Assessing Job Candidates Beyond the Technical Skills

The goal of effective hiring is to maximize the return from your organization's human-capital investment and minimize the corresponding financial risks. And as a hiring manager, your task is to assess the potential of job candidates accordingly - in an astute, consistent, legal, fair, and humane manner. Of course, your first task is to determine how closely their technical (or “hard") skills relate to the technical requirements of the specific position you’re trying to fill. But the purpose of this article is to go beyond this initial assessment to discuss the more subtle aspects of candidate assessment and how to go about them.

"Soft" skills

PrintLink believes that your company's ROI on human capital is a direct outcome of the effectiveness with which your individual staff members utilize their skills both alone and collectively. Therefore, it's important to recognize that, since employees are not isolated "commodities" or "resources", but rather creative and social beings in a productive enterprise, their job-oriented interpersonal skills - also called "soft" skills - are arguably as critical to the success of your business as their mechanical abilities.

In fact, we are hearing more frequently from employers and employees alike that interpersonal adeptness represents a vast category of transferable skills that a worker can bring to the job. Moreover, technical ability alone is usually not enough to enable employees to achieve career success. Studies indicate that many people who have difficulty in obtaining or holding down a job often possess the needed technical competence but lack interpersonal competence.

Thus, before hiring, you need to consider carefully how well you can expect your new hires to mesh and interact with:

  • Your existing personnel & the requisite external contacts of their prospective position. (Both are internally derived factors within the control of your organization to understand, predict, determine, and monitor.)
  • Your company's corporate culture, as defined by management's behaviors & style, the workplace environment, & your corporate approach to ethical & social responsibilities.
  • The personalities of existing staff (because at least some degree of team-based interaction will be obstructed by introducing newcomers with abrasive qualities or diametrically opposed viewpoints. In severe cases, perhaps they might even cause unreasonable & unnecessary stress, tension, or division.)

Human relations

Companies also need employees with the ability to communicate information effectively, interpret and respond appropriately to other people's emotions, and resolve conflicts. Employees, managers, suppliers, and customers all depend on staff with these skills to maintain successful working relationships. The process of fitting people into work situations that facilitate their harmonious interactions is broadly labeled "human relations." If effected properly, it not only achieves higher levels of productivity for your organization, but also provides employees with economic, psychological, and social satisfaction. In other words, it constitutes a value proposition all the way around.

Ethical considerations

Another huge area of concern is candidates' ethics. Most of your employees are called upon to make ethical decisions routinely, such as how to charge time, use company assets, or treat other people fairly. And cumulatively, your company stands to incur huge losses from such abuses as employees calling in sick when they aren't, stealing office supplies, fudging expense reports, making personal long-distance phone calls using company phone lines, or using the company postage meter for personal mail. For all the above reasons, you should make it a goal to hire good people. Remember that while you can, for the most part, teach someone how to do a good job, it's harder or impossible to teach someone to be a good person.

Selection tactics

So, how can your preliminary selection process uncover whether job candidates have the right soft skills and ethics to meet your company's needs? 

Unfortunately, no method is foolproof. Even dazzling resumés can still be misleading, and while some candidates with charismatic personalities can talk a good game, they can’t deliver. Faced with such odds, the best you can do is:

  • review each resumé carefully for clues
  • talk to the candidate & ask the best questions you can to get a feel for who he or she is
  • draw reasonable conclusions & combine them with your gut instinct (but don't rely on either reason or gut alone!)

Soft skill indicators on resumés

Along with their job qualifications and education, job seekers' resumés sometimes identify their leisure activities or hobbies. And sometimes, if you're lucky, their leisure pursuits or educational backgrounds reveal insights into the candidate's own personal outlook. For example, if you are looking for a team leader, supervisor, or department manager, someone who already coaches a sports team may hold the right aptitudes for the job. Similarly, a person who heads up volunteer committees may also offer good organizational skills, leadership potential, and higher-than-average motivation to excel. An individual who likes to read may be especially attentive to workflow documentation. Or someone who runs, works out, or plays tennis may exhibit the high energy level your environment requires. If a resumé holder has enrolled in various training programs, you can likely surmise that this is an individual who likes to be challenged and is seeking personal growth – and just think what value those qualities can deliver to your business!

Such information, combined with the details on each position the individual has held, may help you in defining each candidate's motivation.

Behavioral-based questions

Often behavioral-based interviewing can provide additional insight into a candidate’s predisposition for effective interpersonal interactions and ethical conduct. This type of evaluation is based on the premise that behaviors the candidate performed in the past are likely to be replicated in similar situations. Candidates are asked to describe how they have handled interpersonal or ethical dilemmas or how they would have responded to a hypothetical situation.

For example: "You're the supervisor and you discover that your department's dockets have been wrong since a particular person started working for you. Do you blame that person?" (Since there's no proof of wrongdoing, blame would be unfair, so the candidate's answer should show an understanding that the supervisor's task is to get facts, not lay blame.)

When it comes to assessing candidates' ethics, also take to time consider how they respond to probing questions during the interview. If anything on their resumé seems inflated or unrealistic, ask for an explanation. Candidates who becomes unusually quiet or overly defensive may have misrepresented their skills and experience in writing.

Conversation during interviews

This scenario is tricky. There is a fine balance between asking questions that are too intrusive and personal versus guiding a two-sided discussion that provides insight into a job candidate's personality and attitudes and demonstrates your interest in him or her as a person. Remember, it isn’t so much what you ask, but more in how you ask it that will determine the professionalism and comfort level of the exchange.

Among the horror stories candidates have shared with us is the case of a candidate who interviewed with a company for whom personal fit was as important as the candidate's skills. We had already explained this situation to the job candidate, but still the company's senior interviewer unnerved the candidate terribly by asking such intrusive, point-blank questions as: "What was your family life like when you were growing up? Were you born in this country? Did you move to this city from somewhere else? What is your present family life like?" While we understand the interviewer’s desire to get an idea of the candidate’s personal background, his questions definitely crossed the line to becoming rude and disrespectful. The outcome was that the candidate asked to be removed from the running based solely on the discomfort the interviewer's questions had caused.

On the other hand, tips for keeping your hiring conversations with candidates on the right track include:

  • Use the resume as a possible source of clues about interests both you and the interviewee might hold in common. Such interests can open the door to relaxed conversation. For example you might attempt to share with the candidate anecdotes about schools or training programs or your mutual interest in a leisure activity.
  • If something on the resumé can potentially shed insight into a soft skill, say "Tell me about that" in a warm, friendly manner that demonstrates your interest in the candidate - and not your intention to act like a firing squad!
  • Talk about some of the interactions coworkers enjoy while working in your operation.
  • Demonstrate whether your workspace is open concept or consists of enclosed offices & ask if the candidate has worked in similar environments before.
  • If your company has a social club, talk about the club's activities, who comes out to them, and what they enjoy about their participation.
  • Talk about present employees who have children or grandchildren and how you handle the various family-related issues that arise.
  • If you see evidence that a person has moved to your area from somewhere else, you can carefully inquire about the reason for the move.

Personal profile testing

Personal profile (or "psychometric") testing provides an excellent vehicle for assisting hiring managers to understand the personal outlooks, strengths, and motivations of candidates. They measure knowledge, abilities, attitudes, and personality traits in a structured way that makes it difficult for candidates to skew or second-guess the results. Most of our client companies utilize the same system of profile tests for all new hires, so that everyone on their staff is profiled the same way, thus enabling benchmarking as part of their hiring confirmation process. In fact, we recommend that companies profile every one of their employees to aid in benchmarking and enhancing the interpersonal synergies among their staff.

Among the many effective profile testing systems available are:

  • Caliper
  • Predictive Index
  • Profiles International's Profiles XT
  • Myers-Briggs Type Indicator

Some profile tests are administered on line. Others are more expansive, may be conducted at a psychologist's office, and include a debriefing analysis. All result in a written report for the hiring company. Their use is a hiring strategy we strongly recommend: it's a small enough investment to confirm you are hiring someone with the traits that are essential to your business.

Insight from third parties

Subcontracting your search and screening of job candidates to a third-party recruiter like PrintLink goes a long way toward helping you quantify candidates' skills and uncover their personality traits in the earliest stage of your hiring process. Not only are we adept interviewers, but also, as an independent third party, we can discuss the personal preferences and viewpoints of our candidates more openly with them than a prospective employer is able to do. A compatible work environment is just as important to a job seeker as it is to a hiring company; thus many candidates register with us because they feel comfortable about discussing their aspirations with us freely and trust us to secure them a good long-term fit in their next job. Both our candidates and client companies have come to recognize that we delve as much into our candidates' ethics and synergies as their skills, qualifications, and future potential to serve the company's strategic plan.

We would urge all companies as far as possible to observe the same inclusiveness in their hiring practices.