This article was updated on July 24, 2018.
There's an old saying in HR: "Hard skills get you in the door; soft skills get you in the chair." It's as true today as it ever was. But when you start looking at skill sets to determine if you have found the right mix in a candidate, it gets a bit more complicated.
Establish a Baseline
The best place to start when looking at candidates' hard and soft skills is their resume. But not all resumes are crafted to account for soft skills, hence, "hard skills get you in the door." So when you're sifting through the foot-deep pile of resumes you've downloaded over the past few days, pay attention first to the hard skills. From your job description, you know that for anyone to succeed in the position, the basic skills — actual or transferable — need to match.
Soft skills, after all, don't do the work. They facilitate it.
What to Look For
Once you have ordered those resumes, go back over them and look for key descriptors that say things like the following:
- Built reputation for problem-solving with previously unhappy members (effective communicator)
- Became go-to person for explaining legalese in easy-too-comprehend language to customers of diverse backgrounds (team-oriented, flexible)
- Wrote and edited web site content, board minutes and policy manual (versatility, multitasking)
You're looking to analyze these descriptors to identify associated soft skills the candidate possesses that make their hard skills possible.
And that's the hard part.
Advertise What You Need (But Also What You Want)
When creating a job description, it is vital to relay the type of supplementary soft skills that will be necessary for the position, as well. For example, an accounting manager needs to be great with numbers and detail-oriented, which are both skills that can be tested empirically. But the "manager" aspect of the position needs someone who will communicate well, build team camaraderie and manage multiple priorities.
Not the easiest skills to test for when screening.
Soft skills can be further sussed out during a phone screen. Beyond asking for further explication about accomplishments and accolades, it is behavioral questions like the following that can be especially revealing:
- At X Corporation, you were the lead on the Z project. Tell me about the biggest challenge you faced as the team lead.
- Tell me about a time your superior asked you to do something that violated your morals, and how you reacted.
You will obtain critical intelligence from a phone screen, but once you get a candidate in the door, you can really determine whether your instincts and screening have produced a quality candidate. You should be able to further assess their soft skills by the manner in which a candidate answers both behavioral and practical questions. This process reveals not only communication style, but other intangibles such as confidence and grace under pressure. For example, whether the position you're recruiting is for one of leadership or not, figuring out if a candidate speaks and behaves confidently is the type of soft skill that will always pay dividends.
Once you've revealed all the hard and soft skills you're able to during the phone screen and in-person interviews, it's time to look at the actual team that is already in place. You want to ensure that the mix of skills that are already there are enhanced by what your candidate brings. You also want to ensure that the team's skills will enhance those of the candidate.
Finally, consider the field for which you're hiring. Science, for example, needs people heavy with the hard skills because they know what very few others know and are difficult to replace. Positions in accounting and law need a balance of hard and soft skills. There's a lot of hard knowledge needed there, but a need for successful interaction, as well.
There is no right or wrong mix of hard and soft skills. But knowing what skills you absolutely must have for the position and understanding how to determine whether a candidate has the requisite temperament to match should ensure you're bringing in the person with the right mix for your organization.
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