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Are ‘Soft Skills’ in Short Supply or Do You Need to UP Your Game?

Scott Allen
Published October 5, 2016


Recently a survey was conducted by the Wall Street Journal where nearly 900 executives were polled.  An overwhelming 92% of those executives said that soft skills were equally important or more important than technical skills.  In fact the same WSJ survey found that “89% of 900 executives said they have a very or somewhat difficult time finding people with the requisite attributes. Many say it’s a problem spanning age groups and experience levels.”

It’s not just that it’s hard to find people with the required soft skills, it’s very challenging to accurately determine a candidate’s soft skills using common HR methods.  To see why let’s consider how the soft skills or inherent talents of prospective candidates are typically teased out.

Spoiler alert: You should be using a forced choice pre-employment assessment.

Let’s start by considering the flow of a typical hiring process.  It usually goes something like this:

  1. HR staff, Hiring Managers, and Top Performers determine the requirements for the position. This involves identifying the soft and technical skills that a candidate will need to be successful in a position.
  2. That collection of skills often called a Job Competency profile, is translated into a Job Posting.  This posting is then distributed to job boards.
  3. A lot of Job Seekers find the job posting and then craft a resume and cover letter that’s tailored specifically to include all of the technical and soft skill buzzwords found in the posting. You see applicants know that many employers are using Applicant Tracking Systems (or HR staff directly) to preemptively reject applications when required buzzwords aren’t found. So what do candidates do? They make sure those buzzwords are there or at least as many they can without bending the truth, too much.
  4. The big pile of applications that are stuffed with the appropriate number and frequency of buzzwords finally reaches the overwhelmed HR staff.  Given the stuffing that went on, wouldn’t you know everyone purports to be a perfect match!  All the applicants played the game so they all state that they have the required technical skills and soft skills.  Now, what?  This is the HR dilemma!

When the pool of applicants all say they have the required soft skills, what are Hiring Managers to do?  The classic method for screening these individuals, as suggested in a recent article from Inc, is to ask the candidates very pointed questions during the interview.

But let’s slow the roll on that idea.  There are two major challenges with relying on interview questions to thin the soft skill herd:

  1. It won’t help you quickly wade through that massive, homogeneous pile of applications. Instead, you end up spending a lot of time sorting through every applicant and not focusing on the top subset.
  2. It’s pretty easy for a polished Job Seeker to just tell you what you want to hear.

Given that you weren’t able to thin the herd early in the process, you either have to do some sort of ad hoc thinning or interview them all.  If you thin, you’re bound to inadvertently lose some top candidates.  If you interview them all, you’ll become delirious.  In either case, your chance of making an optimal or near optimal hire is slim to none.

You’ll be so tired from interviewing so many candidates that they’ll all just blend together.  At this point, you’re going to have to rely on your gut or some rough scoring rubric to pick one of the candidates.  Maybe Sally was super polished in the interview and managed to nail those interview questions.  She seems great! But she nailed the questions because she studied up on common interview questions and given that her responses revealed nothing about her true personality.  Well, you’re tired, so congratulations Sally, you’ve got the job!

The sad truth is you won’t really know if Sally is a good fit until she’s been on the job for a few months because that’s when she’ll show her true personality traits (soft skills).  For the purposes of this parable, it turns out that Sally is the worst and she’s bringing both her team and the company down.  You made a bad hire because you lacked personality metrics on your candidates.  Now you’ve got to correct this bad hiring decision and it has and will continue to cost your organization dearly both in team morale and money.

As it happens Jane, who was a bit nervous during her interview, was a perfect match for your position.  She didn’t have the polish of Sally in the interview but day to day in the job she would have crushed it.  She works at your competitor now.

And, how did that competitor find Jane?  They used a pre-employment assessment to thin that soft skill herd and only interview the strongest matches to the positions Job Competency profile.  Though Jane was nervous in her interview her match scores were through the roof so a bit of interview day jitters was easily overlooked by your competitor.

The conclusion is that Plum’s pre-employment assessment exists specifically to identify the soft skills of prospective candidates so that you can spend your time interviewing only those candidates that best match the Job Competency profile for the open position.  Finding the candidate with the right soft skills for the position is extremely important, as the executives in the WSJ survey pointed out.  But, do you remember that the polled executives also said they “have a very or somewhat difficult time finding people with the requisite (soft skill) attributes”?  That’s because they aren’t using pre-employment assessments to identify a candidate’s soft skills and instead, at best, are using old inefficient and gameable interview techniques.

Don’t suffer like them.  Power your soft skill search with Plum and make great hires!

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