How to Hire People with “Soft Skills”

A recent Wall Street Journal article discussed how hard it is to find people with “soft skills” like critical thinking, communication skills, and creativity, and recounts the lengths some companies go to find the right people. Despite high unemployment, and scores of candidates applying for open jobs, these companies can’t seem to get what they’re looking for.

It’s probably because they’re not doing their hiring correctly.

Companies don’t define the “soft skills” they want

The LinkedIn study cited by the WSJ article listed several key soft skills: communication, organization, capacity for teamwork, punctuality, critical thinking, social savvy, creativity, and adaptability. Now, go ahead and define each one of those fuzzy terms in clear and measureable ways (here’s some help for “creativity”). When you’re done banging your head against the wall trying to do it, you’ll understand that the problem is not lack of talent, but defining the conception of it. When I consult for companies on their hiring processes, one of the most important discussions I have with the client is about creating a clear conception of the role and the candidate to fit it.

By now, you’ve probably claimed in your head that at least “punctuality” is easy to define, but the reality is that the skill of punctuality actually has little to do with showing up at the appointed time or meeting a deadline. It is much more about prioritizing obligations, balancing time conflicts, budgeting and allocating time across projects and conflicting demands, and knowing when deadlines (including times for showing up to something) are soft or hard.

As you begin to unpack the terms, you start to see what it is you really want your employees to do, and perhaps also the experiences and history that you want them to show you in their resumes, cover letters, and interviews. Why not put these unpacked buzzwords in the job description so that people can know how to prove that they fit? For instance, not all communications skills are created equal. In some companies, diplomacy is critical, but it doesn’t really matter how well you write. In others, you need phone skills — the ability to understand/exchange ideas verbally without using body language. In still others, you need to have a good handshake and a clean self-presentation because you won’t be doing much talking but you need to look like competent staff.

Companies have broken hiring processes

One of the most surprising reasons that companies can’t find what they are looking for is because their search process is full of bugs. I have discussed this issue extensively in the past, but here’s a recap of how to do good hiring:

  1. Your company should always be hiring with a wide-angle lens to look for talent
  2. Define your conception of “talent” before you start the search
  3. Treat your applicants properly
  4. Make sure your company and management are ready for good hires
  5. Use your network to find good candidates (for lower-level positions, ask a college professor!)
  6. Include the roles, metaskills, and deliverables in the job description.

Companies have too shallow of a talent pool

Companies tend to concentrate their hiring in only a few places, and that means large swathes of candidates are being glossed over and/or ignored. Several years of teaching in the inner-city have shown me how easily minorities and people from lower socioeconomic statuses are ignored in the job market even when they are among some of the most talented people around. Advising my students on getting jobs, I have seen that companies restrict the times that they are hiring, the boards on which they post jobs, and the sliver of the general public to which they brand and market themselves. If you want the best for your company, you need to widen your reach/exposure and recognize that many of the best candidates for a given position may not be ready-made hires.

Ultimately, most hiring processes are trading depth for expediency, and that costs the company in terms of finding top talent and enhancing diversity. Engaging in courteous hiring practices, providing sufficient training and onboarding, and providing a detailed analysis of the role the candidates will fill all take a lot of time and effort on the front end. But, the rewards for having a solid, diverse talent pool with all of the needed skills (hard and soft!) is more than worth it.

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Self-actualization engineer who makes workplaces great places to work. PI at Quality of Life Lab (www.qllab.org). Consultant. Professor. Startup Advisor.

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Orin Davis

Self-actualization engineer who makes workplaces great places to work. PI at Quality of Life Lab (www.qllab.org). Consultant. Professor. Startup Advisor.