Employers often say that, given the chance between hiring a technologically skilled recruit with lousy people skills and a technology novice with a great attitude, they’ll take the greenhorn every time. Why? Because it’s easier to teach technical skills than it is to teach attitude. And `“attitude” is the underlying trait for several key “soft skills,” those personal attributes that enable people to work effectively and harmoniously with others.
By contrast, “hard” skills are teachable, often technical, abilities that can be measured and are specific to narrowly defined tasks. Think accounting, writing code in Python or SQL, fluency in Arabic, video editing with Adobe Premiere.
But what are the key soft skills employers want? And can they even be assessed?
Some disciplines, such as nursing, include enthusiasm and networking. One writer on Forbes.com ranked communication, competitiveness, teamwork, and problem solving as the top four skills needed by any employee.
In its 2017 Global Human Capital Trends report, Deloitte noted that today’s new businesses require new skills, so organizations must look at “leadership, structures, diversity, technology, and the overall employee experience in new and exciting ways” (5). Three of those skills—leadership, diversity, and technology—are among the most frequently cited core competencies.
But the set of eight competencies defined by the National Association of Colleges and Employers is perhaps the most widely-held standard for soft skills considered essential to career preparedness, the skills that employers and candidates should care about most:
- Critical Thinking/Problem Solving
- Oral/Written Communications
- Digital Technology
- Professionalism/Work Ethic
- Career Management
- Global/Intercultural Fluency
Deloitte further says that structured careers are going away, with 65 percent of companies using “open” and “flexible” career models. This arguably calls for greater need of professionalism, diversity, communication, and perhaps especially adaptability. Soft skills are foundational.
Millennials are sometimes said to be especially in need of developing soft skills. Among these, Forbes named, in an article last year, critical thinking, communication, curiosity and creativity, responsibility and conflict management. In another article, Forbes ranked curiosity and commitment as more valuable than a college degree, adding to the list agility (another way of saying adaptability), and humility.
One reason that soft skills are so critical is that they are transferable to any endeavor, any work setting. The great problem, however, is that soft skills are notoriously difficult to identify in traditional interview processes. Figuring out how to assess them is a mind bender.
In traditional interviews, employers typically employ behavioral questions: Tell me a time when you successfully did this or that. . . . Describe a professional challenge and how you approached it. Such approaches remain in common use despite lively debates about whether they’re at all effective. That’s because candidates prepare for such interviews, they learn the most common questions and learn to act the necessary part just for the interviewers.
Fully 83 percent of 9,000 recruiters in 39 countries surveyed by LinkedIn earlier this year reported that behavioral questions are “somewhat or very effective” overall. However, 63 percent of those same recruiters said that the biggest problem with such an interview approach is its inability to identify soft skills.
What’s an employer to do?
If your organization has the resources to put finalist candidates through test runs that simulate actual work situations, presentations, or group exercises, that certainly helps. But that requires a highly structured process framed by very well-defined metrics.
Job-fit tests are another option. These are tests in which candidates are asked to what degree they agree or disagree with attitude-testing statements such as “I am aware when other people are upset” and “I prefer working with others than working by myself.”
Then there are the many, traditional assessment tools.
Assessing soft skills, softly
Personality assessments, sometimes called psychometric tests, have long been a hiring managers’ Holy Grail. They makes them big business too. One benefit of personality assessments is that they tend to be inexpensive, often in the $30 range per candidate. Here are some of the most well-known assessments available today:
- Caliper Profile measures personality traits—from assertiveness to thoroughness—that relate to key skills needed on the job, such as leadership ability and time management.
- Clifton StrengthsTM (formerly Clifton StrengthsFinder) is based on research into positive psychology and attempts to identify which strengths individuals naturally possess and may capitalize upon in order to succeed in life. Its underlying theory is that focusing on improving one’s weaknesses may prevent failure, but studying one’s strengths promotes success.
- Criteria Corp’s Employee Personality Profile is used for gauging a candidate’s personality for any position, on the basis of how well they interact with various elements of the workplace (colleagues, clients, management etc) as well as their work style.
- The DiSC profile identifies four different behavior traits namely dominance (D), inducement (I), submission (S), and compliance (C). The results generated by this personality test help to better understand the temperament and interpersonal relations of the candidates.
- The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator(R) is among the most ubiquitous assessments ever developed. Its results help people understand how they relate to others and how to make practical use of that knowledge. The tool assesses people in terms of four types:
- Extrovert or Introvert – how they interact with others
- Sensing or Intuition – how they access information
- Thinking or Feeling – how they make decisions
- Judging or Perceiving – how they deal with the world
- Many other assessments exist for every imaginable perspective.
The Economist some years back pointed out, however, that some personality assessments can be easy to game. That’s because the desired answers are usually obvious, and firms end up selecting the people who already know the “correct” answers. “This would be fine for a calculus test,” the Economist says, “but not for one that purports to measure personality.”
More innovative interview techniques have been proposed to assess candidates’ soft skills. Dr. John Sullivan includes an even dozen smart techniques that include having candidates’ soft skills ranked by coworkers or their references; having candidates force-rank their own skill set, and having candidates identify omissions or problems in a current process belonging to the hiring organization. Great ideas, but susceptible to unconscious bias.
The LinkedIn study referenced above identifies five of the most useful interviewing innovations, listed here in the order in which they were ranked by percentage of employers surveyed:
- Soft-skills assessments (59 percent)
- Job auditions (54 percent)
- Meeting in casual settings (53 percent)
- Virtual-reality assessments (28 percent)
- Video interviews (18 percent)
In addition to allowing recruiters to interview candidates from far-off and remote locations, Lewis says, “Video interviews are particularly useful for roles where communication and presentation are crucial.” Companies like HireVue leverage the predictive power of AI to identify top candidates, shorten hiring time, and improve applicant’s experience.
The use of asynchronous video interviews is widening every day but are preferential to particular soft skills. Recent research‡ into this format indicates that communication skills and problem-solving skills are “the best predictors of overall candidate rating.”
But the most useful of these—assessing soft skills—remains the most difficult to do.
From automation to prediction
Technology applied to soft-skills assessment is morphing at an astonishing rate. Automation, for example, is revolutionizing the search process, as Gregory Lewis points out in a LinkedIn Talent Blog:
- AI voice filtering: “More recruiters are relying on algorithms and artificial intelligence to filter out candidates based on their voice,” Lewis writes. “One speech analysis tool by Precire Technologies decodes half a million aspects of speech to predict personality, behavior, and communication skills. A similar tool from Jobalign analyzes candidates’ voices and rates how engaging, calming, and trustworthy it is.
- Chatbots: AI-enabled chatbots like Mya and Job Pal can do everything from sourcing, to screening, to scheduling interviews.
- Automated reference checking: Checking references by phone is so 1990s. Lewis points out that new solutions like SkillSurvey’s Pre-Hire 360 and Checkster automate reference checking and store the results in centralized locations for employers to review.
According to a new report form Grand View Research, “Technological proliferation in the field of big data analytics, machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI), and Internet of Things (IoT) is expected to positively impact the global market for human resource management, which is projected to attain $30 billion by 2025.”
Already optimizing every tech ecosystem including IT, telecommunication, retail, healthcare, government, and banking, predictive analytics in particular leverages AI and Big Data to identify future risk and opportunity. Zion Market Research projects the predictive-analytics market to reach $10.95 billion by 2022.
In the HR tech space, a subset of predictive analytics is also known as people analytics or predictive hiring. Deloitte Insights’ 2017 Global Human Capital Trends report described people analytics as formerly a technical discipline that is now a business discipline, with talent acquisition among its most important points of focus.
The predictive-hiring company Koru defines predictive hiring this way:
“Predictive analytics for hiring uses modern data and assessment science to project candidates’ future success based on patterns among current employees. Instead of traditional hiring, which relies on six-second resume screens and intuition-based interviews, predictive hiring relies on richer sets of data and smart algorithms to recommend best-fit candidates to recruiters and hiring managers. In the same way that your Netflix recommendation feed surfaces movies that you are more likely to like, predictive hiring surfaces candidates who are more likely to be a good fit.”
PredictiveHire is a cloud-based Saas analytics solution designed to increase the speed and quality of hiring while reducing bias in the hiring process. Their predictive model is based on KPIs supplied by client companies so that performance predictions are tightly customized to individual organizations’ needs, not to those of any industry at large.
Talview offers a cognitive video-interviewing platform and assessments across the employment spectrum, from talent acquisition to training. Their Talview Talent Quadrant plots candidates based on their performance making it extremely objective. Talview also utilizes gamification to make talent acquisition interactive and enjoyable for users.
Forward-looking organizations acknowledge the value of simulations, gamification, and other TA tech. But remarkably few are taking advantage of these technologies still. According to Deloitte Insights, “Just 6 percent of surveyed global business leaders say their company is excellent at using gaming and simulations to attract and assess potential candidates, and 71 percent of respondents rate their company as weak.”
And when it comes to identifying candidates’ soft skills, the lag in adopting appropriate technologies seems resistant to change. A survey published this year by SparkHire showed that over 40 percent of employers surveyed said that work experience is most important when hiring during a period of rapid growth. Yet only 11 percent of them focus on soft skills.
Clearly soft-skills assessment is an issue deserving of attention from businesses, particularly those attempting to scale.
tekMountain, a thought leader in innovative HR tech, advocates for bold action to help your organization scale to its next level of efficiency, productivity and agility. We stand ready to consult with entrepreneurs seeking appropriate, future-leaning technologies that will secure their organization’s ascent.
‡ Edwin N.Torres, and Amy Gregory (Sep. 2018). “Hiring manager’s evaluations of asynchronous video interviews: The role of candidate competencies, aesthetics, and resume placement.” International Journal of Hospitality Management, vol 75, pp. 86-93.