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How to evaluate candidates' soft skills

By Mary Lorenz, CareerBuilder writer

Watch out, hard skills and technical know-how: You've got competition. According to a new CareerBuilder survey, the vast majority (77 percent) of employers consider soft skills just as important as hard skills when it comes to evaluating candidates for a job, and 16 percent even say they're more important.

What are soft skills? As my colleague pointed out recently, soft skills typically describe "communication, leadership, critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, team skills, relationship management and a long list of other so-called intangible traits." Though they are hard to measure quantitatively, soft skills remain a sought after trait and recognized business differentiator among employers.

Perhaps the heavy focus on soft skills has to do with the fact that employers have been struggling to find candidates with the hard skills they need (particularly when it comes to technology skills and big data expertise). Many employers have even reported that they've started focusing on cultural fit and potential over skills, figuring they can train them on-the-job with the necessary hard skills.

According to the survey of more than 2,000 hiring managers nationwide, the top ten most popular soft skills companies say they look for when hiring include:

1.      Strong work ethic

2.      Dependability

3.      Positive attitude

4.      Self-motivation

5.      Team-oriented attitude

6.      Organization; ability to manage multiple priorities

7.      Ability to work well under pressure

8.      Effective communication skills

9.      Flexibility

10.   Confidence

Evaluating soft skills: The one type of interview question you must ask
Whether through pre-employment testing or during the interview process, using behavioral interview questions is one of the most effective ways to evaluate a candidate's soft skills. Behavioral interview questions are those that center around real-life experiences the candidate has had, as opposed to hypotheticals. For example, instead of asking, "What would you do if...?" ask "Tell me about a time when..." or "Give me an example of..."

There are two main reasons behavioral interview questions work: One, past behavior is a better predictor of future success on the job than potential behavior, according to workforce management expert Nancy Newell, because it helps predict future success on the job by looking into past behavior; two, when they hear questions shaped around potential behavior, candidates are more likely to say what they think you want to hear.

By asking for real-life examples, you'll get more insight into candidates' soft skills, such as how well they work under pressure, how they communicate and their work ethic. Some more examples of behavioral interview questions include:

  • Describe a time when you had a problem with a supervisor and what you did to resolve it.
  • Give me an example of how you handled a very tense situation at work.
  • Tell me about a time when you had difficulty getting others to work together on a critical problem and how you handled it.
  • Tell me about the best leader you have worked with, why you felt this way, and what you learned from that person.
  • Describe a problem you faced that was almost overwhelming and how you got through it.

Keep in mind, of course, that these questions are not full-proof -- there is no "magic bullet" when it comes to hiring, says Newell -- however, behavioral interview questions are your best bet for finding employees with the soft skills your organization values most.

Mary Lorenz is a copywriter for CareerBuilder, specializing in B2B marketing and corporate recruiting best practices and social media. In addition to creating copy for corporate advertising and marketing campaigns, she researches and writes about employee attraction, engagement and retention.

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Story Filed Thursday, April 24, 2014 - 11:38 AM


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