Why you can't hire your way around the soft skills gap

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Bruce Tulgan
CEO
Rainmaker Thinking
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Thinking you can cut corner when recruiting for soft skills competencies? Think again, says Bruce Tulgan.

In fields, especially the STEM fields - where significant education and credentials are the very threshold criteria for most jobs, supply is far below demand. That puts most STEM field employers squarely in the middle of the technical skill gap that gets so much of the attention in the media. When employers have too few candidates with the requisite hard skills, it becomes very hard to rule people out because of seeming gaps in their soft skills. 

Yes, you need to hire people who have or can learn the required technical skills. No, that doesn’t mean you can ignore soft skills in your hiring. 

Every day, the stories managers tell me about good hires gone bad (and bad hires gone worse), are almost always stories about failures in soft skills, not hard skills. Nine times out ten, an unsuccessful hire fails due to soft skills, not hard. Never forget, one very good hire is much better than three or four or five mediocre hires.  

How can you build in soft skills criteria systematically in every aspect of your staffing strategy and hiring process? 

  • Step one. For every single position, build a profile and job description that includes not just the key hard skills for that role, but also the key soft skills. Once you identify the high priority soft skill behaviors for each position, name them yourself. Describe them in detail. Build those criteria into the basic job requirements in no uncertain terms from the very outset. Be prepared to turn away candidates who do not meet these soft skills criteria just as you would turn away candidates without the necessary hard skills. Or else, if you are forced to hire people without the required soft skills, make sure you have a plan in place to address those soft skills gaps from the first day of employment, just as you would have a plan in place if you hired an employee without the necessary technical skills. 
  • Step two. Look for talent from sources well known for the strong soft skills you need. If you are hiring out of schools and training programs, definitely find out which ones include soft skills in their standard curriculum. If you are poaching talent from other employers, poach from employers known for their strong soft skills training. This is why so many employers want to hire those who have served in the military: You can be sure that most people who have served successfully in the military will display respect for authority, willingness to wear a uniform, excellent manners, timeliness, consistency, follow-through, teamwork, and initiative. The same goes for anybody who makes it to Eagle Scout. Maybe it is the Peace Corps; or an NGO; a club or a church or an athletic team; maybe you are looking for someone who has run a marathon or been a camp counselor or a school teacher or volunteered in a soup kitchen. What schools, employers, or organisations do you know where members or alumni are likely to have stronger soft skills in the areas that matter the most to you? 
  • Step three. Include your high priority soft skills behaviours in your employer branding and recruitment campaign messaging. That’s why it’s so important to name your high priority soft skills – to have meaningful slogans to capture them. Of course, there is always the iconic 'the few, the proud, the Marines' as an example. That message is a signal to applicants that this job is going to be very demanding of them on a very deep level. Your recruitment message says a lot about how you see yourself as an employer. You want to draw applicants who are looking for a job where they can learn and grow and build themselves up. I call it a 'self building' job. You want to draw applicants for whom the idea of self building is a big turn-on, not a turn-off. 
  • Step four. Start with a bias against hiring: Look for red flags. The biggest mistake hiring managers make (especially when hiring for low-supply high-demand technical skills) is continuing the 'attraction campaign' until the job candidate has accepted the job and sometimes until the new employee is already at work. So many firms are so starved for young talent that they just can’t bear to turn potential employees away, even in the face of huge red flags. If someone comes late for the interview or falls asleep during the interview or has typos in their resume (and timeliness, good health, or attention to detail are important soft skills for this job) then those red flags are telling you, 'don't hire this person!'.
  • Step five. Build a selection process that places a heavy emphasis on high priority soft skills. Here’s a short-cut: Scare away young job candidates who only think they are serious by shining a bright light on all the downsides of the job. If you need to hire nurses with especially high levels of grit and patience, make sure to tell them early in the selection process that they will sometimes be expected to help orderlies change bed pans. If you need to hire engineers with especially high levels of diligence, make sure to tell them right away there will be plenty of late nights and weekends coming very soon. Whatever the worst most difficult aspects of the job may be, start your selection process with vivid descriptions of those downsides. Then see which candidates are still interested in the job. They are the ones worth testing and interviewing.  

I would recommend using research-validated testing wherever possible to get a quick baseline reading of an applicant’s aptitude in key areas of the job, including high priority soft skills. Whatever test you settle on, just make sure you can implement and evaluate it with relative speed. And make sure you know in advance exactly what you are looking for. 

Then comes the job interview, the one employment selection process almost every manager does, but very few do well. When it comes to interviewing, the best practice is still the simple model of behavioural interviewing. Behavioural interviewing simply means asking applicants to tell you a story and then listening carefully to their story. When you are doing behavioural interviewing, make sure to ask applicants, not only about their use of hard skills, but also their use of soft skills: 'Tell me a story about a time you solved a problem at work.' Or, 'Tell me a story about a conflict you had with another employee at work. How did you solve it?'  

Finally, consider one last stage of selection. I call it 'the realistic job preview'. This might be a probationary hiring period, or a pre-real-job internship, during which you can try out the prospective employee and the prospective employee can try out the job. Make sure to assign real tasks that mirror the actual tasks, responsibilities, and projects they will be asked to do if they accept the job.

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an on-line training company. Bruce is the best-selling author of numerous books including The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014), Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (2009), and It’s Okay to be the Boss (2007). Bruce can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]. Or you can follow him on twitter @brucetulgan

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