12 Effective Ways to Assess Candidates' Soft Skills
July 25, 2017
When asked, recruiters say that screening candidates for soft skills is one of the top areas they want to learn more about. That’s because soft skills (think leadership, relationship building, communications, adaptability, strategic thinking, learning and interpersonal skills) take up to 25% of the skills required to do the job and to be a great teammate.
Unfortunately, these skills are arguably the most difficult to assess in a candidate. In fact, most traditional soft skill assessment approaches are ineffective -- you must find innovative alternative approaches that really work. For example, some recruiters and hiring managers attempt to assess soft skills first through resume content. But, these skills may not even be entered in the ATS system and a 10 second or less initial resume scan by the recruiter means that they will unlikely be noted.
Trying to assess soft skills during the interview is also problematic because today most candidates judiciously prepare for interviews and purposely “act” so that they put on their best front. Plus, most interviewers contribute to the assessment problem when they simply ask a candidate questions like, “Are you a team player?” With these types of questions, not providing a “yes answer” is more of an intelligence test than an accurate assessment of soft skills.
Finally, asking references if a candidate has a list of soft skills almost always gets an affirmative “yes” answer. So if you need to accurately assess soft skills, it’s time to consider alternative approaches that have been successfully used by top companies.
New ways to screen for soft skills
If you’re seeking a top performer, it’s essential that you make sure that they have most of these soft skills. So consider using one or more of the innovative approaches listed below. These approaches are designed specifically to make the assessment in a more “job like” environment.
The simplest approaches to consider (the easiest ones are listed first):
1. Have employees referring candidates assess their soft skills
If you rely on employee referrals, you will find that most employees simply won’t refer someone to their team who doesn’t have the necessary soft skills. But with a referral, you also get an additional opportunity to verify soft skills by asking the referring employee to list and assess the soft skills of those that they refer.
2. Ask candidates to list the soft skills that would be required for success
During the interview, ask the candidate to list (from most important to least important) the top specific soft skills that they know will be required to excel in the job. If they don’t know what skills will be required, you should be deeply concerned.
3. Have them force rank their soft skills
Many interviewers simply ask candidates directly “Do you have this soft skill?” However, a better way that avoids an obvious “yes” answer is, instead, ask the candidate to force rank their soft skills from the strongest to weakest. The force ranked list can quickly reveal which of the soft skills they believe they have and the ones they consider themselves to have as the strongest. If they rank any of your essential soft skills towards the bottom of the list or not at all, you should be concerned.
4. Have references force rank their soft skills
In a similar way, asking references if a candidate has a specific soft skill almost always gets a “yes” answer. So instead, give the reference a list of soft skills and ask them to force rank the ones that best reflect the candidate. It also makes sense to ask the reference to give an example of how they have seen the candidate exercise any top skill. If any references rank any of your essential soft skills towards the bottom of the ranking or not at all, you should be concerned.
5. Give them problems that require soft skills
Instead of asking interviewees about the historical use of soft skills in situations that may not be relevant to your firm, give them a real situation at your firm that requires soft skills and ask them to walk you through how they would solve it. At each step, ask them to identify which of their specific soft skills would be needed.
If you’re looking for collaboration or seeking/providing feedback, make sure that they include these actions during each crucial step. If you are looking for building relationships and/or rapid learning - give them a work-related problem that requires these two capabilities and then drill down to find out more.
6. Have them find omissions/problems in a current process
Before, during or after the interview, give final candidates an outline of an existing flawed project proposal and then have them find the soft skill errors and omissions. Be concerned if they don’t quickly find omissions in soft skilled areas like collaboration, feedback, relationship building, communications and customer service.
A more complex alternative is to have them write up an outline of their solution to a job-related problem that requires soft skills. And then see if they include the necessary soft skilled related actions and components.
More difficult but more effective approaches to consider (the simplest are listed first):
7. Give them online tests covering soft skills
There are many vendors that now offer credible soft skills testing online. Footlocker, for example, found that the addition of a single soft skill test resulted in new hires that produced a double-digit increase in sales. But when selecting an online test, it’s important to make sure that these tests are validated for this job family.
The best way to validate them is to give the tests to some of your strongest and weakest soft skilled employees in the job family in order to see if they accurately predict for your firm. Personality and attitude tests are also available but be careful because they can’t improve your quality of hire until you positively know which personality types or attitude traits accurately predict on-the-job performance.
8. Assess them when they’re not expecting it
When interpersonal and genuine customer service skills are essential, you must be aware that most act differently during interviews. Either because they’re nervous or because they are purposely trying to deceive. It may seem strange or even a little deceptive at first. But firms like Zappos and Southwest have assessed candidate’s soft skills when they’re not expecting it.
This approach asks employees, receptionists, secretaries, shuttle drivers, café workers, etc. to assess the attitude and the soft skills of candidates outside of the formal hiring process. Under this approach, you systematically observe how interview prospects act with employees, service workers and other applicants “when they think no recruiter is watching.”
9. Give them a temporary project with your team
By far the most accurate way of assessing soft skills is to give candidates an opportunity to work with the team. So when feasible, ask them to work on a night, weekend or remote project with the team. This approach is sometimes called an “Appliject” (for applicant project), and for it to be effective, it needs to have a defined short duration and be paid.
Toyota even had candidates, after interviewing, actually work with their future team the rest of the day and Reliant Services had top applicants after the interview shadow employees for the rest of the day. Both of these approaches allow employers to make more accurate soft skill assessments, while also providing the candidate with a realistic job preview.
10. Make them do the job and observe
During the interview, if you ask most candidates if they have a specific soft skill, such as being a leader, they will automatically say “yes.” So as a supplement to the standard interview for a top candidate, make them a team lead in a 30 – 60-minute group exercise involving a few existing employees. Then, observe if they take the appropriate leadership steps. You can conduct a similar, soft skills, exercise with a group of candidates and see which ones take a leadership role or act as a great teammate.
11. Continue to assess post-hire
Although, it shouldn’t be your first assessment option, the soft skills of new-hires should be further assessed during onboarding and training. And those that don’t meet the standard can either be offered additional training or be released.
12. Use neuroscience assessments
Vendors like HireVue offer a combination of neuroscience assessments that are no longer science fiction. They may include AI technology, deep machine learning, and facial and voice recognition software to assess taped interviews. Technology allows the assessment to go beyond the actual answers and to assess phrases, facial expressions, voice inflection and even subtle physical movements that humans simply couldn’t catch. As a result, neuroscience approaches are able to detect some deceptions.
Because every company has different soft skill needs, I have purposely avoided recommending a particular set of assessment approaches. Instead, I have found that the best approach for each company is to, initially, try the ones that seem reasonable for your situation. But then to follow up later with data to see which ones accurately predict on-the-job success. And don’t be surprised if soft skills, rather than being a minor issue, make up at least 25% of the requirements for a successful new-hire.
Author’s Note: If you found this article to be helpful, please take a minute to follow or connect with Dr. Sullivan on LinkedIn.
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