Yes, you need to hire people who have or can learn the required technical skills. But no, that doesn’t mean you can ignore soft skills in your hiring.
Every day in our work, the stories managers tell us about good hires gone bad (and bad hires gone worse), are almost always stories about failures in the soft skills, not the hard skills. Nine times out of 10, an unsuccessful hire fails due to soft skills, not hard. Never forget, one very good hire is much better than three or four or five mediocre hires.
How can you build in soft skills criteria systematically in every aspect of your staffing strategy and hiring process?
Step 1. For every position, build a profile and job description that includes not just the key hard skills for that role, but also the key soft skills. Once you identify the high-priority soft skill behaviors for each position, name them yourself. Describe them in detail. Build those criteria into the basic job requirements in no uncertain terms from the very outset. Be prepared to turn away candidates who do not meet these soft skill criteria just as you would turn away candidates without the necessary hard skills. Or else, if you are forced to hire people without the required soft skills, make sure you have a plan in place to address those soft skill gaps from the first day of employment.
Step 2. Look for talent from sources well known for the strong soft skills you need. This is why so many employers want to hire those who have served in the military: You can be sure that they will display respect for authority, willingness to wear a uniform, excellent manners, timeliness, consistency, follow-through, teamwork, and initiative. The same goes for anybody who makes it to Eagle Scout. What schools, employers or organizations do you know where members or alumni are likely to have stronger soft skills in the areas that matter the most to you? Maybe it is the Peace Corps, or a non-governmental organization, a club or a church or an athletic team; maybe you are looking for someone who has run a marathon or been a camp counselor or a school teacher or volunteered in a soup kitchen.
Step 3. Include your high-priority soft skills behaviors in your employer branding and recruitment campaign messaging. That’s why it’s so important to name your high-priority soft skills — to have meaningful slogans to capture them. Of course, there is always the iconic “The few, the proud, the Marines” as an example. That message is a signal to applicants that this job is going to be very demanding of them on a very deep level. Your recruitment message says a lot about how you see yourself as an employer. You want to draw applicants who are looking for a job where they can learn and grow and build themselves up.
Step 4. Build a selection process that places a heavy emphasis on high-priority soft skills. Here’s a short-cut: Scare away young job candidates who only think they are serious by shining a bright light on all the downsides of the job. Whatever the worst, most difficult aspects of the job may be, start your selection process with vivid descriptions of those downsides. Then see which candidates are still interested in the job. They are the ones worth testing and interviewing.
We recommend using research-validated testing wherever possible to get a quick baseline reading of an applicant’s aptitude in key areas of the job, including high-priority soft skills. Whatever test you settle on, just make sure you can implement and evaluate it with relative speed. And make sure you know in advance exactly what you are looking for.
When it comes to interviewing, the best practice is still the simple model of behavioral interviewing. Behavioral interviewing simply means asking applicants to tell you a story and then listening carefully to their story. When you are doing behavioral interviewing, make sure to ask applicants not only about their use of hard skills, but also their use of soft skills: “Tell me a story about a time you solved a problem at work,” or, “Tell me a story about a conflict you had with another employee at work. How did you solve it?”
Finally, consider one last stage of selection. We call it “the realistic job preview.” This might be a probationary hiring period, or a pre-real-job internship, during which you can try out the prospective employee and the prospective employee can try out the job. Make sure to assign real tasks that mirror the actual tasks, responsibilities and projects they will be asked to do if they accept the job.
Bruce Tulgan is the founder of Rainmaker Thinking. This article is adapted from his latest book, Bridging the Soft Skills Gap: How to Teach the Missing Basics to Today’s Young Talent, due out in September.
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