Hiring for Soft Skills is Not as Hard as You Think

Posted by Alissa Parr in SelectInternational blog

When you are interested in assessing the abilities of your staff, an almost knee-jerk reaction is to ask whether they have the expertise in that area.  Do they have the knowledge to perform effectively in that position?  For example, I would like to know whether my accountant passed her CPA exam and knows the ins and outs of the procedures so she can give me the best advice for filing my taxes.  Similarly, when I visit doctors, I want to make sure they passed the boards thereby demonstrating their competence in practicing medicine.  However, this is only a piece of the equation.  Just because they have the knowledge and competence, doesn’t necessarily mean they will be effective.  It’s critical that we broaden our assessment to another form of skills.
As measurement experts, we tend to differentiate between “hard” skills and “soft” skills.  Hard skills are the technical skills that someone might gain through an education or apprenticeship.  Hard skills encompass the declarative and procedural knowledge important for a position.  For example, does my doctor know what would indicate high blood pressure?  Does my doctor know how to measure my blood pressure?  These hard skills seem quite objective and easy to measure.
On the other hand, soft skills are attributes of individuals.  They provide an indication of how individuals will tend to behave and interact with others.  For example, can my doctor communicate technical medical jargon to me in a way I will understand?  Does my doctor have good “bedside” manner?  These soft skills seem more abstract.  Things that are abstract often come with a reputation of being ambiguous, difficult to define, and even harder to measure.  However, that’s not the case!
With a little work, soft skills can be easily measured with a great deal of accuracy.  As measurement experts, we start by determining the skill that we want to assess.  Then, we “operationalize” that skill.  Operationalize is essentially a fancy term for defining that skill and linking that skill to a set of behaviors.  If we were to operationalize the skill oral communication, we might define it by the following behaviors:
•    Clearly  and succinctly conveys a message to others
•    Speaks in a tone of voice that is appropriate for the audience and situation
•    Uses appropriate grammar and sentence structure
After defining a core set of behaviors, we can more easily assess how effective individuals demonstrate those behaviors, or that soft skill.  We’ve taken that soft skill from an abstract concept to something which we can now see through behaviors.  Not so scary any more, right?
Soft skills can be measured in multiple ways—through personality assessments, interviews, work samples, etc.  However, the most important element is that you accurately link that skill with behaviors associated with that skill.  So, next time someone asks whether you’ve thought about measuring the soft skills of an individual, don’t shy away.  Measuring those soft skills is not as hard as you think!