Worker with headset
Hiring for soft skills is important as technology forces constant innovation. — Getty Images/Vasyl Dolmatov

Here’s a lesson in basic anatomy for small businesses seeking to recruit the right candidate: Hard skills constitute the sturdy skeleton that keeps a worthy job applicant standing upright; but it’s their soft skills that provide the flesh and blood that make this person human and hirable.

Indeed, soft skills—like critical thinking, communication, creativity, emotional intelligence, and people management—are in greater demand today than ever before.

A McKinsey Global Institute report published last year suggests that the call for social and emotional soft skills in the United States will increase by 26% (based on hours worked per skill) between 2016 and 2030.

Soft skills are highly treasured even in technical hires. Consider that 98% of HR leaders polled by West Monroe Partners believe soft skills are important in securing a technology job—important enough that two thirds indicate they’ve held back a job offer from an otherwise qualified technical applicant merely because the person lacked soft skills.

Even Google gives high priority to soft skills among its staff. Per a Washington Post scoop, the seven most vital qualities for success as a top Google employee, based on an internal study, are all soft skills that have nothing to do with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). Instead, they are being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others/other points of view; having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s coworkers; being a good problem solver and critical thinker; and the ability to make connections across complex ideas.

As technologies such as automation and artificial intelligence become commonplace, soft skills are also becoming more prized.

Kim McDonald, Executive Vice President—People, Spring Venture Group

People-minded proficiencies

Soft skills are all the rage lately because these human tools and talents are appreciated by employers, managers, coworkers and clients in an increasingly high-tech world.

“As technologies such as automation and artificial intelligence become commonplace, soft skills are also becoming more prized,” says Kim McDonald, executive vice president—people for Spring Venture Group. “Remember—the best technologies are meaningless without a human connection. Technology is great for helping with efficiency, but the real strategies have to be handled by a real person.”

Chuck Underwood, founder of The Generational Imperative and host of the PBS TV series “America’s Generations With Chuck Underwood,” agrees.

“Soft skills are more valued today because, in the two American generations currently aged 18 to 54, they are diminished. This is due to technology’s damage as well as other formative years’ events during the childhood of both generations,” Underwood said, who includes a long attention span, empathy, punctuality, and social savvy among the soft skills most sought after by employers.

Today, small and large companies alike can’t afford to be deficient in workers who lack these and other aptitudes.

“If your business is growth- or innovation-focused or service-oriented, hard skills are the price of entry to compete for the job and soft skills are what differentiates your candidates,” Sean Carney, career and small business coach, says.

"Landing an employee who is rich in soft skills—particularly social and communication adroitness—is like striking gold,” says Denise Dudley, author and founder of SkillPath Seminars. “Your organization will stand out among its competitors if you hire people who are friendly, empathetic, positive and solution-oriented.”

Of course, the importance and degree of soft skills needed will depend on the type of business and position, she added.

“If you’ve got a pizza parlor with a kid-friendly theme, you’d better hire some positive, perky, enthusiastic servers. If you’ve got a mortuary business, you want employees who are low-key, polished, well-spoken and able to handle grieving customers,” Dudley said. “But, if you own a factory that machines parts for an assembly plant, soft skills may not be as high on your employee traits wish list.”

Hard looks at soft skills

You can assess a candidate’s soft skills via the initial screening, interview process, and personality or writing tests.

“For example, reading the cover letter and resume, as part of the initial screening process, provides an opportunity to assess written communication skills,” says Patricia Buhler, business management professor at Goldey-Beacom College.

But the most telling tool is your face-to-face interview with the aspirant.

“Pay attention to the candidate’s eye contact with you, facial expression, voice tone and loudness, and body language,” recommends Dudley.

"Additionally, ask behavioral-based questions, such as, 'Tell me about a time you worked with an especially difficult individual on a team,' and 'What are you most proud of creating from scratch at your last job?' These can provide further insights into the candidate’s soft skills or lack thereof," Buhler said.

If the prospect is deficient in certain soft skills but outshines rivals in other areas, don’t be too quick to disqualify him or her.

“You can absolutely train and encourage soft skill development after hiring,” Carney said.

Buhler suggested a variety of free and affordable courses and webinars that can be provided to employees, “including programs through local chambers of commerce, professional associations, and local colleges and universities.”

After hiring, plan to assess your employee’s soft skill development at routine markers, such as the six-month or one-year evaluation.

“It’s important to make improving an employee’s soft skills an ongoing effort. The best results come from 360-degree feedback where your manager and peers evaluate you,” said McDonald.

For instance, we use a system where our employees answer questions, McDonald said. “Then, our HR team condenses the responses into actionable feedback, not to criticize but to point out actions to help an employee grow.”

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

Published February 25, 2019