Soft Skills in the Workplace: Why They Matter & How to Hire for Them
By ERIC DYSON
For hiring managers, an age-old dilemma persists. Two ostensibly equally qualified candidates interview for the same position, but only one can be hired. This may seem like an ideal situation for a hiring manager. However, it’s still a dilemma, and dilemmas demand solutions.
When choosing between two seemingly equal candidates, organizations are now prioritizing “soft skills” as the key differentiator. In LinkedIn’s Global Talent Trends report, 92% of talent acquisition professionals reported that soft skills were equally or more important to hire for than hard skills. And, 89% said that when a new hire doesn’t work out, it’s because they lacked critical soft skills.
In this article, we’ll define and explain the importance of soft skills in the workplace and how organizations can best assess candidates for them during the hiring process.
What are Soft Skills?
Soft skills are a combination of people skills, social skills, communication skills, character or personality traits, attitudes, career attributes, social intelligence, and emotional intelligence quotients that enable employees to navigate their environment, work well with others, perform well and achieve their goals with complementary hard skills.
Key soft skills include:
- Communication (both written and verbal)
- Work ethic
- Leadership qualities
- Time management
- Conflict resolution
- Critical thinking
While traditional skills assessments are essential for testing a candidate’s aptitude and ability to perform a job well, they are not effective tools for gauging soft skills. For organizations looking to observe and measure a candidate’s soft skills, a more nuanced assessment process is required.
In PeopleScout’s whole person assessment method, for example, candidates take multiple skills assessments that are scored and weighed differently depending on the position. These types of assessments allow candidates to demonstrate their strengths in both hard and soft skills. This provides valuable insights into which applicants should move on in the hiring process, and also provides a more cognitively diverse group of candidates.
Soft Skills are in Demand
Soft skills are becoming increasingly important as organizations look to add additional value to their business. A study conducted by Wonderlic found that 93% of hiring leaders stated that soft skills were “essential” or “very important” when making hiring decisions. What’s more, many employers reported that soft skills were more important than tech skills.
The Wall Street Journal reports, “Competition has heated up for workers with the right mix of soft skills, which vary by industry and across the pay spectrum – from making small talk with a customer at the checkout counter to coordinating a project across several departments on a tight deadline.”
According to a National Association of Colleges and Employers survey, employers emphasized leadership and the ability to work in a team as the most desirable attributes when recruiting recent college graduates, ahead of analytical and quantitative skills. Burning Glass analyzed millions of U.S. job postings and found that one in three skills requested in job postings is a “baseline” or soft skill. “Even in the most technical career areas (such as information technology and healthcare) more than a quarter of all skill requirements are for baseline skills.”
Talent with the right soft skills is scarce. In fact, LinkedIn’s Workplace Learning Report cited soft skills as the top training priority, and 59% of U.S. hiring managers believe it’s difficult to find candidates with the right soft skills.
Soft Skills and Organizational Outcomes
Creative & Critical Thinking
Employing a workforce of creative and critical thinkers is essential for introducing fresh ideas, services and products. In fact, creative and critical-thinking skills were ranked second and third on the World Economic Forum’s top skills employees would need to thrive in the fourth industrial revolution.
As artificial intelligence and automation in business evolve, creative and critical-thinking skills will be increasingly necessary to complement the capabilities of machines. However, these skills are in short supply. According to a report from the Society for Human Resource Management, 84% of HR professionals said they found a deficit of key soft skills, including creative and critical thinking, among job candidates.
Teamwork & Communication
Teamwork and communication are weak points for many organizations, and it’s causing performance and productivity challenges. Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report found that the majority of employees “believe that their organization’s project performance would improve if their teams worked more collaboratively.” What’s more, another Gallup report discovered that teamwork and good communication is a key soft skill for helping B2B organizations solve their top challenge of creating organic growth.
Successful collaboration is strongly related to good communication skills. Communication skills include actively listening to colleagues and willing engagement in conflict resolution to mitigate the effects of miscommunications, as well as keeping projects and organizational initiatives on track.
Compassion in Leadership
Compassion is an important aspect of good leadership. Teams thrive when the members trust that their leader cares about them. Research shows that organizations with more compassionate leaders excel at collaboration – already identified as a key soft skill in the modern workplace.
According to an article in the Harvard Business Review authored by Rasmus Hougaard, Jacqueline Carter and Louise Chester, “Of the over 1,000 leaders we surveyed, 91% said compassion is very important for leadership, and 80% would like to enhance their compassion but do not know how.”
Compassion is a prerequisite for effective communication and other soft skills that enhance interpersonal relationships in the workplace, and they are essential to maintaining workplace cohesion.
How to Assess a Candidates’s Soft Skills
Ask Behavior-Based Interview Questions
Interview questions that are behavior-based can help organizations more easily identify the soft skills possessed by the candidate, especially for technical roles where questions are based more on hard skills. They can provide a look into how the candidate would respond in certain situations or to various challenges.
Examples of behavior-based questions to ask candidates applying for more technical positions include:
- “How do you usually develop relationships with coworkers and supervisors?”
- “Tell me about a problem you solved in a creative or unique way.”
- “Tell me about a time when you had to deal with someone who was difficult.”
- “Describe your ideal work environment and method(s) of communication.”
- “Share a time when you needed help or guidance on a project and how you went about asking for it.”
- “Share a time when you had communication problems with your manager or coworkers. How did you handle the situation and your manager or colleague’s response?”
Also, ask candidates how they think their soft skills will help them in the role they are interviewing for. Their answers can reveal how well they understand the nature of the position and its requirements.
Good communication skills are a prime indicator as to whether a candidate will be a good fit within an organization. A huge part of communication involves listening. During an interview, observe whether the candidate is listening and paying attention to the interviewer. Are they interrupting the interviewer? Are their eyes glazing over?
Moreover, during the interview, ask candidates behavior-based questions with a focus on communication, such as:
- “Before you send a message, do you think about the best way to communicate it (in person, over the phone, in an email, through chat and so on)?”
- “If you don’t understand something, do you keep it to yourself and figure it out later, or do you ask for clarification or help?”
- “How do you consider cultural barriers when planning communications to a multicultural and diverse team?”
- “Do you communicate best through the use of diagrams and charts to express ideas? Verbally or through writing?”
- “When speaking with coworkers, do you pay attention to their body language?”
Verbal cues are also an important part of good communication. For example, when asking a candidate about a previous career challenge, did they use “I” or “we” more often? This will give you a chance to see whether the candidate is a team player and if they take or give credit where it is deserved.
Inquire About Soft Skills While Checking References
Reference checks are a strategy for corroborating and verifying information about a candidate’s work history and experience. A candidate’s job references can also provide a window into the kind of person they are at work.
A SkillSurvey study found that, when asked, job candidates’ coworkers gave feedback on soft skills for reference checks, while managers focused on tasks related hard skills. So, when checking references, it may be beneficial to assess a candidate’s soft and hard skills based on their relationship to the reference.
During the reference-checking process, ask a candidate’s coworkers questions about the soft skills of the potential hire, including:
- “Did the candidate get along with their coworkers and management?”
- “Tell me what it’s like to work with the job candidate.”
- “What advice can you give me to successfully manage the job candidate?”
- “What else do I need to know about the job candidate that I didn’t already ask?”
Employees are unlikely to vouch for someone who would make an unpleasant coworker, so ask them for a thoughtful assessment.
Today’s business landscape is about communication, relationships, and presenting your organization in a positive way to the public and potential employees. Soft skills allow organizations to effectively and efficiently use their technical skills and knowledge without being hampered by interpersonal issues, infighting, and poor public and market perceptions.
Recruiting for the right blend of soft skills takes a measured and strategic approach. It also requires an investment of time, patience and gut instinct. To provide our clients with the necessary tools to find talent with the right soft skills, PeopleScout developed the whole person assessment process. As part of PeopleScout’s talent advisory practice, the whole person model provides a more in-depth evaluation of candidates by measuring a candidate’s capability, behavior, results, passion, purpose and mindset, and allows all candidates to show their best selves.