to train, having gone through similar processes before. What it doesn’t mean is that someone who has had a “retail associate” or “risk advisor” or “business development manager” title for ten years is going to be your best person in that role in one year, or that they are even going to be on par with the rest of your team in that timeframe. Again, the correlation between that historical experience and future performance is just 0.06 based on a meta-analysis of 81 studies.

Now, that is not to say that someone looking to fill a role should be eliminating candidates with that role title on their resume from the hiring pool. Instead, recruiters should consider placing less weight on experience based on organization and role title, and more focus on skills, knowledge, and behaviors. Likewise, pre-hire assessments ought to focus on the quality of a candidate’s experience rather than the quantity of those experiences. What those assessments may be is the topic of an entirely different discussion, but suffice it to say that it’s important to frame candidate qualifications in terms of skills, behaviors, and knowledge, rather than role titles or previous organizations a candidate has worked for.

I recall reading a job description once for an impossibly unobtainable Director of Sales role for an aircraft company. Qualifications required included but were not limited to; 15+ years in aviation operations, 15+ years working with aircraft in remote regions, and over 7,000 Total Aircraft Hours. Preferred qualifications included; a portfolio of work in graphic design, social media, Adobe Illustrator, brand identity, and typography—and an MBA. Is it possible that the skills of a director of sales role could be distilled to slightly less role-specific qualifications than that? Moreover, is there a candidate out there who could complete the job by working through others and leveraging the skills of a team rather than two, possibly three distinct careers in one lifespan? Going back to the responsibilities of the role, certainly, there is a body of knowledge requisite for performance in an aircraft sales role, but are there skills and behaviors that could be solicited that would lead to success in the role that are not so explicitly laid out? Perhaps rather than an MBA and the background of a graphic designer, other traits such as relationship building, problem solving, technical aptitude with new software suites, and a strong sense of visual identity could be highlighted in the job description.

Diversity and a workforce rich in backgrounds can illuminate a vibrant pathway toward innovation, shared learning, and organizational agility. An important step toward this is crafting an intentional hiring strategy that values the quality and richness of candidates’ transferable skills and knowledge over congruence between former and future roles. But it’s not just about hiring with an open approach to backgrounds and experience; what you do with it is just as important.

Diversity is only as effective as leadership allows it to be

Diversity in today’s workplace is highly valued. This refers to both surface-level or demographic diversity and deep-level diversity such as beliefs, values, attitudes, identity, and other non-observable traits such as an individual’s academic or working background. Over the years, I’ve come to understand that, among a number of other moderating variables, the performance of diverse teams is highly dependent on the role of the leader(s) of the team. What this means for leaders and hiring managers is that diversity for teams in the workplace is only as effective as the organizational context that is established to support those teams.

You can have a highly skilled team of individuals with diverse backgrounds, but without a leader who can effectively orient a team towards task completion, many of those skills can go to waste. Having a leader who can identify valuable skills and help team members orient those skills to the benefit of the

team and task is critical. I recall hiring an individual with a background serving in the Armed Forces into a supervisory role at one of my locations. His skillset was attuned to project management and execution, and as a leader, leveraging those skills and encouraging him to share those skills constructively was critical to the location’s success. Shortly after he was onboarded, we began a pilot deployment of a new RFID inventory tracking technology for the store. After about half a year, our operations were running smoothly, and seemingly through osmosis, he had shared many valuable behaviors and traits with his peers. Moreover, many of our team members were routinely solving problems that were frequently being escalated to the IT support group or senior managers by other locations. At first glance, you wouldn’t peg someone with a military background as an asset at a clothing retailer, but he helped us level up our operations in a manner very unique to his skillset. Orienting and aligning his skillset towards team functions was key.

Likewise, team processes can function as an enabler or inhibitor of team success in teams characterized by members exhibiting deep-level diversity. Depending on the leadership, cooperation, and communication within the group, procedures and norms that weaken or strengthen the consequences of diversity may result. For example, effective leadership aids in establishing and maintaining conditions that are favorable for high-performing groups, including diagnosing group deficiencies, taking remedial action to amend deficiencies, and creating a supportive context (Hackman & Walton, 1986). In addition, successful communication and cooperation aid taskwork as well as teamwork. In practice, this reinforces the importance of supportive leadership focused on constructive levels of task conflict on novel or non-routine tasks.

At another previous employer, I was working to develop a process to scale up a mass-customization program for high-end footwear (think NikeID where you can get your Air Force 1s custom designed). The old way of collecting orders was a paper form filled out manually by pen and paper which made the information collection process slow, tracking procedure difficult, and scaling nearly impossible. My way of collecting orders was using Microsoft Forms to gather information and using custom-written macros in Excel to filter the information. After a few months of orders, the new way was making the information collection process more efficient but increasing the number of orders coming back with errors. The reason for this was that the factory sometimes couldn’t produce orders to the spec that was being input even in the standardized form. The constructive result was to use the same form and macros but incorporate a weekly review meeting to close the feedback loop on product design between the production team and the retail team. By increasing communication, identifying deficiencies, and supporting collaboration, an effective new task completion process was established.

These findings are supported by research. A paper written by Mohammed and Angell in 2004 explored the moderating effects of team orientation and team process on intra-team relationship conflict and found that team orientation helped to neutralize the negative effects of surface-level (gender) diversity on relationship conflict. In a similar manner, team process worked to weaken the deleterious effects of deep-level diversity (time urgency and extraversion) on relationship conflict.

Deep-level diversity and teams with a range of different working backgrounds can be highly effective. However, the role of the leader and the organization can inhibit their effectiveness as easily as it can promote it. People and Culture teams would be well advised to ensure that leaders are equipped and trained to identify both opportunities and deficiencies in diverse teams.


Bringing together teams of diverse backgrounds provides a range of opportunities. I believe that, within reason, what I have learned in the retail context is highly transferrable to other organizations. I wouldn’t expect that my professional background in retail would provide much tangible benefit in a surgical operating room, but leadership and interpersonal skills acquired there may offer some benefit in some other segment of the healthcare industry. Likewise, having spent ten years in highly analytical project-focused roles in the energy sector paid dividends when I arrived in retail fashion by allowing me to conceptualize data differently than some of my peers.

More and more of the recruitment process is turning digital and algorithmic, and for many organizations, AI is already the first filter for resume screening. With this in mind, I’d caution talent managers toward the risks of intellectual and cultural homogeneity that can be brought about in organizations by relying too much on role specificity in relation to candidate experience in the talent search. Focusing too much on a candidate’s experience specific to the role runs the risk of hiring too many of the same people with the same backgrounds in roles, depriving the organization of valuable insights, perspectives, and skills brought about by deep-level diversity in the hiring process. All that is to say that when hiring, it’s important to consider what a candidate brings to the table that you don’t already have and to question what you think you need. Hire to break the mold, not to fit it.

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