If you’ve ever hired someone who, on paper, checked all your candidate “wish list” boxes but could never seem to mesh with your staff or customers on an interpersonal level, you’ve discovered the pitfalls of evaluating candidates solely on their “hard skills,” i.e. the technical ability or industry expertise they have. Enter the case for gauging “soft skills” – those intangible qualities that make a person easy to work with, sought out by team members, praised by customers and ultimately, an asset to your company.

What are soft skills exactly? They encompass a variety of things, like communication skills, social savvy, problem solving ability, empathy, adaptability, work ethic, time management, creativity – any quality that enhances the relationships we build with one another. These traits may also be referred to as someone’s emotional intelligence or emotional quotient, describing a person’s ability to understand the role that emotions play in working with others. A person with good soft skills would be able to:

  • Speak well and be a good listener
  • Respect other’s opinions
  • Put team ahead of self
  • Be flexible and openminded
  • Be able to take criticism in a professional way
  • Manage conflict well

It’s not difficult to see how hiring someone who has the “nuts and bolts” hard skills you require, plus the less tangible soft skills you’re looking for, would be a great addition to your company. But with soft skills being harder to quantify, how can you assess a candidate’s proficiency with them? Try using interview questions that zero in on these abilities, such as:

  • How would you explain a difficult concept or new term to someone outside your discipline?
  • What has been your biggest challenge when working on a team project?
  • Can you describe a time when you were “in over your head” and had to ask for help?
  • Talk about a situation when you’ve had to work with a coworker or customer you felt was difficult; how did you handle it? 
  • Have you ever had one of your ideas rejected by your team or boss – what was your reaction?
  • How important do you think interpersonal skills are to your position?

Also, since candidates are always on their “best behavior” during an interview, see if you can assess their soft skills when they aren’t expecting it. How did they interact with your receptionist coming in the door? If your interview takes place over a meal, how did the candidate engage with the wait staff? These situations may give you a better insight into how this person acts in real world encounters and not just under the lens of an interview.

Need more convincing that hiring for soft skills is a good idea? Consider that you may be able to provide training for a hard skill you want an employee to have, but the soft skills they possess are likely part of their personality – and what you see is what you get. Also, the nature of soft skills makes them valuable in all scenarios; they transfer from project to project unlike some hard skills which may only be useful in a particular setting.

Ready for your next interview? Keep your radar up for a candidate’s aptitude in soft skills and you’ll make a hire you’re happy with now and in the future.

Susan Bryant is a writer and editor who enjoys working on diverse subject matter and collaborating on interesting projects. She can be contacted at susanbryant7@gmail.com.