What gets our candidates hired and promoted? 

It’s not always what you think

Out of a sea of talented candidates, what makes an employer choose one?

Of course, the employers we work with all look for certain hard skills (also known as technical skills) like demonstrated experience in data analysis, software development, human resources and more, depending on the role.

But in my experience, you know what gets our candidates hired and promoted? It’s not actually what’s hard, but rather what’s soft. I’m talking about soft skills, increasingly called “human skills” – things like problem-solving, adaptability and the ability to communicate ideas.

We all have these skills in some form or another, each contributing to who we are as individuals—sort of like our secret sauce. And they play a big part in the hiring process. For example, employers, think of a time when you’ve had two or more talented candidates vying for the same role, each with the same technical skills and experience. Who did you hire? Most likely, it was the candidate whose soft skills stood out for you, aligned with your company’s values and filled a gap on the team.

Why are these human skills so important at work?

Getting the work done is important, and so is the person who does it. Human skills bring humanity to the workplace.

They help build strong relationships and supportive networks—key components of success in the workplace and in careers (it’s not just what you know, as the saying goes). People with strong human skills are often the “glue” that binds teams together, leading to a more collaborative, caring and open workplace culture. And these kinds of skills are especially important in today’s remote and hybrid workplaces, where home-based employees need to self-manage their time, communicate effectively online and build strong relationships virtually.

Study after study puts human skills at the top of the list of must-haves for employers, including that famous Google study that found, among the eight most important qualities of their top employees, STEM expertise ranked last. What were the top seven skills? You guessed it, they were all human skills like coaching, communicating and listening well.

Can you teach these kinds of skills? Yes! Everyone, from parents and teachers to colleagues and leaders, plays a part in nurturing them throughout each person’s development, from childhood through to adulthood, at home, in school and in the workplace.

How to nurture these human skills in the workplace

In addition to offering professional development courses to their teams, employers and leaders can actively coach team members in managing their emotions, embracing change, leading with empathy and understanding, developing a growth and learning mindset and more.

From my experience, the best way to do this is to use every real-life business issue to highlight and nurture the soft skills that are required to manage it effectively. I find that role-playing an issue and having an open dialogue about everything that could go wrong helps the person learn the skill and fosters a more flexible mindset.

How to nurture human skills throughout life

Other coaches play a part, too. For example, sports coaches and life coaches create listening and learning opportunities with every real-life win and loss.

Think of a time when you lost an important game, and your coach showed you how to regulate your emotions, remove the blame and anger and show up with positive competitiveness instead. And imagine when you win the game, and your coach highlights what went well and teaches you to appreciate others (beyond the win, it’s important to appreciate each person’s part).

In childhood, our caregivers put an emphasis on empathy, self-control, generosity and so many other skills that go beyond math and reading. Of course, math and reading are important—especially with today’s post-COVID skills catch-up—but instilling soft skills in our children will get them equally far.

When I was raising my four daughters, I always liked doing “highs and lows” each evening at the dinner table to highlight what went well in a day, and not so well – and identify the soft skills that allowed my children to handle the good and the bad. I also think praise goes a long way and always try to recognize a child for building rapport, solving a problem independently and using their manners when discussing an issue with a teacher. These small moments are often the most teachable ones and are worth celebrating as much as the “technical” wins like good grades and awards.

Ask yourself: Do you recall a time in your childhood or early career when someone you looked up to helped foster and encourage your soft skills? What did that mean to you and how did it impact your career?

How we assess soft skills at Altis

In this blog post, author Alida Miranda-Wolff advises employers to “hire the heart, train the brain.” That is, look for people who have the baseline set of technical skills to get the job done (you can always train the rest), and then home in on and hire those candidates who demonstrate essential soft skills.

I couldn’t agree more. In fact, in the context of our business, we advocate for excellent candidates who have great soft skills and perhaps need more training in the required hard skills.

Some of the top soft skills I look for in candidates include:

  • Empathy
  • Adaptability
  • Ability to listen, communicate and respect others
  • Openness to learning and being coached
  • Respect for diversity and inclusion, not as a performance but in a true, authentic, caring way

To determine which soft skills a candidate has, we use questions like these:

  1. We provide a case scenario, and then give the interviewee a chance to ask questions about it. For example, we ask how they would handle the situation as a leader. We also ask questions about team behaviours and communication, especially if the issue involved a conflict. This way, we delve into their critical thinking and ability to make good decisions under pressure. We also allow the conversation to flow to identify empathy, adaptability, work ethic and more.
  2. We ask the candidate to describe one of the busiest times in their work, a period when business felt chaotic, and ask them to describe how they organized their time, coped and adapted to stress and difficulties, who they leaned on, how they communicated with their team, what conflicts arose, how they were resolved, what they learned, and how inclusion was addressed in the team.
  3. To dig into conflict resolution, we ask the candidate to describe a relationship where there is or was low compatibility. What was their part in the low compatibility, and what was the other person’s part? We look for how they showed respect and personal accountability, empathy and their goal to come to a resolution. And, if the resolution was impossible, where did they leave the conflict and how did they manage the relationship going forward?

When assessing candidates, ask yourself: What are the current gaps on the team (time management, communication, collaboration, creativity, etc.)? Which soft skills align best with your company values (respect, integrity, strong belief in diversity, equity and inclusion, etc.)?

Soft skills and newcomers to Canada

One caveat to remember, newcomers to Canada may define soft skills in different ways. For example, a candidate I met with recently was so intelligent, kind and communicative – and yet, he didn’t boast about his education, abilities and experience at all. Humility was a value that he learned from his family and home of origin, and I had to look past his quiet nature to see that he is an ideal candidate (I suggested he boast a little!).

Newcomers possess many soft skills—and in some cases, don’t even realize it. Imagine packing up your life and all that is familiar to move to another country and start over. That takes courage, adaptability and resilience. And then, once in your new country, you have to build a new professional network and grow a career. This takes strong communication and interpersonal skills, not to mention grit.

The point here is that to show up in support of marginalized candidates, it’s essential to embrace differences while offering to coach for confidence and other soft skills when appropriate and welcome.

Look for the good humans

After 35+ years in the staffing industry, I want to see both the brain and heart in candidates: the most critical data and technical skills and the social and emotional skills. In other words, a good human.

When hiring, it might be harder to assess a quiet-spoken candidate, a humble newcomer or an introvert who is more comfortable sticking to the facts of their resume than discussing what makes them tick, but it’s still possible to ask questions that uncover their interest in the job, motivation and commitment to their career, and gauge their willingness to have a solid, two-way conversation, almost like you’re interviewing each other. The key is to keep an open mind.

I’d love to know which soft skills resonate most with you or are hardest to find in today’s candidates. Please share your thoughts: hrtopics@altisexcel.com.

Kathryn Tremblay

Kathryn Tremblay

Kathryn co-founded Altis Recruitment with a dream to connect people with meaningful work. She talks about HR trends, hiring best practices, and how to bring humanity to leadership.

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