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What are “soft skills,” and how can employers identify them?

Also known as “employability skills,” soft skills can determine whether a candidate will be a good fit for your company.

What are “soft skills,” and how can employers identify them?
[Photo: g-stockstudio/iStock]

Executive chairman of Starbucks Howard Schultz once said, “Hiring people is an art, not a science. And resumes cannot tell you whether someone will fit into a company’s culture.” This astute observation by the American businessman sums up the importance of assessing a job seeker for their soft skills–not just what’s on paper.

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What are soft skills?

Soft skills, also known as “employability skills” are defined by Business Dictionary as “a group of essential abilities that involve the development of a knowledge base, expertise level, and mind-set that is increasingly necessary for success in the modern workplace.”

For any new recruit to fit into your corporate culture and be productive, soft skills are prerequisite. While resumes may sound impressive, assessing a job seeker for soft skills plays a key role in promoting effectiveness in a company’s hiring process.

But how do you assess something so intangible? Use the following nine factors to create questions that assess for the soft skills you need from future employees.

How to assess a candidate’s soft skills

1. Professionalism. The first impression a jobseeker imparts speaks a lot about themselves. A jobseeker that walks in with a disheveled appearance and salty language, for example, may not take their role seriously enough. What’s more, they could make other employees and customers uncomfortable with their behavior.

2. Body language. Body language betrays a lot. Observing body language will enable you to learn a bit about a job seeker’s interpersonal skills. Also, it can help inform whether the interviewee is lying or answering a question honestly. Jittery jobseekers are generally diffident about themselves and unsure whether they can meet your standards. They doubt their own abilities and may end up as underperformers.

3. Problem-solving skills. Regardless of the nature of your business, problem-solving skills are essential for every employee. Candidates who cannot troubleshoot are unable to provide customer care, address issues faced by business associates, or assist colleagues and seniors in the event of any internal problems. Include a couple of questions about how the job seeker would solve a problem. The answer may not be the most thorough, given time constraints of an interview, but it will help you assess this vital skill.

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4. Awareness about major issues. Your future employee need not be an encyclopedia. Yet, it is vital they know about major issues affecting the world, country, and local economy. Knowledge about these issues and opinions suggest that the job seeker is alert and responsive. It also indicates adaptability to adverse situations, since such candidates will usually possess abilities to respond effectively. Issues and opinions can reflect traits such as positivity, skepticism, and negative thoughts. Admittedly, these thoughts may vary according to the issue. A candidate may be positive about something or negative about another. Yet, such awareness would also help you judge the overall traits since every flip side also has positives.

5. Memberships of clubs/organizations. Memberships of clubs and organizations are a clear indicator of a candidate’s social and collaborative skills. Such employees generally tend to become great team players. Additionally, it also indicates the candidate spends time on constructive activities such as sports, hobby, or even politics.

6. Psychometric tests. An increasing number of employers worldwide now utilize psychometric tests to gauge a candidate’s behavior and mental aptitude for a job. They enable you to assess the cognitive capabilities of a job seeker required for any post in an organization. Additionally, psychometric tests help a company to assess an applicant’s analytical and pedagogic skills essential for any role. They are particularly useful in finding hidden traits of a job seeker that are often missed during an interview. However, there are debates worldwide over the effectiveness of these tests to assess soft skills and hidden talents as well as negative traits of an individual. Some psychologists and HR experts vouch for their reliability, while others claim the results provide inconclusive results that can mar career prospects of good candidates–so if you choose to use them, do so cautiously.

7. Company knowledge. Quizzing a candidate over knowledge about your company as well as past employers, if any, is another effective way to assess their soft skills. Answers indicate an interest in the profession and industry. They will also show whether an interviewee is well prepared and is serious about the job or is eyeing the vacancy merely as another employment option. Sometimes, the answer can also reveal traits such as willingness to adapt to a new work environment and spirit of collaboration to ensure personal success as well as that of your organization.

8. Composure under stress. The ability to work under stress is critical for many positions, especially when hiring for more senior roles. One good way to evaluate this skill is by asking a candidate to tell you about a stressful period at work and how they responded. You can also simply evaluate their behavior during the interview. Fumbling to respond or getting frustrated indicate the person may have a hard time working under stress or pressure.

9. Ability to work with diverse groups. Companies, just like the country in general, have become increasingly diverse in recent years. Walk into any major employer and you’ll find people of all different backgrounds, educations, and beliefs collaborating and thriving together. So if an employee has a hard time working with anybody who thinks or acts differently than them, it can be hard for them to succeed. Ask candidates how they have collaborated with people who have had very different perspectives than them. If their answer suggests that they steamrolled others’ ideas or refused to listen to them, they probably won’t perform well in a diverse team.

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Modern workplaces demand that all employees possess soft skills. Indeed, soft skills can be more difficult to acquire than professional degrees and experience. Without them, any hard skills are far less valuable. So when screening candidates, don’t just try to uncover how well they know a particular software program or platform–get to the heart of how they interact with others.


This article originally appeared in Glassdoor and is reprinted with permission.

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