There’s tons of advice on how to evaluate soft skills at each stage of the hiring process. But, let’s take a step back for a moment, from the ‘how’ to the ‘what’: out of the dozens of soft skills and personality traits in existence, which exactly are the qualities of a good employee and candidate you should always look for?
Knowing these important qualities to look for in an employee means you have better chances of hiring the best people and avoiding the scary costs of making a bad hire.
So, we narrowed down the list to five critical job candidate qualities:
- Willingness to learn
- Culture fit
This doesn’t imply that you should evaluate only these skills and nothing else. But these are traits you should evaluate no matter the role you’re hiring for. Here’s why:
Most jobs require a degree of collaboration with other people – and sometimes managing others, as well. Even work that’s often seen as lonely, such as accounting or software development, may involve considerable input from other people. So unless you’re hiring for a truck driver or a night guard at a museum (which is an awesome job, by the way), you need people who are able to collaborate well with others.
2. Willingness to learn
Life-long learning is a must nowadays – new technology and knowledge come out all the time, and organizations and systems change. Whoever doesn’t learn risks staying behind, no matter their accumulated knowledge or position. A willingness, and ultimately, an ability to learn are very important qualities of a good employee – not just for learning new hard skills, but also for growing as a professional and as a person. The concept of adaptability is also one of the qualities of a good employee and candidate associated with willingness to learn.
Being skilled in communication doesn’t mean you have to be great with words or even really sophisticated and eloquent (although this helps). You need to be able to clearly get your message across, in verbal or written speech, and be able to grasp other people’s meaning (particularly through asking the right questions). Having issues with this can drastically impact job performance.
This trait is sometimes used by companies as a euphemism for “I won’t ask for a higher salary and will work long hours without complaining”. But that’s not what this skill is about (needless to say, you should always pay people a living wage and avoid overworking them). Self-motivation is about liking what you do enough to want to do a good job regardless of the external reward. Self-motivation can also be called “passion” – though this term might be a bit over the top.
5. Culture fit
The exact meaning of “culture fit” changes with every organization. But it’s not as simple as being about who you want to have lunch or an after-work drink with; it’s much more about who understands and embraces the workplace and mode of work, from the open-space layout to the dress code. Culture fit might even change among different teams. It’s a good idea to sit down with your team members and discuss about what constitutes culture fit for your team and narrow it down to specific traits or values.
How do you evaluate these qualities of a good employee?
Now it’s time to think about the ‘how’, so let’s go through an example together: Think about the role you’re hiring for most often – be it software developer, sales associate, customer support specialist or other. As our example, we choose the generic role of “software developer”.
Let’s say you have three candidates to interview: Sam, Cassandra, and Joe. Let’s meet our hypothetical candidates:
He’s an experienced developer with a background in machine learning. He’s polite and confident in his knowledge.
She’s a mid-level developer who’s currently working towards an MSc in machine learning and data science. She’s assertive and sharp.
He’s a mid-level developer who wants to try his hand in machine learning. He’s curious and easy-going.
By these basic descriptions, all of those candidates seem like a good fit for the role. And they might be. Now, we’ll evaluate them against the five critical qualities of a good employee and candidate using a conspicuous but effective tool: interview questions.
Can you tell me more about this project you worked on? Did you encounter any difficulties and how did you solve them?
I was the leader of this project and organized the whole workflow from start to finish. My team was slow to grasp requirements but, after a few meetings I organized, everything went well. In the end, I completed the project ahead of time and presented the final solution to the CEO herself – which she liked very much.
I worked on this project when I first arrived at the company, so it helped me get to know my colleagues better. I liked the frequent stand-ups and the fact we were all free to ask for help from one another. Personally, I believe I did a great job and had no difficulties to speak of.
In this project, we were a team of five which was the largest team I’ve ever worked in. We had frequent meetings and worked in pairs with our leader checking in with us every week. We had some organizational issues at the beginning, but after we implemented a structured agenda in our daily standups, we clarified things and got on faster.
In this question, the best answer comes from Joe in terms of teamwork skills. He uses the pronoun “we” instead of “I” and speaks about his “team” instead of his own contribution. Cassandra clearly values collaboration, but she displays less team spirit than Joe. Sam speaks about his own work and doesn’t recognize his team members (he actually hints on having problems with them) – this is a big red flag because he was the leader of the project.
Here’s more information about effective teamwork interview questions and potential red flags.
Willingness to learn
Tell me about a time you received negative feedback on a specific area of your work.
One of my managers once told me that my code had a lot of unnecessary lines and was tough to read. I immediately asked him to have a meeting with me and show me how I can do this differently. We spent a lot of time going over my code and I was able to quickly improve my skills.
My former manager told me that I needed to work faster to meet deadlines. I recognized this as a problem with my organizational skills – at that point, we were working on several projects at once and I had a hard time juggling everything. So, I sat down to sort out everything, created a to-do list that I felt comfortable with and asked for relevant training. I swore to myself that I’d never miss a deadline again.
My first manager had given me a list of things I had to do to learn to write better code. I was a junior then, so I worked really hard to do everything he told me, so I could grow to be a developer who didn’t need any feedback.
All three candidates gave satisfying answers in this question, but there were notable differences. Joe gave the least well-thought-out answer because he’s implying that the more senior he gets, the less likely he is to expect feedback, which doesn’t bode well for his willingness to keep learning – it’s possible he lacks one of the qualities of a good employee and candidate. Sam and Cassandra both described the feedback they received with more details, which could mean they took it very seriously. Cassandra displays a slightly stronger drive to improve.
Your manager asks you to present the plan for a new voice recognition app to a group of prospective customers from different departments (e.g. software development, finance, marketing). How do you structure your presentation?
I would try to steer clear of technical lingo in my presentation. I would present the idea for the app first and then go into details about how it works without getting too technical. Probably, I would also gather relevant data that people from finance or marketing would like to see. Another thing I’d do is spend a lot of time preparing to answer questions, as I think this is the best way to connect with the audience.
First, I’d see if I could learn who exactly will be in the meeting. If I know their exact roles, I can better tailor my presentation. Then, I’d make sure they can grasp the idea behind the app – I’d look for a prototype I could show them or real-life similar apps. Multimedia is a great mechanism to get the message across, so I might add a relevant video or a graphic. In general, I’d keep the presentation short and to the point and I’d make sure to give the audience room for questions.
I’d ask my manager what they think this audience wants to hear and what they are interested in. Do they need the technical details or do they need an example? Do we already have an initial version of the app we can show them? And then, I would rehearse the presentation in front of a couple of my colleagues from different departments and incorporate their feedback.
All three answers look good (wouldn’t you like to always have candidates who show the qualities of a good employee so easily?). Cassandra and Joe have thoughtful ideas about presenting to their audience – and they start with the most important question: what does my audience want/need? They also talk about presenting examples, and Joe shows his collaborative spirit again by saying he’d ask for help from an audience that’s similar to the one he’s presenting to. Sam is the only one who may be assuming too much about his audience, which might signal a communication problem.
Here are more communication interview questions.
Should you be hired, what do you think you would like and dislike in this role?
Based on what you’ve told me, this role is exactly what I want to do at this point in my career. My previous role didn’t allow me to properly experiment with machine learning, but this role will. I can’t wait to learn more about your stack and your natural language processing projects and I also have this idea we can try out as a side project. The only thing that I might not like is that your teams don’t seem to use Scrum, which I’m most familiar with, but I’m sure I will quickly learn your current framework.
I really like the company and the role. I’ve heard a lot of good things about your development teams as well as your workplace. The new projects you’re working on are very relevant to my Master’s so I’ll be able to apply my knowledge on the job and learn more about the practical aspects of machine learning – and also come up with new projects. I think I could be quite happy here.
I like that the job involves machine learning, which is something I always wanted to learn more about. The experience I will get in this role will help me a lot in this way and I think I can do a very good job. I’m also thinking of doing a Master’s in machine learning and I want to be sure that this is what I want.
Sam gave the best answer in this question; thoughtful, enthusiastic and honest. He seems to consciously want this job. Cassandra bases her initial response on external factors (the company and the teams); although, she does connect her studies to the role and says she’d like to offer new ideas, afterward. Joe’s answer was neutral and he also seems to consider this job as a stepping stone in finding what he wants to do (which could be fine, depending on individual hiring manager requirements and the seniority of the role).
What’s one thing you like about your current (or prior) job and you’d want here as well?
I liked the fact that we were having lots of fun together with my colleagues – both men and women. Some of us were good friends and still are. This makes it so much more satisfying to come to work each morning.
In my previous company, we valued both teamwork and independent working. Not a day would go by when we wouldn’t have impromptu meetings to discuss current projects and new ideas, but as soon as anybody had their headphones on or went to a meeting room, we would respect their quiet time.
I like an environment that’s structured because I work better this way. If you tell me that I need to come to work at 11 each morning, I’ll be there on time. But if you tell me to come in whenever I want, I’ll spend my nights worrying.
In this question, Sam seems to value the importance of liking the people he works with. He’s probably looking for a workplace where a sense of “community” is important. Cassandra appreciates the variety in modes of work and respecting each person’s choice. Joe likes structure, which would make him more comfortable in less-flexible workplaces.
We probably need a disclaimer here: Culture fit is one of the most subjective qualities of a good job candidate and it’s unique to each team and company. If you’re sure you know what culture fit means for your team, you’ll be able to evaluate it by looking at answers to culture fit questions as well as at each candidate as a whole.
Do you agree with our 5 qualities of a good employee?
We hope these examples gave you an idea about how to evaluate qualities to look for when hiring an employee. Do evaluate other hard and soft skills specific to the role, but these questions provide useful insights into candidates’ fit. I have a preference toward Cassandra who gave good and thoughtful answers without showing any major red flags. But that’s just me. Who would you hire?