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Thought Leadership

Mining for Talent

Determining whether a job candidate has the necessary soft skills is both an art and a science.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017
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For years, we've heard rhetoric from employers of a full-blown talent crisis. Their main complaint? A skills gap, highly focused on the shortage of technical skills. However, as critical as those skills are, the focus on them by many HR departments, recruiters and hiring managers has, in effect, eclipsed the search for another very important skill set: soft skills. Interestingly, a recent LinkedIn survey of U.S. hiring managers found that 59 percent of them believe that soft skills are very difficult to find. 

Hiring has always been a risky business, and the risk in making a bad hire increases dramatically when employers fail to assess for soft skills. These skills encompass everything from communication to initiative. They're critical to almost every role in every industry, but are incredibly tough to uncover in the hiring process. This is often because those conducting interviews aren't necessarily equipped with the insights and tactics to properly pull this type of information out of candidates during interviews.

Assessing soft skills in candidates is both an art and science. It needs to encompass a two-fold approach that begins with an understanding of what soft skills are "make or break" to the job (which seems obvious, but is often underestimated) and then a plan of action for uncovering them. It takes a well-prepared and artful interviewer to pull this type of information out of a candidate.

Doing a Deep Dive

Many hiring managers waltz into interviews without having given much thought to which soft skills are necessary to the open position. They -- often inadvertently -- interview candidates solely to uncover technical skills and job know-how. That narrow approach is a mistake. It's equally important to spend up-front time understanding which soft skills are fundamental to a job and need to be tested for. Assessing soft skills is the only way to get an indication of, for example, work ethic. You can't uncover that type of information by looking at a resume or asking about a certification or job competency.

While there are the important and obvious soft skills (communication), there do exist a number of less palpable soft skills that are just as important. For example, people who have adaptability skills can look at new situations (changes in processes, management and technology) with optimism and respect. Collaboration is important in a team or customer service environment. Hiring someone without a "team player" mentality is a major gamble, as it could potentially alienate employees who need to collaborate with -- and are subjected -- to working with this person. This goes hand in hand with dependability, another skill that's difficult to uncover. Problem solving, too.

In order to identify the top soft skills you should be considering in an interview, take a look at some of your top employees to see which skills they exude. Examine the skills and attributes that you appreciate in your current team, and make that time commitment to really think about the soft skills that allow employees to do their job well. Those will be the skills you want your next hire to match. It might even be helpful to create a short list of the skills you want to measure for, baking them into your ideal candidate profile. Coming up with your core, desired soft skills is ultimately a time-intensive action, but you need that careful reflection in order to determine them.

How to Dig For and Uncover Soft Skills

After identifying the skills that are most important to the role, those conducting the interview need to shape questions so they can elicit responses that make clear whether or not a candidate possesses a specific soft skill. Also, interviewers should use a mix of behavioral, fact-based, and hypothetical questions to tease out hidden answers they’re looking for in their soft skills search.

Beyond "Tell me about yourself" -- a simple, fact-based yet effective question that can potentially uncover a lot about a candidate's soft skills -- here are a few examples of other key questions that can have the same effect:

"Tell me about a time when you overcame a workplace obstacle to meet a deadline." --  This behavioral question will indicate if a candidate possesses strong problem-solving skills. It’s not an easy question as it requires candidates to seriously think about a time when they were challenged. Furthermore, they then have to reflect upon how well they handled it.

"What are some issues you came across in switching from one job to the next?" -- This fact-based question is very subtle in its intention and really tests the candidate. Some candidates might use the opportunity to discuss ways in which they were disgruntled with a new manager or team or the ways in which their previous company was structured. The good candidates will see what you are asking and will exhibit how they went through many changes but were able to effectively adapt.

"How did you lead a group of people at your last job?" -- This behavioral question will hopefully elicit a response that speaks to how a candidate might be an excellent communicator and an initiative-taker. If they have trouble answering this, they likely won't be able to lead a group of people. There are a number of questions like this that require more thought and consideration than the more mechanical questions they expect from the interviewer.

Equally important to asking the right, pointed questions is the ability (of the interviewer) to dig deeper; interviewers often let candidates off the hook too easily. If a candidate's answer didn't accomplish what you hoped it would or display that a candidate possesses a soft skill, ask a follow up question that digs deeper into their response or rephrase the original one. The purpose of these soft skills-oriented questions is to challenge candidates to give you a deeper level of self-reflection, so make sure you’re getting it.

Assessing for soft skills requires significant time, preparation and internal reflection -- far beyond what most companies do -- but it produces better results and is critical to de-risking the hiring process. Soft- skills assessment needs to be a foundational part of the modern day interview, and it requires employers to restructure the way they think about hiring. Unless the time is taken and soft skills are prioritized -- by hiring managers and HR leaders who can coach those conducting interviews to ask the right questions and assess the right traits -- they'll remain an indecipherable part of a candidate's skill set.

Don Charlton is founder and chief product officer of Pittsburgh-based JazzHR.  


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