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Soft skills matter but how do you recruit for them?

Justin Lowe Apr 2, 2019 10:00:00 AM

When you decide to hire a new worker there are a dozen moving pieces to consider. Where will you find them? Who are you looking for? What traits or skills will signal a potentially successful hire? During interviews, it's easy to focus on experience or hard skills, abilities that are teachable or easily identifiable (like being able to drive). But while competency matters, that's not all there is to hiring the best candidate. In fact, increasing focus is being placed on the role of soft skills in business and why hiring managers should be selecting candidates who demonstrate those traits. Soft skills are far more difficult to assess and aren't likely to be listed on any resume. They are often called "people skills" because they make up the traits that allow us to interact effectively with others. Teamwork, conflict resolution, critical thinking, and work ethic are all examples of soft skills that help employees succeed. And looking at that list, it's hard to argue that those traits aren't as important as experience. But in a competitive hiring landscape, how do you find those killer candidates who not only have the experience you're looking for but the soft skills as well?

Why are soft skills important?

Much of effective business is driven by soft skills, from communication to initiative to empathy. Many employers do think hiring for soft skills is more important now than it ever has been in the past. They also report that they often see bad hires as lacking soft skills, which raises concerns about the cost of a hiring error when soft skills are not taken into account. But the problem remains the quantifiable nature of a soft skill. If it’s hard to track and see, how can you be sure it exists in a hire?

Well, the first place to start is figuring out what are some soft skills you should be looking for?

You’re in luck. We’ve covered this before. Pay attention to the whole list, but focus in on self-awareness if you can. That’s incredibly hard to screen for, admittedly, but a lack of self-awareness dooms work teams more than almost anything else.

Read more:  Looking for employees with creativity? Here's how to find them

How can you hire for soft skills?

There are many theories and approaches to finding candidates with the right soft skills but some of these tactics include:

Behavioral or situational interview questions: Asking questions is a logical way to probe deeper into a candidate's soft skills. The questions, particularly behavioural ones, help uncover abilities and beliefs that may not be readily apparent from the usual "tell me about yourself" interview questions we tend to use. A structured interview approach also helps standardize the process and gives every candidate a fair chance to show off their soft skills in the same way. 

Body language: One common tactic for assessing soft skills is, interestingly, not about words at all and is included in this list as a cautionary tale. There's been a pervasive belief that those with strong soft skills are better at non-verbal communication. Some think that those soft skill geniuses do something observable that others can pick up on if you're paying attention. A gut feeling that someone has the right skills. Unfortunately, reading body language is open to much subjectivity and unconscious bias. Not good words when it comes to the hiring process. Remember: you are not trying to exclude candidates, per se. You are trying to find the best fit for you. So the next time someone tells you to go off of your gut when looking for soft skills, shake your head and avoid this tactic. 

Project work: Projects and tech-based tests are a seemingly better approach. Giving candidates a real world task or problems helps hiring managers get a better sense of their problem solving abilities, whether they have a strong work ethic, and even what sort of a team player they might be. One caveat to this approach, though, is that you need a clear and honest vision of your corporate culture and work environment. You also need to know what sort of role you are hiring for in order to know what you are looking for. Some cultures are very sales-driven or operations-driven, and people may not need specific soft skills, but rather aptitude in a very focused area and ability to drive high-level results consistently. If you know that’s your culture, screening for “empathy” may matter less than screening for “initiative.” So know what you need to find from the start and then design a task or project that will allow the candidate to show off that particular trait, if they have it.

Pro-tip: Build employee referrals into your talent pipeline

Role playing: Like project work, the idea of this approach is to see how candidates function in the real world. First Round Review held a conference for CTOs recently and put together some of their best advice. This stands out:

Institute role plays in your interview process. For every engineering manager role, have the candidate sit with a member of the engineering team and play out a scenario 1:1. It can be about a technical process, an argument about prioritization or giving feedback with both criticism and praise. It’s an effective way to test softer skills and replicate what you’ll get in a ‘real’ situation. Of course, using your engineers’ time like this may seem expensive, but it’s more costly to bring on an engineering leader who doesn’t jive with your team. Plus, after doing it for a few years, you’ll find it becomes a rite of passage and engineers like participating in them.

Assessments: If you don't want to sort which candidates have better soft skills than others by yourself, there's always the option to bring in an assessment that will do this for you. Adding a formal assessment component to any interview is always a good idea but for soft skills they can be especially useful. Because of their nature, soft skills are harder to determine, as we've discussed, but tests can get around that. Assessments are designed to get at this different level of human ability and when using a scientific tool with strong psychometric properties, candidates will have a harder time "gaming" this approach, leading to a more honest view of their skills, personality traits, and future potential. 

Use referrals: Referrals are a great source for identifying soft skills, since someone who previously worked with a candidate has a lot of context on their response in different situations and relationships at work. One way to help highlight referrals with the right skills is to put together a survey or profile that employees need to complete for their referrals ranking them on traits such as time management, interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, or even positive attitude. Once you have compiled a database with these profiles, it will be easier to find referees with the right abilities when you need to hire for them.

Think about curiosity: It's worth noting quickly that there is an emerging school of thought that screening for curiosity helps you find employees who are resilient and have strong soft skills. The logic behind this trend is the belief that we live in an increasingly ambiguous business world and more curious people are better at dealing with ambiguity. That connective sequence is a good example of “identifying a soft skill” and “realizing why it matters now,” with the above ideas being some ways to get at finding the people you need.

Next time you hire, don't forget about soft skills

Whether you need an employee with great technical skills or one who can get along well with co-workers there are a variety of tips and tricks you can leverage to hire the right person. And if you build the value and importance of soft skills directly into the company culture, then you're helping to create a strong and often inclusive workforce. One thing to note, however, is that balance still matters and it's about finding the candidate who has the right mix of hard and soft skills to succeed at your company. That benchmark could look very different depending on the mission and culture of the organization. So first figure out what skills a new hire would need to thrive at your office and then go out and find that next all star hire.

McQuaig System

Topics: Talent Acquisition, Hiring Strategies

Justin Lowe

Written by Justin Lowe

Justin is the Director of Marketing and Sales at the McQuaig Institute where he helps companies refine their corporate culture and grow their human capital.