Soft skills are those hard-to-pin-down capabilities like communication and leadership that are difficult to quantify, but that play an outsized role in both job performance and cultural fit. They differ from hard skills like mathematics, which can be more easily measured via an objective assessment.
We’ll explain how to assess soft skills in an interview to make sure a candidate with a strong resume will translate into a strong part of the team.
The Importance of Soft Skills
We’ve all come across that person who’s great at their job–maybe they’re a whiz at programming or know every inch of the production floor by heart–but they’re a total pain to deal with personally. These people have technical skills but lack soft skills.
Soft skills are what allow teammates to interact with one another (as well as customers) effectively. They facilitate creative problem-solving and enable people to adapt under uncertain circumstances–skills that are critical for success in most types of work.
A candidate might have all of the right technical skills, but without soft skills, they will be A) pretty miserable to work with, B) ineffective in their role, or C) both of the above. That’s why it’s so important to consider hard and soft skills equally when interviewing.
Challenges for Assessing Soft Skills
Soft skills are hard to screen for.
Soft skills have many more gray areas than technical skills, which can be assessed via questions with black-and-white answers. For example, there can be more than one idea that will solve a problem, meaning there’s no single “right” answer to an interview question about problem-solving.
Also, interpretations of soft skills can vary depending on who’s judging the candidate. One interviewer’s idea of creativity may differ from another’s, making setting up an objective scoring system challenging.
And even if you do formulate a good system for assessing soft skills, it’s not always easy to get an accurate read on them during the hiring process. An applicant interviewing for a job is simultaneously nervous and trying to make the best impression possible, which is an unusual combination that can influence their answers and behavior.
In short, there’s no way to definitively grasp a person’s soft skills until you actually work with them. Still, it’s in an employer’s best interest to assess soft skills as closely as possible to ensure a strong fit and a successful hire.
How to Assess Soft Skills in an Interview
Take a structured approach
To ensure fairness and objectivity, your strategy for assessing soft skills should be the same every time, with every candidate. Ask the same questions in the same order, incorporating follow-up questions as necessary to draw out more information.
Interviewers should avoid “going with their gut” or deviating from the prepared questions, as this leads to less accurate hiring.
Involve multiple interviewers
Additional interviewers can add diverse perspectives and help prevent hires from being determined by a single person’s opinion.
You can incorporate multiple interviewers in two ways: either by doing multiple rounds of one-on-one interviews or by doing a panel interview in which a candidate takes questions from two or more interviewers simultaneously.
Related: Interview Formats to Use When Hiring
Use a mix of behavioral and situational questions
Behavioral and situational interview questions can help you understand how a candidate might handle different on-the-job situations.
In behavioral interview questions, a candidate is asked to give examples of their past behavior in specific scenarios, like “tell me about a time you had to communicate a piece of negative information.” These questions can be used to identify whether a candidate has experience successfully using the soft skills that are most important to the job.
Situational interview questions are similar, but deal with “what if’s.” They ask a candidate to explain how they’d react in a given situation in the future, for example, “What would you do if you had to cut our budget by 10%?” Situational interview questions give you a glimpse into how a candidate thinks and shed light on how their soft skills would influence their actions.
Utilize a scoring system
While interview questions about soft skills don’t usually have a right or wrong answer, answers can definitely be favorable or unfavorable. Using a scoring system allows you to observe patterns and judge a candidate’s cumulative interview performance.
One of the best ways to score soft skills is by using a points system, i.e., scoring a candidate’s answers on a scale of 1 to 5. This lets you see at a glance whether most of their answers were positive and also lets you compare different candidates against one another via their total scores.
Leverage job auditions
Hearing candidates talk about how they’d handle a situation is great, but seeing them in action is even better. In a job audition, a candidate is asked to complete a task or assignment that mirrors what they’d be doing on the job.
You can use job auditions to assess soft skills by incorporating them into the assigned task. Here are a few examples:
- Asking a sales candidate to pitch a product to assess their persuasive skills
- Having a customer service candidate role-play troubleshooting with a customer to see how they communicate
- Asking a design candidate to read a creative brief and explain how they’d approach the job to judge their creative thinking
Don’t rely on interview “tricks”
Some companies are known for using quirky interview questions like “What type of fruit would you most like to be and why?” The idea is to force a candidate to think on their feet and show their creative side, but in reality, such questions have little bearing on a candidate’s actual ability to do the job (which is what you’re ultimately looking to find out).
If you really want to evaluate soft skills accurately, stick to questions that are relevant to the role and avoid trying to throw candidates for a loop.
Ask references about soft skills
In addition to the interview, you have another great tool at your disposal to use when assessing soft skills: references. Ask references directly about the soft skills you value and prompt them to describe examples of how they’ve seen the candidate use them.
Most Important Soft Skills to Look for
Here are some of the top soft skills to look for when hiring and example interview questions to use to identify them.
- Describe your leadership style.
- How do you motivate a team?
- What would you do if there was a conflict between two of your team members?
- Describe how you delegate tasks.
- How do you coach employees?
- What’s your communication style?
- Tell me about a time when you had to communicate sensitive information.
- How would you explain [complex concept] to a customer?
- What would you do if there was a misunderstanding about something you said?
- Do you prefer written or verbal communication?
- How would you deal with a coworker who isn’t great at communicating?
- What role do you take when working on a team?
- Describe a time when you worked successfully on a team.
- Have you ever worked on a team project that failed?
- What would you do if someone on your team was not doing their fair share?
- How do you see yourself contributing to our team?
- Tell me about a time when you had to make a decision quickly.
- What would you do if you had to decide without all the necessary information?
- Have you ever disagreed with your manager? What did you do?
- How would you handle it if you spotted a mistake one of your peers made?
- What’s the most difficult decision you’ve had to make at work?
- Tell me about a time when you solved a problem on the fly.
- Have you ever anticipated a problem in advance? What did you do?
- How do you deal with demanding customers?
- When you’re faced with a problem at work, what’s your first step?
- How do you solve a problem when there are multiple people giving input?
- Have you ever dealt with a work-related crisis?
- Describe your approach to time management.
- How do you juggle multiple important projects?
- What would you do if you knew you would miss a deadline?
- What’s your ideal work schedule?
- How long does it take you to do [task]?
- When you return from vacation and are swamped with to-do’s, how do you decide what to work on first?
- What role does creativity play in your job?
- Give me an example of a time when you had to think outside the box.
- What’s the most creative project you’ve worked on?
- How do you encourage your team to be more creative?
- Let’s say a team member suggested a wacky, creative idea. How would you respond?
- When do you feel most creative?
- How adaptable are you at work?
- How would you handle it if your manager asked you to try a new approach on a project?
- Tell me about a time when you had to learn a new skill quickly.
- Have you ever been asked to take on duties outside your job description?
- How do you respond to change?
Treating soft skills with the same level of attention you do when assessing technical skills increases the likelihood of landing on a candidate who will not only perform to a high standard but also fit in well on your team.