The New Way Companies Are Evaluating Candidates' Soft Skills (and Discovering High-Potential Talent)

February 26, 2018

Soft skills are one of the top predictors of on-the-job success. But, the problem is that they are notoriously hard to screen for. In fact, when we asked 9000 hiring managers and recruiters what’s the biggest issue with the current interview formats (like behavioral questions), 63% said it’s the inability to identify soft skills:

It makes sense: a candidate probably won’t say, “Oh, yeah, I’m an average communicator with sub-par time management skills and almost no grit.” But soft skills (e.g., accountability, leadership, teamwork) are super important: they can be the difference between a great hire and a toxic employee.

That’s where new solutions like predictive soft skills assessments come in.

To fill the gap between the need to measure soft skills and the inadequacy of traditional interviews, companies like Koru and Pymetrics have developed pre-screening online assessments—user-friendly tests that take candidates about 20 minutes to complete and give employers a sense of their soft-skill strengths and weaknesses.

Whether candidates play neuroscience-inspired games or answer straightforward questions, these online tests let companies screen large pools of talent quickly and make smarter hiring decisions. To learn more, we talked with the CEOs of Koru and Pymetrics, along with their respective clients, Citi and Accenture.

Read on to see how these assessments work, which recruiters can benefit most, and the impact they have on candidate experience.

How predictive assessments measure soft skills

While various solutions like Koru and Pymetrics do things a little differently, they’re all driving towards a similar goal: getting a more holistic sense of candidates at scale using scientific methods.

Koru’s 20-minute assessment asks candidates a series of questions to generate scores on seven key skills, which it calls the Koru7 Impact Skills: grit, ownership, curiosity, polish, teamwork, rigor, and impact.

The questions cover three main areas:

  • Past experience: jobs and extracurriculars that demonstrate skills
  • Work style: personal preferences on approaches and values
  • Work scenarios: how candidates would respond to various dilemmas  

Candidates get instant feedback on their top skill, while employers get to see full scores and rankings of how well candidates fit the ideal profile.

These rankings are driven by machine learning algorithms that compare candidates’ scores to those of your top-performing employees.

Pymetrics, on the other hand, uses games to measure roughly 90 cognitive and emotional traits. While “games” might not sound scientific, don’t get the wrong idea: they’re well-validated instruments used in neuroscience research for decades. “We didn’t develop any of these exercises,” says Frida Polli, CEO of Pymetrics. “These are the gold standard of the neuroscience community.”

Pymetrics argues that these games are a better measure than tests, since self-reported behavior often isn’t reliable. “If you really wanted to know how much someone weighed, would you ask them or put them on a scale?” asks Frida. While self-reporting relies on the person’s memory and honesty, a scale provides a more objective measurement of their traits.

Both platforms let you control how much feedback candidates receive when they finish the assessment. Candidates typically get a few highlights on their strongest skills (which makes for a fun candidate experience), without getting full access to their complete data or how well they fit the company’s “fingerprint.”

Note that both solutions encourage you to deploy their software internally as well and test your own employees. This way you can identify what soft skills help employees thrive in your organization and build a “fingerprint” or a “top performer” profile against which you can compare candidates.

Why you should consider using soft skills assessments

We sat down with two companies piloting soft skills assessments—Citi (using Koru) and Accenture (using Pymetrics). Here is the top benefits they identified:

1. You can screen more people, quicker—making it easier to look beyond traditional talent pools

Unlike traditional interviews, soft skills assessments don’t require the recruiter to be there—it takes the same amount of time to assess 20 people as it does to test 200. Instead, recruiters get to focus on analyzing the results and making decisions.

But it’s not just a matter of saving time. While the assessments don’t directly assist in sourcing, the speed and scale of these tests does encourage recruiters to assess more candidates—including more non-traditional candidates.

Rahul Varma, Accenture’s Global Head of Talent, says they’re hopeful that Pymetrics will play a part in their ability to “discover talent from known and yet-to-be-known sources.” Looking beyond traditional sources and criteria is a larger part of Accenture’s emerging approach to hiring, and Pymetrics fits well within that mission.

Citi saw similar benefits from Koru. “One of the things that we like about Koru [is how it’s] allowing us to see a broader, more diverse talent pipeline,” says recruiting director Courtney.

2. You can rely on less biased, scientific evaluations

Both platforms are weighted to mitigate any biased results on gender and ethnicity. A big part of the appeal of these tech solutions is that they remove part of subjective human biases.

It’s also just as important that companies don’t use the tech to perpetuate existing biases. (Culture fit, for example, is often criticized as a backdoor for discrimination—you wouldn’t want your ideal company profile to only match people from a certain background.)

One of Koru’s clients, a Fortune 50 investment bank looking to add more diversity, found that a segment of Latino candidates had very strong fit scores, but a very low offer rate. By isolating the problem with Koru, they were able to “understand that the dropout was happening right at the first interview,” shares Kristen Hamilton, CEO of Koru. “They did an intervention to help prepare those applicants for interviews, and the offer rate went up to twice that of white males.” The hires, who would’ve been otherwise overlooked, became some of the company’s top performers.

3. You can get a more complete and reliable picture of a candidate

Traditionally, companies often default to criteria like technical tests, past employer experience, GPA, and school pedigree to screen candidates. The trouble is that these present a truly limited picture of the person, leaving out the soft skills which are necessary to thrive in today’s business environment.

“We feel that [Koru] gives us more of an understanding of the folks we’re bringing in for interviews,” says Courtney Storz, a director of campus recruiting at Citi. “It’s one piece,” she emphasizes, “it’s not a pass/fail score—it’s supplemental information that gives us a much more holistic picture of the candidate.”

What’s more, having the test scores helps recruiters and hiring managers lead more informed discussions with candidates and meanifully dig into pre-determined areas of weakness and strength. For example, if the tests show you that the candidate falls short on leadership you can spend your interview focusing on that instead of wasting time in areas that you know they excel.

Soft skills assessments may be most useful to large, people-focused companies

While medium-sized businesses may surely find soft skills assessments useful, it’s big, skills-focused companies that have the most to gain. A super-scalable screening solution offers a bigger return-on-investment for companies with thousands of employees.

Kristen, the CEO of Koru, says their primary customers are often “very large, Fortune 1000 [companies], typically professional services organizations—investment banking, consulting, law—where the people are the product.” In other words, companies where soft skills are magnified and become critical to the business’s success.

Citi and Accenture are ideal customers of predictive assessments, given their people-focus and sheer scale: Accenture hired about 100,000 last year alone. “Accenture is essentially a people business,” says Rahul. “We do not have a product—our product is the skills, capabilities, and passion of our people.”

At the same time, both Citi and Accenture cautioned that it was too early to talk about any results. Both companies are still only using Koru and Pymetrics on a pilot basis.

As technology advances, recruiting tools are bound to evolve

Technology has already reshaped the face of recruiting, from networks like LinkedIn to chatbots. Predictive assessments join this field of emerging technology that’s due to make a major impact over the next decade.

While the tools are impressive enough today, you can only expect them to become more sophisticated (and predictive) as time goes on. Traditional interviews aren’t going away anytime soon—but the way recruiters use tech to complement them will continue to reshape hiring over the next few years.

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