How to Assess the ‘Soft Stuff’ When Hiring

By Paul Slezak - Mar. 5, 2013
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soft skills, hard skills, technical skills, behavioural based interview questionsAs a business owner or hiring manager do you feel you might be too reactive (or even rushed) when it comes to making a hire?

Do you spend the majority of the assessment process focusing on technical skills, in the hope that your potential new hire will be able to hit the ground running with minimal hand-holding?

Unfortunately focusing entirely on someone’s hard skills often results in a poor hire, not from the perspective of saving on training time, but from the way that the new hire interacts with your existing team and other key stakeholders.

Far too many organisations fail to focus on soft skills because they believe that a certain degree of emotional intelligence in the workplace goes without saying and has no need to be assessed.

The reality is, this isn’t always the case.

We all have our strengths and weaknesses and a high level of technical expertise doesn’t automatically mean good team skills or the ability to communicate that expertise to others.

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What exactly are ‘soft skills’?

Soft skills are those behavioural competencies, related to a person’s EQ (Emotional Intelligence Quotient), that enable them to interact with and influence others, be they team mates, customers, suppliers or management.

Soft skills are skills that we all have to varying degrees, including:

  • effective communication;
  • negotiation;
  • conflict resolution;
  • team work; and
  • strategic thinking

Soft skills can also be more intangible, and can include:

  • sense of humour;
  • optimism;
  • diligence;
  • common sense;
  • loyalty;
  • dependability;
  • good manners; and
  • the ability to teach others.

While not easily defined or assessed, what business could say they don’t want their employees to possess qualities such as these?

Why are soft skills so important?

Sure an organisation might have the highest level of knowledge and expertise within the team. But if they lack customer service skills, if their employees are always bickering, or they have a high staff turnover, chances are they may will be lacking the softer skills where they matter most.

Often the only difference between two companies operating within the same industry is their customer service and client handling skills. So hiring with softer skills in mind such as communication, flexibility and friendliness would be the obvious way to gain a competitive advantage.

Having employees who work effectively together towards your organisation’s success is vital, so hiring people who exhibit negotiation, team building and conflict resolution skills also makes a lot of sense.

How do you assess soft skills?

Evaluating soft skills is more difficult than determining whether someone can perform a particular task.

For example, how can you really assess for for integrity, honesty or team work?

Behavioural based interviews can be used to pinpoint soft skills, and there are particular questions you can ask to determine whether the skills you are looking for are present in a candidate. For example:

  • Q: Tell me about a time where you had to take charge of a situation and rally others around you in order to resolve it? (this can indicate skills relating to leadership)
  • Q: When have you had to respond quickly to a problem by coming up with a plan to fix it? (this could point to problem solving skills).
  • Q: Describe a situation when you were able to motivate others to achieve a goal? (this could show team work and leadership skills).
  • Q: Provide an example of a time you were able to solve a problem by coming at it from a different angle? (this could point to innovation and creativity).
  • Q:  When have had to deal with an angry customer? What happened? (this can indicate skills related to customer service).
  • Q: What’s an example of a specific problem you had that took you a long time to resolve? (this can point to initiative and perseverance).
  • Q: Tell me about a time when you had to complete a project quickly by focusing on the most important aspects? (this could indicate the ability to prioritise).
  • Q: Describe an example of a time when you had to alter a project in mid-stream? (this could show flexibility and ability to work under pressure).

A list of 75 other behavioural questions can be found here.

Obviously hard skills are vital in many jobs, such as knowing how to use a certain type of software or being certified in a particular area of expertise. However, in those industries where companies are maintaining relationships with clients and dealing with customers (which is most industries these days), soft skills or ‘people skills’ are equally important, if not more so.

It’s also important to understand that those employees possessing both hard (technical) skills and soft skills are much more likely to:

  • Stay with your organisation longer;
  • Make a more valuable contribution;
  • Have good relationships and work well with others; and
  • Improve overall productivity.

So while it might take a bit more effort to assess softer skills in a potential candidate, it can be well worth it in the long run.

Cofounder and CEO at RecruitLoop. I've been a hands on recruiter, manager, trainer, coach, mentor, and regular speaker for the recruitment industry for nearly 25 years.


Paul Slezak

Cofounder and CEO at RecruitLoop. I've been a hands on recruiter, manager, trainer, coach, mentor, and regular speaker for the recruitment industry for nearly 25 years.

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