Workplace Soft Skills: HR’s Silver Bullet

Stephane Rivard
January 12, 2023
Workplace Soft Skills: HR’s Silver Bullet

Most of us are taught to focus on attaining hard skills like a technical degree, and yet research from Harvard, Stanford, and The Carnegie Foundation found that soft skills account for 85% of career success. This makes sense considering that for example, soft skills can include traits like active listening which can foster greater communication - and feeling understood can promote a greater sense of wellbeing. Indeed, soft skills are essential for a successful workplace, so HR teams need to know how to assess whether or not candidates possess the right ones for the positions they’re hiring for.

What are soft skills?

Skills can generally be categorized into hard and soft. G2 explains that hard skills are job-specific and quantifiable, while soft skills are more like social skills.

There are many different characteristics that can fall under the umbrella of “soft skills.” Before we look closer at soft skill types, let’s first define them. Soft skills are the communication techniques that define how candidates relate to other people like customers or teammates. 

“Soft skills are the communication techniques that define how candidates relate to other people like customers or teammates.”

Soft skills can include active listening, building rapport, using positive language, and more, but more on that in the next section. It is important to note that soft skills are like communication techniques, but these are different than communication skills. Communication skills are more like fluency, grammar, and sentence structure.

What are the most important soft skills to focus on?

The list of most-important workplace soft skills will vary depending on who you ask. If you ask our experts at a glance we’d say communication, active listening, empathy, collaboration, and problem solving are essential, but we also know there is a lot more to the story.

MatchBuilt says the essential workplace soft skills are:

  • communication
  • time management
  • multitasking
  • teamwork
  • critical thinking
  • decision making
  • self-motivation
  • leadership

People Scout says that key workplace soft skills are:

  • attitude
  • communication
  • work ethic
  • teamwork
  • leadership qualities
  • time management
  • decision making
  • conflict resolution
  • critical thinking
  • networking
  • empathy
  • problem-solving

Indeed says the top soft skills for the workplace are as follows:

  • communication
  • adaptability
  • teamwork
  • creativity
  • time management
  • interpersonal skills
  • attention to detail
  • work ethic
  • problem-solving
  • leadership

Similarly, the National Association of Colleges and Employers reported in 2017 that the “ability to work in a team,” was most-commonly considered the most desirable attribute from recent graduates. 

There are a handful of workplace soft skills that repeat across the different sources above, like communication or time management. This makes sense because there are certain “baseline soft skills”, as we like to call them, that are broadly applicable. However, hiring managers also need to recognize that there are workplace soft skills that are more appropriate for one position versus another. Our experts explain

“A sales role, for example, requires the ability to persuade, while a customer care role requires listening and rapport.” 

Most hiring teams who are considering soft skills for various positions they’re hiring for, will assess candidates for a generic list of skills. In contrast, testing for the right combination of skills can produce much more effective hiring results.

How can HR teams test for soft skills?

Aligning recruitment testing with the soft skills required for a job is a difficult task. To worsen matters, consider that existing solutions like behavioural tests and interviews are flawed:

  • Behavioural tests (what would you do in a situation?) are expensive and time-consuming when speed and quality are required. In any case, answering multiple choice questions does not test the ability to perform live using voice or chat.

  • Interviews, while popular, don't reproduce the real work environment, they're costly and open to subjectivity.

Employers may use various tools to assess soft skills, however, broad assessments can lead to inaccurate results. Not all soft skills are needed for every position - some are critical compared to others, and this may not be obvious to hiring teams if they’re looking at all soft skills equally. HiringBranch, for example, considers up to 30 soft skills during assessments; however, most assessments are customized to detect the exact recipe of soft skills needed for a particular position and industry for best results.

In order to test for soft skills, employers first need to identify which soft skills are most important for the position they’re hiring for. Catering their candidate assessments to these unique groups of soft skills can help hiring teams test applicants most effectively.

Before we look at customizing soft skills assessments, let’s backup and address a long-standing debate within the HR and academic community. 

Is testing for soft skills even possible? Absolutely.

We've heard it before. "You can’t test for soft skills. They can’t be taught. They can only be learned on-the-job.” The reality is that you can and should test and train for soft skills, but the actual methods need to be thought through. For example:

  • How do you get applicants to produce those skills in a way that can be objectively evaluated on a test?
  • How do you map those skills to a testing framework for the job?
  • How do you do all of the above on a daily basis, in a high-volume, low-cost environment?

So how should HR teams test for soft skills? 

With technology. Technology allows teams to overcome subjectivity, to operate economically at scale and to automatically map soft skill assessments to a certain position and assess candidates for these and these only. So to get back to that other question… 

How can soft skill assessments be customized to a particular job? 

To help clients map skills to competencies for a given role, our experts utilize a proprietary communication competency framework of skills and behaviors that can be measured. Customers may also choose to use their own data. Regardless, this framework is combined with an AI-powered soft-skill evaluation engine to assist HR teams by providing automated scoring on certain parameters within the soft-skill testing framework. 

HR teams have the ability to evaluate a custom recipe of soft skill performance knowing that it maps to what their clients are asking for - and the results have been convincing. A Fortune 50 is now achieving a consistent >99% accuracy rate on good hires since using a soft skill assessment engine. That’s near perfect hiring!

So if you ask anyone here, there is no debate anymore, not only can hiring teams test for soft skills, they can actually improve performance by doing so. Bottom line? If you want to get the best results, test for a customized set of soft skills for the position at hand, and use a tool that will allow you to automatically and objectively assess candidate's workplace soft skills.

Image Credits

Featured Image: Unsplash/Brook Cagle

Image 1: Screenshot taken January 2022 via G2

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