How to Hire for Soft Skills

In April, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner went on CNBC and discussed new skills gap data LinkedIn published on the current state of the job market. In the interview, Weiner detailed the most in-demand skills for today’s workforce. Unsurprisingly, digital skills and knowledge of programming languages ranked high on LinkedIn’s list. But the other skills in high demand? Soft skills. The LinkedIn report proves something that we, at SkillSurvey, have known all along – soft skills are the name of the game.

What are soft skills?

While many hiring mangers focus on hard skills, those abilities that are teachable and easy to identify (Can she code? Can he operate a forklift?), fewer focus on soft skills. Soft skills are subjective and much harder to list on a resume or explain in a cover letter. In short, soft skills can be equated to “people skills” or “how someone acts,” and for an employee to be successful in most professions, they need to have a strong set of soft skills.

One major reason that soft skills are becoming increasingly sought after is the growth of artificial intelligence in the workplace. A report from Deloitte finds that, AI is changing the skills that are needed in the workforce as new jobs are being created to support its growth while at the same time, AI is reducing roles that involve routine or repetitive tasks. But AI can never replace the job roles that require traits like empathy, communication and problem-solving. One trait in particular that employers are looking for is mental agility. With technology constantly updating, organizations need employees who can roll with the punches and adapt quickly to a changing environment. And all those attributes are soft skills.

How do you hire for soft skills?

Once you, as an employer, decide which soft skills a new hire needs for the position you are trying to fill, there are two ways you can ascertain whether a candidate has these desired traits:

  1. By conducting a thoughtful reference check
  2. By asking the right interview questions.

If you are serious about hiring for soft skills, you absolutely have to reference check. A candidate’s job references can provide a candid window into the kind of person he or she is at work. Ask that the candidate provide a diverse set of references, including at least one from both a past manager and a past co-worker. SkillSurvey has done research on this topic and found that managers tend to focus on task-related behaviors like dependability and working independently, but in contrast, co-workers offered a lot more about soft skills – like listening, compassion and helpfulness. By requesting references from a wider array of sources, you’ll get a clearer picture of the candidate and what they were truly like at their last job.

There is an art to the interview that many hiring managers may not realize. Anyone can ask a job candidate a set of questions, but asking the right questions for the right role takes planning and insight into the potential new hire. You want your questions to elicit responses that give you an idea of that candidate’s soft skills aside from the ones that are naturally on display in an interview setting. That’s why some hiring managers start reference checking after screening but prior to conducting final interviews. You can use information gleaned from references to ask more topical questions that directly relate the type of employee a candidate was at their past job.

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For example, if a former co-worker says that the person you are interviewing is terrific but tends to become stressed under pressure – press on that during the interview. Ask questions like: What kinds of stressful situations did you have to deal with at work? Can you explain to me a time you made a mistake at work and how you resolved the situation? Knowing the answers to these questions can help you as an employer better understand whether this candidate can deal with a fast-paced work environment. And the way they explain how they acted in these situations will help you learn more about who they are, how they think and how they will behave if they join your organization.

Don’t let the word “soft” mislead you – soft skills aren’t a throwaway or a “nice to have.” They are essential for any new hire and are increasingly important in today’s ever-changing, technology-driven world. When you find a candidate that has the soft skills that matter for a given role, be sure to act fast, because as the LinkedIn data shows us, you’re certainly not the only one looking.