What are soft skills?

At a minimum, employees need role-specific knowledge and abilities to perform their job duties. But, those who usually stand out as high performers need some additional qualities, such as the ability to communicate clearly, the ability to work well with others and the ability to manage their time effectively. These abilities are examples of soft skills.

While it’s difficult to come up with a universal soft skills definition, you can think of them as skills that are not tied to one specific job; they’re general characteristics that help employees thrive in the workplace, no matter their seniority level, role or industry. They’re often called transferable skills or interpersonal skills.

Here are 15 soft skills examples that are essential traits among employees:

  • Communication
  • Teamwork
  • Problem-solving
  • Time management
  • Critical thinking
  • Decision-making
  • Organizational
  • Stress management
  • Adaptability
  • Conflict management
  • Leadership
  • Creativity
  • Resourcefulness
  • Persuasion
  • Openness to criticism

Why are soft skills important?

In job ads, it’s common to include requirements such as “communication skills” or “a problem-solving attitude”. That’s because soft skills help you:

  • Identify employees who are not just able to do the job, but they’re also able to do it well.
    • Example: An employee with good time management skills knows how to prioritize tasks to meet deadlines.
  • Choose between qualified candidates who meet the typical requirements for the job.
    • Example: When two candidates have a similar academic and professional background, you’re more likely to hire the one who’s more collaborative and flexible.
  • Hire for potential; not just knowledge.
    • Example: For a junior position, it makes sense to look for candidates with a “willingness to learn” and an “adaptive personality”, as opposed to hiring an expert.
  • Make well-rounded hiring decisions.
    • Example: When hiring a salesperson, you want to find a candidate who’s familiar with the industry and has experience in sales, but is also resilient, knows how to negotiate and has excellent verbal communication abilities.
  • Evaluate candidates’ culture fit.
    • Example: If you value accountability and you want to have employees who can take initiative, it’s important to look for candidates who are not afraid to take ownership of their job, who are decisive and have a problem-solving aptitude.

How to evaluate soft skills in the workplace

Identifying and assessing soft skills in candidates is no easy feat: those qualities are often intangible and can’t be measured by simply looking at what soft skills each candidate includes in their resume. Besides, candidates will try to present themselves as positively as possible during interviews, so it’s your job to dig deeper to uncover what they can really bring to the table in terms of soft skills.

How do you assess soft skills in candidates?

1. Know what you’re looking for in potential hires beforehand and ask all candidates the same questions.

Before starting your interview process for an open role, consider what kind of soft skills are important in this role and prepare specific questions to assess those skills. This step is important for you to evaluate all candidates objectively. For example, in a sales role, good communication is key. By preparing specific questions that evaluate how candidates use their communication skills on the job, you’re more likely to find someone who can actually communicate with clients effectively, instead of hiring someone who only appears so (e.g. because they’re extroverted).

To help you out, we gathered examples of soft skills questions that test specific skills:

2. Ask behavioral questions to learn how they’ve used soft skills in previous jobs.

Past behaviors indicate how candidates behave in business settings, so they can be used as a soft skill assessment, too. For example, you can ask targeted questions to learn how candidates have resolved conflicts, how they’ve managed time-sensitive tasks or how they’ve worked in group projects.

Here are some ideas:

  • How do you prioritize work when there are multiple projects going on at the same time?
  • What happened when you disagreed with a colleague about how you should approach a project or deal with a problem at work?

Check our list of behavioral interview questions for more examples.

3. Use hypothetical scenarios, games and activities that test specific abilities.

Often, it’s useful to simulate job duties to test how candidates would approach regular tasks and challenges. That’s because each job, team and company is different, so you want to find a candidate who fits your unique environment. For example, a role-playing activity can help you assess whether salespeople have the negotiation skills you’re specifically looking for. Or, you can use a game-based exercise to identify candidates who solve problems creatively.

Here are some examples:

  • If you had two important deadlines coming up, how would you prioritize your tasks?
  • If one of your team members was underperforming, how would you give them feedback?

For more ideas on using hypothetical scenarios to evaluate candidates, take a look at our situational interview questions.

4. Pay attention to candidates’ answers and reactions during interviews

You can learn a lot about candidates’ soft skills through job-specific questions and assignments. Even if you want to primarily test candidates’ knowledge and hard skills, you can still notice strong and weak points in soft skills, too. For example, one candidate might claim to have excellent attention to detail, but if their written assignment has many typos and errors, then that’s a red flag. Likewise, when a candidate gives you clear, well-structured answers, it’s a hint they’re good communicators.

To form an objective opinion on candidates’ soft skills and abilities, make sure you take everything into consideration: from the way they interact with you during interviews to their performance on job-related tasks. This way, you’ll be more confident you select the most competent employees, but also those who fit well to your work environment.

Want more definitions? See our complete library of HR Terms.

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