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How to hire for emotional intelligence—a practical guide in the age of COVID-19

It’s all in how you ask the questions.

How to hire for emotional intelligence—a practical guide in the age of COVID-19
[Photos: Sorbyphoto/Pixabay; TheDigitalArtist/Pixabay]
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There was a time when having a foosball table in your office, free beer on tap and PacMan during downtime was the pinnacle of workplace cool. The brightest and the best recruits were tempted by a work life that seemed a million miles away from the stale cubicle-driven office of pre-Millenia.

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Tech brands created a blueprint for attracting and retaining new hires, and competition for talent grew fierce. Today, the physical office is less important, and instead things like flexibility, career security, development, and progression are highly valued by young talent and commonly offered.

Of course, the other side of that contract is what the new hire would offer. Deep understanding and knowledge of their discipline and the technical chops to create, engineer, or sell advanced technology. Sounds like a good deal, right?

Unfortunately, what we’ve come to learn is that evaluating talent based on their “IQ” (Intelligence Quotient) is only half the battle. Emotional Quotient or intelligence, or “EQ,” is something special in developing talent. As such, creativity in recruitment and rolling out employee development programs are musts for all tech companies today. 

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How do you hire for EQ? 

Let’s start with what EQ actually is: it might not be a new concept, but it’s one that is neglected or downplayed by far too many businesses.

According to Psychology Today, “Emotional Intelligence is the ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions, as well as the emotions of others.” This, Psychology Today says, is underpinned by three main skills: emotional awareness; the ability to harness those emotions and apply them to tasks like thinking and problem solving; and the ability to manage emotions, which includes both regulating one’s own emotions when necessary and helping others to do the same. 

Research related to the business impact of high EQ individuals presents some very interesting statistics:

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  • Employees are 400% more likely to stay at a company if they have a boss with high EQ. 
  • 90% of high performers have high EQ.
  • EQ training reduced lost-time accidents by 50%, based on one study. 

Tech companies put so much value in IQ hiring and technical pedigree that they often forget that the ability to communicate, observe, adjust, and adapt (the hallmarks of employees with high EQ), are actually the traits they value most when paired with high IQ. 

If I was to take my 25 years in tech–in evaluating talent and driving business outcomes–I’d describe employees with strong emotional intelligence as showing the following behaviors: 

  • Listens, observes, reads the room.
  • Adjusts communications and engagement on the fly based on the emotional cadence in a discussion. 
  • Instinctually reads and reacts to nonverbal communication.
  • Knows when to pause, stop, or double down.
  • Gauges when they are being listened to and shows others that they are listening.
  • Harnesses empathy and emotional conditions of others to drive outcomes.

Understanding an employee’s or future employee’s EQ is always a challenge. This is particularly true in the new virtual norm where the opportunity to meet someone in person in the physical sense may not be possible. But there are a few ways that you can determine whether a candidate boasts the right emotional intelligence–without forcing them to take a personality test. 

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Field the right questions

In 2019, my telecom tech company, Ciena, introduced its marketing recruitment program, Pathbuilders, which helps early-in-career marketing hires to develop and expand their skills across a variety of marketing disciplines. We specifically look for individuals who aren’t only bright but are also able to engage and answer difficult questions designed to isolate their emotional intelligence. Here’s an example of some of the questions we use to gauge emotional intelligence: 

  1. Standard Question: Give me some examples of projects you have done in your field including the outcomes of those projects?
    EQ Question: You’re faced with the following situation. You’re responsible for an important presentation to a customer or a colleague. The content is ready. You have practiced the material. Ten minutes into the presentation you notice the customer is distracted–perhaps reading email or not making eye contact. What would/did you do?
  2. Standard Question: Tell me about your background.
    EQ Question: Tell me about your background, but as you go through it, tell me about key inflection points or moments where you (pick one) 1. grew or developed a new skill or 2. needed to create or repair a relationship with a customer or coworker.
  3. Standard Question: Tell me about a project of which you are particularly proud.
    EQ Question: Tell me about a moment where you needed to influence a group or a person to drive a positive outcome on a project. What did you do? How did you figure out that you needed to take that action?

These are just some examples of ways to shift the questioning to evoke responses that draw out behaviors beyond the ability to just execute. You’re challenging the individual to prove that they can think and react creatively based on emotional stimuli. This helps you gauge whether they are the right fit for your company. Would their reactions benefit your business and the outcomes you’re trying to drive? Did their answers show a particular lack of ethos or emotional understanding that might put a team or project at risk? 

Master EQ in the age of COVID and Zoom

With COVID, the idea of the workplace as a building (goodbye foosball table and free lunch) has dissipated overnight. Face-to-face physical engagements aren’t happening, complicating the process of interviewing and evaluating talent–for both company and candidate presents challenges.  

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So, we need to adjust and embrace new ways of evaluating emotional intelligence via video.

Can potential recruits (and even employees) take advantage of the virtual environment and demonstrate an ability to use that tech and that environment to their benefit? Are they, in short, a Master of Zoom?

Do employees and recruits share their screen to show their previous work and success? Are they maintaining eye contact on screen (which comes with practice)? Do they “lean into” the discussion? Do they find ways to get their voice heard not just in the meeting, but through the chat window? Sure, these are all little things, but they can add up to indications that the recruit or employee can adapt to new ways of working and building relationships over virtual platforms. And remember: this involves relationship building not only with others within the company, but with critical external stakeholders as well. 

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Continuously encourage and develop EQ In employees

Once you’ve identified the talent with the right balance of IQ and EQ, it’s important to demonstrate that as an employer, you can build their skills and help them grow within the company. Offering innovative development programs that enable new hires to build their skills and grow is critical. Companies must find ways to foster a “virtual culture” and create opportunities for virtual team building and networking. 

One particularly valuable virtual trick is to create training opportunities, delivered as part of group projects, which encourages interpersonal engagement and interaction to complete the skill. For example, our training program, Pathbuilders, was led by our own employees in each functional area, and along with their Zoom presentations, they submitted pre and post-training group projects. The new hires had time to get a sense of what they would be learning on their own during the prework, then had a virtual engagement with an employee doing the job they were learning about. Finally, they got to put into practice with their cohort what they learned. 

How did we know this approach works? The team of new hires who had only ever met each other virtually, set up a virtual chat without including the manager, demonstrating that they could proactively bond with one another—an essential part of EQ. They also started consulting with each other on their individual projects and started meeting outside of work to discuss next steps. It’s these kind of social trainings activities that make the work fun, the employee productive, and help us prove their utilizing both types of “quotients” to develop as employees. 

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What’s outlined here are some simple steps in what I hope is a longer journey of exploration and commitment to hiring and developing employees based on both their IQ and EQ. It’s not rocket science, but in order to create momentum and results, these concepts need to be raised to the conscious level, and then codified within an organization. 


Joe Cumello is SVP & CMO for Ciena, where he oversees all global marketing and communications activities of the telecom networking company. Joe works across the organization to bring solutions to market, position Ciena innovations with customers, and provide the content and strategy sales requires for successful outcomes. He is also responsible for Ciena’s marketing recruitment program, Pathbuilders.