Candidates' Soft Skills are Notoriously Hard to Assess, But Following These 6 Steps Will Help

March 20, 2019

The psychologist Nicholas Humphrey once stated that a person’s social intelligence — the soft skills they use to interact with their environment and the people around them — defines them far more than their quantitative intelligence. And with artificial intelligence and automation making many hard skills obsolete, this is increasingly true in the workplace.

In fact, in LinkedIn’s Global Talent Trends 2019 report, 92% of talent professionals reported that soft skills are equally or more important to hire for than hard skills. And 89% said that when a new hire doesn’t work out, it’s because they lack critical soft skills.

As a result, accurately assessing candidates' soft skills is essential. The trouble is that while you can put an objective test in front of a candidate to quickly evaluate their hard skills, judging traits like creativity, adaptability, and leadership can be tricky. Here are six steps you can take to pinpoint and measure these soft skills effectively, consistently, and without inviting unconscious bias into the process.

1. Determine which soft skills your company values the most

In order to remain successful, your company needs to have a variety of different soft skills under its belt. It’s great to have lots of creative people, for example, but you also need employees with leadership skills to steer creatives in the right direction. And while it’s a good idea to fill any skills gaps you have today, it’s equally important to hire for the skills you’ll need tomorrow.

First, schedule some time to interview your company’s leaders. Ask them which soft skills your company needs most and which traits they typically see among top performers. Also discuss any future challenges they anticipate to pinpoint which skills the company will need to accomplish its long-term goals.

If your leaders are unsure, use a tool like LinkedIn Skills Insights to help you quickly identify which skills your existing employees have and which you’ll need in the future. These kinds of tools can also give you an idea of how your organization stacks up in a particular skill area compared to your competitors.

2. Identify and clearly define which skills the role requires

While it’s useful to have a range of soft skills across your company, many roles call for a specific set. Certain skills may be essential to doing the job well — like excellent communication for a client-facing position — so it’s crucial that you identify and define the ideal skill set before beginning your search.

Make sure your hiring managers and recruiting team are aligned on which soft skills are must-haves, and which are just an added bonus. Talk through each skill and give clear examples, so that everyone is on the same page.

This ensures the whole team is looking for the same priorities, which should make it easier to agree upon the candidate who best fits the bill.

3. Consider using online tools to prescreen candidates’ soft skills

Identifying soft skills can be tough at the best of times, but at the top of the funnel, it can feel overwhelming. Luckily, there are software tools you can use to quickly assess soft skills at scale.

Koru and Pymetrics are just two examples of companies that provide predictive soft skills assessments that you can build into your hiring process. Candidates take a quick, engaging online assessment — like answering some questions or playing neuroscience-inspired games — and the tools’ algorithms analyze the results and provide an easy-to-scan report card.

Systematically using tools like these can make your process fairer and help reduce unconscious bias. By relying on objective, scientific assessments to narrow down the candidate pool, you can help mitigate the human biases that can creep into more subjective evaluations (more on that below). Then, once you reach the interview stage, you can rely on the insights provided by these tools to guide your line of questioning, helping you probe into your candidates’ strengths and weaknesses more accurately.

4. Be mindful of unconscious bias and take steps to avoid it

Inconsistent and unstructured interviews make it harder to judge soft skills objectively. Unconscious biases can make you favor some candidates over others and lead you to incorrectly chalk that preference up to their soft skills.

For example, you might be naturally drawn to a candidate who reminds you of yourself. This is called similarity bias, and everyone falls for it sometimes. Since it happens at an unconscious level, your conscious brain figures you must prefer the candidate for a reason, like great “leadership potential” or some other soft skill. And once that initial bias has crept in, you’re more likely to interpret new evidence to mean you were right (confirmation bias), even if it doesn’t demonstrate the candidate’s skills at all.

To stop this kind of bias in its tracks, take a moment to check yourself and question why you really like a candidate. If you’re unsure, ask for a second opinion. If the rest of the team agrees that the candidate has a particular soft skill, then you know it’s not your brain playing tricks on you.

5. Standardize your questions across every interview

In LinkedIn’s survey, the majority of talent professionals said they use behavioral or situational questions to assess soft skills. These questions can be effective, but they need to be consistent between candidates to keep potential bias at bay.

Generate a standard set of questions designed to identify the skills you’re targeting (this tool can help). Then, train every interviewer to ask these questions. Not only does this ensure that every candidate has the same opportunity to prove themselves, but it also makes it easier to compare candidates’ answers — even if their interviews were conducted by different people.

6. Use problem-solving questions to see a candidate’s soft skills in action

Behavioral and situational questions can certainly be effective, but candidates often come prepared with a rehearsed answer. To elicit genuine responses, John Vlastelica, founder and managing director of Recruiting Toolbox, recommends using problem-solving questions.

First, ask the candidate to solve a real-world problem using their hard skills (like outlining a 90-day launch plan for a new product). When they’ve come up with a solution, get them to walk you through it. Then, tell them that you want to see how they adapt their plan based on a given constraint — such as a lower budget or smaller launch team — and watch them flex their soft skills in real time.

Some candidates may become agitated or uncommunicative, while others can thrive in the face of change. Give them feedback throughout to see how they incorporate it, and consider bouncing ideas off them to test their collaboration skills. This will give you a good idea of how they’ll actually apply their soft skills on the job, rather than relying on guesswork.

That’s not to say you should scrap your favorite behavioral and situational questions altogether. But by supplementing them with more hands-on problem-solving exercises, you’ll gain an even broader view of the candidate’s hard and soft skills.

Give soft skills the attention they deserve

Eight out of 10 talent professionals say that soft skills are increasingly important to a company’s success — so there’s no time like the present to refine the process you use to assess them.

Focus on the soft skills that matter most to avoid being pulled in too many different directions at once. Then lay out a consistent, scalable process for evaluating them, taking steps to prevent bias from clouding your judgment. Finally, embrace a healthy mix of more traditional interview questions and problem-solving exercises to get the most complete picture of a candidate’s skills and find the best person for the job.

For more insights into how soft skills are transforming the modern workplace, download the full Global Talent Trends 2019 report today.

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