How to assess soft skills in an interview

How can you tell whether a candidate who looks good ‘on paper’ will be good ‘in person’? Soft skills make all the difference. Soft skills are the personal qualities that make people easy to work with. Despite their fuzzy name, they’re critical for job performance and cultural fit.

Soft skills are hard to quantify. Candidates can only claim to possess soft skills in their resumes, soft skills can be difficult to measure in stressful group interviews and the effectiveness of personality tests is controversial.

Interview questions are the best way to assess soft skills, particularly when they’re part of a structured interview process. Interview questions offer unique benefits that tests can’t provide: personal interaction and follow up questions.

Why soft skills matter

Hard skills are a good starting point. You’ll likely need a marketing manager who knows about marketing principles and holds a business degree. But, are those enough to make them perfect for the job?

Most employers would say no. Soft skills drive career advancement and make people successful. Marketing managers should also be leaders who communicate well and think critically. Employers can find a knowledgeable candidate. But, that candidate mightn’t be able to collaborate effectively, solve complex problems or go the extra mile, all of which are vital for business.

Soft skills matter even in ‘hard’ disciplines, like computer science. A developer doesn’t just write code; they need to innovate, collaborate, meet deadlines and understand end users’ perspectives. These skills aren’t necessarily taught in computer science programs.

What soft skills should I look for?

Necessary soft skills vary across jobs. An executive assistant should be detail-oriented but doesn’t necessarily need leadership skills. Often, different jobs require the same soft skills for different reasons. For example, interpersonal skills are valuable for salespeople and accountants. Salespeople need strong interpersonal skills to persuade and build rapport. Accountants need strong interpersonal skills to present data and explain accounting details.

No matter the context, there are a few soft skills that are highly sought after:

Important soft skills vary by company too. According to a 2014 U.S. News and World Report article, Google is looking for agile learning, leadership, intellectual humility and “an inquisitive nature.” In a 2011 interview posted in the Wall Street Journal, former HR Director of Microsoft India, Joji Gill, said Microsoft look for “candidates who are real and open-minded. Individuals who do not have any preconceived notions…who are flexible.” She added that integrity, accountability and “how self-critical the individual is” are also important.

It’s difficult to find candidates who combine all the soft skills you’re looking for. And assessing them is tricky. Interviewers often judge soft skills subjectively and end up hiring people who are similar to them. But, if you use effective questions during a structured interview, you have a better chance of getting it right and noticing candidates’ red flags.

What kind of interview questions should I use?

Asking behavioral and situational questions is a good approach. These questions are open-ended, allowing candidates to talk about their individual experiences in their own way. They also encourage follow up questions, so interviewers can clarify points and better understand candidates’ responses.

Behavioral interview questions ask candidates to draw on their past experiences. Usually, behavioral questions begin with “Tell about a time when…” Candidates will often answer with the STAR approach (Situation – Task – Action – Result):

“I was leading a team on a software development project when I noticed two team members weren’t getting along (Situation). I had to find a way to diffuse tensions and help them find common ground (Task). I invited them both for a 1:1 meeting to hear their side of the story and then we all met together (Action). After a fruitful discussion, they were able to respect each other and communicate better (Result).”

Even if candidates don’t consciously use the STAR approach, this rubric can help you assess their answers.

Situational interview questions are hypothetical. You can develop relevant situational questions based on what a candidate would be likely to face if they landed the job. Or, you can use common questions like:

“If you were falling behind schedule, what would you do?”

Download our free guide for complete instructions on how to create effective interview questions.

Here are examples of interview questions you can use to assess important soft skills:

Communication

  • Tell me about a time you had to deal with a difficult colleague. What did you do to communicate properly?
  • How would you explain this term to someone from a different discipline?

Teamwork

  • Tell me about a time you had to deal with a team member who constantly opposed your ideas
  • How would you react if a team leader encouraged competition between team members instead of collaboration?

Leadership

  • Tell me about a time you took the lead when your team was in a difficult position
  • What would you do if your team members disagreed with your instructions?

Adaptability

  • Tell me about a time when a project’s priorities changed suddenly and you had to adapt
  • What would you do if you were assigned multiple tasks with the same deadline?

Critical thinking

  • Tell me about a time you had to make a decision with incomplete information
  • If you spotted a mistake in a report but your manager wasn’t available, what would you do?

Work ethic

  • Tell me about a time you faced an ethical dilemma at work
  • If you discovered your supervisor was breaking the company’s code of conduct, what would you do?

How do I score candidates?

Soft skills like assertiveness and extraversion might seem obvious when talking to a candidate. And communication skills are often unofficially assessed through body language. But, keep in mind that candidates’ behavior during interviews may not represent how they act in general. Relying on intuition to judge candidates may lead to a bad hire. And not trying to control interviewers’ biases harms diversity, because we tend to like people who’re similar to us. That can be bad for companies.

So, what can you do? Structured interviews are more reliable hiring tools because they reduce biases and allow for more objective scoring. They can be used by multiple interviewers who can aggregate their assessments of candidates, reducing the role of individual bias.

In structured interviews, you use a predefined list of interview questions (and follow up questions) to assess important soft skills. You ask all your candidates the same questions, in the exact same order, and record how you rate their responses. By using this score system, you can provide effective interview feedback to your candidates in the case that they want to.

What is a skills assessment?

Scoring system

You can choose whatever scoring system you find most helpful. You can use a rating system with five levels ranging from low to high. Or you can use a pass/fail format when evaluating a response.

According to an example from the US Office of Personnel Management, you can score interpersonal skills with the following scale:

  • Level 1- Low: Handles interpersonal situations involving little or no tension or discomfort and requires close guidance
  • Level 3- Average: Handles interpersonal situations involving a moderate degree of tension or discomfort and requires occasional guidance
  • Level 5- Outstanding: Handles interpersonal situations involving a high degree of tension or discomfort and advises others

Workable makes it easy to evaluate soft skills through its interview kits feature. You can create printable scorecards with interview questions grouped by category (e.g. people skills or critical thinking) and add evaluations. It allows for a flexible and structured process. Here’s a scorecard example:

scorecard-example

It has a three-point rating format Yes, No and Definitely. You can create multiple scorecards for each stage of the hiring process (phone screen, executive interview, etc.) You can also aggregate all your hiring managers’ evaluations for each candidate.

Resources for the structured interview process

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Nikoletta Bika

Nikoletta Bika is a senior writer at Workable and holds an MSc in HR. She writes about all things HR and recruiting, with a particular interest in bias, data, technology and the future of work. She hates meaningless jargon and dreams about space travel. She tweets @Nikoletta_Bika.

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