Soft Skills and How to Assess Them
Assessing a candidate’s professional or ‘hard’ skill proficiency, such as technical skills, Active Directory or SQL, etc, is pretty straight forward, especially if the interviewer is experienced in the same thing. However, digging deeper into how a person ticks as a human being can be tricky for most managers if unprepared…
The concepts behind the modern terms ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills are far from new. In fact, for as long as people have been employing other people, soft skills, such as social ability, aptitude, behaviour and ethics, have always been key considerations alongside practical, hard skills. In relatively recent years, as recruiting practices and processes have become more sophisticated, skills have been categorised in various ways to help employers devise more effective methods of assessment.
However, according to an extensive survey conducted by LinkedIn, over 60% of recruiting managers agreed that exploring soft skills in an interview is difficult. In our experience as IT recruiters, the majority of clients state early on what soft skills they need, however, few seem to have robust strategies in place to assess beyond the core, hard skill requirements, acting largely on gut feeling and assumption.
Furthermore, in the post COVID-19 world, soft skill assessment during remote interviewing is proving especially difficult for many clients. Several managers have recently reported to us at Langley James IT Recruitment, an extra level of disconnect while interviewing online, perhaps stemming from reduced body language opportunities.
In this blog, we will explore the nature of hard and soft skills along with useful ideas, tips and advice on how to gain better soft skill insight from your next interview, significantly raising your chances of recruiting success.
What is the difference between a soft skill and a hard skill?
Put simply, a hard skill is a practical, measurable ability that can be learned by a person irrespective of their character traits and cognitive talent. The overwhelming majority of IT Recruitment job descriptions are dominated by hard skill requirements. Candidates in the IT sector are often judged almost exclusively on their hard skills such as programming languages, operating software experience, infrastructure implementation, etc.
Soft skills, on the other hand, are orientated around human characteristics. For example, problem-solving, emotional intelligence, communication, crisis management, etc. As such, these skills are far harder to investigate during a short interview and can be easily misjudged or misinterpreted.
Before creating lists of criteria and questions, start at the very beginning by asking this question:
“What soft skills do I need candidates to demonstrate for this vacancy, and to work with me, my team, and my company?”
It is important to consider the whole picture including your company’s culture, values, standards and style in addition to your own departmental and personal staff expectations. When these elements are bolted to the list of soft skills required for the vacancy itself, you should be left with a comprehensive list.
Now we have a good idea of what soft skills need to be investigated, separate your list and look for opportunities to merge. For example, culture fit questions may encompass the company, the department and your own needs that perhaps can be amalgamated.
Next, identify any categories that may require deeper investigation, for example ‘leadership’ might include motivation, teamwork, delegation, etc, as subheadings.
It is important not to lose sight of context, especially when looking into soft skills with broad terms such as communication. After all, someone’s communication skills may vary greatly depending on the scenario from delegating to a subordinate to presenting to a board of directors.
Keep in mind that unless you intend to interview someone for hours, you will have limited time. This means prioritising essential soft skills, with a view to perhaps further explore the remainder in the next stages.
Here is an example of how to apply this method:
An IT Manager working for a reputable legal firm is looking to recruit a 2nd Line IT Engineer to support the company’s 300 users, ranging from admin staff right up to board level. In no time at all, the manager identifies a range of hard skill requirements including windows, Microsoft Office 365, Azure, etc.
However, historically IT staff have struggled to inspire confidence with several senior people, one being the CEO. The IT Manager really wants the new IT engineer to be a great communicator with strong rapport-building skills, capable of managing user expectations and solving problems without baffling people with technical jargon. Furthermore, she wants the IT Engineer to be experienced enough to mentor junior members of the team and share their wisdom in how to get the best from stakeholder management.
The IT Manager creates a list of soft skills she would like to explore during an interview:
- Relationship building
- Culture fit
- Organisation including how to prioritise
Someone once said “the answers we get are only as good as the questions we ask” which in the case of soft skill exploration could not be more correct. To properly explore a candidate’s soft skill, exclusively ask open-ended questions to encourage full and complete answers and be interested in conversationally exploring their answers. (click here to learn more about open questions and demands) *
The two main soft skill question types are behavioural and situational. a behavioural interview question explores the person’s experience such as, “tell me about a time when you successfully overcame a difficult relationship…” Whereas, a situational interview question is a strictly hypothetical question. For example, “imagine you’re under a desk fixing a cabling issue when a director calls because they can’t remember their password, what would you do?”
The great thing about soft skills is that they apply to all aspects of life. How a person might support a loved one at a time of crisis, how a person might react to personal bad news while at work, how a person might feel if a colleague were promoted above them etc. All of this will give you useful insight into how a person engages with the world and other people. So, be creative with your questions and don’t feel restricted to situations and behaviours found only in the workplace.
- How do you explain complex IT solutions to non-technical people? Give an example where you failed to achieve that and what was the outcome
- What did you learn?
- Tell me about an occasion where your manager or colleague fundamentally disagreed with your opinion or chosen course of action.
- How did that make you feel?
- What was the outcome
- Describe a complex project you were involved in dealing with multiple stakeholders. How did you keep everyone happy and engaged?
- Give me examples of personalities you’ve encountered supporting IT at the senior level.
- Describe the problems you encountered with them.
- What solutions did you come up with?
- What was the outcome?
- Tell me about a time when you’ve needed to make a good impression and how did you do it?
- How did that make you feel?
- When supporting 300 users, pleasing everyone is hard. How do ensure people are happy with your service delivery?
- What would you do if a senior ranking member of staff shouted at you down the phone because their computer was failing to perform?
- Tell me about your relationships with colleagues in your last job
- Give me an example of a time when you had to inspire others to achieve a common goal
- Ask for examples every time. Understanding context is critical in assessing experience suitability. Follow up with gentle demands for more information such a “tell me more about… ” or “elaborate on…”
- Explore the candidate’s soft skills before discussing the company brand and your own values etc. You don’t want to give them the answers before you ask!
- Try and keep this section of the interview conversational in an effort to draw out the candidates true personality.
- Try sharing some of your own anecdotal tales to give the candidate confidence in giving less guarded answers.
- If you don’t get the answer you expect, be mindful but the candidate may not have understood the question correctly. Consider asking the same question in a different way.
- Try partnering hard and soft questioning by asking follow up questions. That way the interview will less disjointed, more conversational, and directly related how a person felt or behaved at the time. For example, while exploring Excel skill, ask for an example of a project involving Excel and perhaps explore decisions made along the way, people they worked with, decisions made above, how they communicated problems, etc
- Don’t restrict yourself to the job requirements. Gain valuable insight in to their way of thinking by asking questions surrounding their hobbies, interests and personal life.
Soft skill questioning is no different to asking anything else in the interview process. A well thought out set of requirements coupled with deliberately prepared questions will set you on the right track for gaining that elusive insight.
Questions can be reused as a future interviews but we would recommend that Recruiters draft up a fresh set of questions for every role. Experiment with your questions and style to figure out what works for you. As described in our previous blog on ‘candidate pre-employment testing’, there are software solutions designed to yield soft skill insight however in our experience, person to person, relatable questioning and conversation yields better, more convincing results. All it takes is the confidence to try.
If the majority of your recruitment interviewing is done online, you might feeling a lack of body language assessment is holding you back from identifying softskills however, as demonstrated in this blog, you need not rely on body language and gut feel to explore these key vacancy requirements.