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Screening Candidate Soft Skills

Screening for Soft Skills: How to Spot What’s Not So Obvious

When you schedule candidates for interviews, you probably already have a pretty good idea that their experience and job expertise likely fits the role you need to fill.

But expertise represents only one side of the hiring decision. The other side? Those so-called “soft skills” that are kind of nebulous and difficult to quantify – attributes such as managing relationships, communicating well, thinking strategically, etc.

In fact, these skills can often be the deciding factor when you have a set of candidates with equal specific job-related experience.

So how do you assess soft skills? What are best practices for evaluating candidates in a way that reveals keen insights?

Ask for some stories. They can be very revealing, maybe even entertaining!

When customers ask me for best practices in this area, I generally suggest that asking candidates to explain ideas in narrative form works best. It helps both recruiters understand personality attributes and helps hiring managers to envision a candidate working on their team.

Once upon a time…

While experience at specific job-related skills are usually well presented on a good candidate’s resume —  and can be measured or verified — soft skills aren’t so easy to assess.

If you want to know if a candidate seems to fit well in a flexible environment, you can’t ask about that directly. How many candidates would honestly answer that they’re not flexible?

And let’s get real. I can’t think of any candidates who would want to make sure you know upfront that they’re not collaborative team players, strategic thinkers, or aspire to leadership.

But with an indirect approach — asking for stories — you can glean a lot.

Let’s say you’re screening for collaboration. You might ask a candidate to tell you about a time when they worked with a difficult colleague, what challenges emerged from that experience, and how the candidate handled those challenges.

You can ask about other attributes in similar ways. For example:

  • Time management: “Tell me about a time when you had to juggle more projects than usual. How did you organize your time?”
  • Flexibility: “Can you give me an example of a project that required learning about something new? How did you approach learning about these issues? What were the results like?”
  • Leadership potential: “Was there a time when you had an issue to resolve with another team, but your manager was unavailable? How did you handle that situation?”

I think you get my point. Asking for stories allows you to see if candidates understand what you’re asking and demonstrate how they apply soft skills in real-life scenarios. You can also probe for additional details as candidates tell their stories.

Ask for more stories from others

In his article, “12 Effective Ways to Assess Candidates’ Soft Skills,” Dr. John Sullivan suggests that soft skills are “arguably the most difficult to assess in a candidate” — but that candidates may already expect to be asked for stories like these and prepare in advance.

The solution? Go beyond the candidate. You can gain insights by asking for similar stories from references or current employees at your company who already know the candidate.

And you may even consider creating a few scenarios of your own – asking candidates how they might approach specific situations that call for collaboration, leadership, flexibility, and other such attributes.

Given that Dr. Sullivan suggests that about 25 percent of an employee’s success can depend on these soft skills, it’s important that you assess them well.

So ask for some stories. Talented candidates will tell some really good ones — and you may all end up living happily ever after!


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