When you’re looking for candidates to fill a position, it’s easy to see their technical skills—it’s all over their resumes in the projects they’ve worked on, their qualifications and experience. Few people write words like “integrity” and “prioritizing” on their resumes and even if they do, those words tend to be taken as filler words that don’t mean anything. But they do mean a lot. In fact, these soft skills are crucial when it comes to finding the right candidate.
Soft skills are the qualities that define a candidate as an individual and therefore as an employee. Sometimes called “people skills,” soft skills are subjective and include a person’s work ethic, time management skills, and ability to work in a team. These are skills that all employees should have in order to succeed. Depending on the job, some soft skills may be more important than others. For example, a candidate who will have to work on multiple projects at once should have the soft skills to be able to prioritize and meet deadlines. On the other hand, a candidate who will be working in a sales position should have soft skills of being outgoing, assertive, and self-confident.
Hard skills, on the other hand, are based on the experience and technical know-how. Hard skills cover the actual tasks that an employee is responsible for, like operating machinery, writing news articles, or using design software. For instance, a nurse’s hard skills include knowing how to check vital signs and administer first aid. An IT professional’s hard skills probably include application development and database administration.
One of the main differences between soft skills and hard skills is that hard skills are pretty easy to spot, since they’re usually clearly listed in a candidate’s resume. Hard skills are more tangible and objective than soft skills, so they’re easier to identify. Someone who lists “10 years of experience in graphic design” should have the hard skills associated with that job. Hard skills are not only easier to identify through a candidate’s list of experiences and education, they’re easier to test for as well. Through pre-employment testing you can find out if a candidate has the specific skills associated with a particular job.
Another difference between hard and soft skills has to do with an employer’s ability to offer training. While hard skills can be taught—an employee can take a workshop to learn how to use a specific type of software—soft skills are more innate and are not easily taught, since they’re subjective and strongly tied to a candidate’s personality. However, there are some ways to encourage soft skills—like reliability and a willingness to take risks—among employees. Through employee empowerment, engagement, and encouragement, employers can nurture a workplace environment that promotes soft skills.
So why should you look for candidates with both hard and soft skills? A candidate who has both sets of skills is a better-rounded person, and therefore is more likely to succeed at the job. Take the nurse mentioned above, who has the hard skills required for the job, like the medical training and know-how. But it’s the soft skills, like empathy and being a good listener, which can take that nurse from being average to being exceptional.
Although it can be tricky, it is possible to find out which candidates have the soft skills that will make them exceptional at the job. The interview stage is the perfect time to assess a candidate’s soft skills. A good interviewer should ask questions that shed light on the candidate’s personality traits and potential soft skills. Personality tests are also a tool to determine whether a candidate has the soft skills needed for a position.
What’s important to remember when thinking about hard skills vs. soft skills is how crucial each set is to the success of a given employee in the position you’re hiring for. Is a candidate with strong hard skills but weaker soft skills still going to do well at your company? Maybe the position doesn’t really require many soft skills, but the technical know-how an absolute must. In this case, you’re better off choosing the candidate with very strong hard skills. Just remember, a candidate with strong hard and soft skills can be a more valuable asset in the long run.
Eric Friedman, Author
Eric Friedman is the founder and CEO of eSkill Corporation, a leading provider of online skills testing for pre-employment assessment and benchmarking. Eric has degrees in Psychology and Business, and a fascination with matching people with roles they’re best at, and that they enjoy.
A company built on exceptional talent from Internet technology, test development, and iterative product development, eSkill leads as an independent assessment company helping HR departments with relevant and accurate job-based tests.