HR’s Hard Challenge: When Employees Lack Soft Skills

The soft skills needed to excel in today’s workplace are the hardest to teach and, increasingly, the hardest to find.

By Mark Feffer Apr 1, 2016
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April 2016 HR Magazine cover 4Feffer-HR_Soft_Skills.jpg 

Annie Healy, recruiting manager for The Motley Fool, tells the story of an IT employee who was struggling to keep up with new technology the company was implementing. At other organizations, someone lacking the technical proficiency needed to do his job might have been let go. But at the Fool, as employees call the investment media business in Alexandria, Va., there is a strong emphasis on so-called soft skills: hard-to-quantify behavioral and interpersonal abilities, such as the willingness to learn and to work well in a team—traits this employee had.

So the natural response for HR was to talk with the staffer about other roles that might be a better fit. After identifying one, “we put him on a plan to see if he could transition,” Healy says. Though the onus was on the worker to learn the new job, he had the help of several team members, as well as a coach. In the end, he took on a customer-facing position more suited to his strengths, and the company was able to retain an employee who knew the business and to fill an opening without having to incur the time and expense of an external search.

Today, many employers are faced with something like a perfect storm. Soft skills—which are needed to effectively communicate, problem-solve, collaborate and organize—are becoming more important for success as the workplace evolves socially and technologically. The rub is that recruiters and employment experts report a “soft skills gap,” especially among young workers more accustomed to texting than talking, that forces organizations to hire many candidates who fall short on interpersonal abilities.

Interview question

From Sue Byrne, HR manager for the Peters Corp.

What she asks: “What’s the one thing that gives you inspiration and motivation to come to work every day?”

What she wants to learn: Whether candidates enjoy challenges and how they work with teammates. “Their answer gives me a feel for who they are underneath and how their personality will fit in with their team. If they talk about how they love to put their head down to tackle the pile of work on their desk, they’re showing that they’re highly task-oriented but might not succeed as part of a team.”

“The gap is there,” says Kyle Lagunas, principal analyst at Lighthouse Research & Advisory, a talent management consulting firm in Austin, Texas. “Most colleges aren’t building out the skills students need to become value-added employees.” That, he says, forces HR to face this question: Should we acquire or develop the talents we need for the organization to succeed?

With soft skills, that’s not an easy question to answer. For one thing, these skills are notoriously difficult to teach. For another, they can be extremely challenging to screen for. That means HR must determine whether a candidate lacking in these abilities has the potential to learn them after being hired—a decidedly difficult call to make. After all, such capabilities are subjective in nature, especially when viewed in the context of a company’s culture, business and industry, Lagunas says. While a range of tools are available to help measure various soft talents, they can be only part of the solution. “It’s different for every organization,” he says. “And HR’s the best place to figure it out.”

Soft Skills, Hard Impact

But are these abilities really that important? Employers think so. According to a survey by Adecco Staffing USA, 44 percent of executives said a lack of soft skills was the biggest proficiency gap they saw in the U.S. workforce. And in a report from the International Association of Administrative Professionals, OfficeTeam and, 67 percent of HR managers said they’d hire a candidate with strong soft skills even if his or her technical abilities were lacking, while just 9 percent would hire someone with strong technical credentials but weak soft skills.

The stakes are higher than you might think. In an era when companies strive to become more efficient through the use of technology and data, it’s easy to dismiss the ability to build relationships and collaborate as nice-to-have rather than need-to-have. But efficiency alone doesn’t make an organization stand out. Companies need to be innovative as well—and to create an environment where talented workers want to come and stay.

Efficiency and innovation each require a different mindset, “and what unites both is learning,” says Edward D. Hess, professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. “We want people who can continuously learn with others in teams. That gets into all the soft skills. If your advantage is going to be outthinking competitors and dealing with customers, you’ve got to have soft skills.”

Interview question

From Kyle Lagunas, principal analyst at Lighthouse Research & Advisory

What he asks: “Talk about the most difficult project you’ve worked on—and how you managed all of the bits and pieces required to execute.”

What he wants to learn: About candidates’ organizational skills and their ability to multitask and manage time. The answers, Lagunas notes, also provide a general sense of the way people think and communicate—both important soft skills, as well.

So nothing less than the performance of your organization is at stake. “I’d say the impact of soft skills is huge,” Healy says. “Soft skills represent core values, and they drive the business.” They’re a powerful factor in both hiring and long-term success at her organization, she says. “We’re fast-moving, and we move people around between departments a lot,” she explains. That type of mobility is possible only when people can engage, learn and communicate effectively.

“It’s a cliché that people are hired for hard skills and fired for soft skills,” says Bruce Tulgan, chief executive of the management consulting and training firm Rainmaker Thinking in New Haven, Conn., and author of Bridging the Soft Skills Gap (John Wiley & Sons, 2015). “But without [prioritizing soft skills], companies can encounter more internal conflicts, have customer service suffer and see good people leave.”

All of that impacts productivity. Research from the Hay Group revealed that managers who incorporate a range of soft talents into their leadership approach can increase their team’s performance by as much as 30 percent. The reason? It “makes people feel valued and rewarded, gives them a clearer sense of high standards, and helps [them] feel more motivated,” says Rick Lash, director for leadership and talent at Korn Ferry/Hay Group in Toronto.

That’s the sort of thing that leads to “a direct line of sight” between soft skills and business performance, Lagunas says. “If your organization can’t function well, you can’t compete.”

Striking the Right Balance

In hiring, then, how can HR determine the right balance between hard and soft abilities? Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer that can be applied to all jobs, companies or industries. However, there are ways to step back and evaluate individual situations to come up with a workable mix.

Candidates, for instance, need to bring diverse elements to the table. And hiring managers might give equal weight to factors such as a person’s experience, cultural fit and soft skills. “But no one formula is the be-all and end-all. In a hard-to-fill position, hard skills may be 75 percent or 80 percent of the decision,” says Dwight Crain, manager of client operations and marketing for Profiles International, an employee assessment company based in Waco, Texas. He warns, however, that in some cases “you’re going to have to help the employee develop their soft skills or change your style to accommodate them.”

Hess believes testing is key. A number of tools are available to help employers gauge traits such as humility, empathy and compassion. Others measure emotional intelligence, interaction styles and problem-solving abilities. “Are you going to hire someone with a high narcissist score when you want humility?” Hess asks. Going forward, he says, “Analytics and testing will be important to hiring and developing growth.” (Of course, testing invariably means engaging consultants or purchasing the tools.)

Interview question

From Sue Byrne, HR manager for the Peters Corp.

What she asks: “What are you doing when you’re most productive in your job?”

What she wants to learn: How candidates relate on a personal level. “I want to know how they like doing the function of the role but also want to hear about who they like to interact with. I may ask them if they like to work with customers. I’ll get very different answers from cooks and salespeople, obviously, but the question is about learning how they interact with others.”

Where do you find these products? Kelly Painter, vice president of sales for Chelmsford, Mass.-based testing company eSkill, points to the buyer’s guide published by Rocket-Hire, a New Orleans-based business that provides information on pre-employment testing, screening and assessment products.

Not everyone is sold on testing, however. The Motley Fool, for example, doesn’t use algorithms and the like until after the company has made a hire, and “then it’s more about knowing how [the employee] will fit in with the team,” Healy says.

The Peters Corp., a Santa Fe, N.M.-based company with businesses in industries including hospitality and commercial real estate, also forgoes tests. Instead, the HR department uses a series of drill-down questions to get at how candidates approach their work, collaborate and behave toward others in the office. These include:

  • What is an example of a time when you worked on a project with more than one other person?
  • How did the team allocate the work?
  • What was the project’s goal?
  • Who decided what was going to be accomplished and who was going to do it?
  • What was the outcome? Did you succeed? If not, what were the challenges?
  • How well did you work with the team?
  • What do you think a successful team looks like?

“I’m looking at how engaged they are with me,” says Sue Byrne, HR manager for the Peters Corp. “I listen to see whether they’re thinking about their answers and look for their sense of how a team should operate.” Teamwork, she believes, is especially important to an organization like hers, in which activities span a range of sectors.

Think First …

But neither data nor interviews are worth much if you don’t know what you’re looking for. “On an organizational level, the first thing you need to decide is what soft skills really matter,” Tulgan says. “You can’t have it all. You have to articulate which ones are really important” and then build them into your selection process.

In fact, how you approach this “has got to be part of your culture and something you think about,” Tulgan says. “Knowing what’s important in your organization is part of what you anchor your culture to.”

The difficulty often comes when trying to determine whether a candidate will be a fit with your culture. “You have to screen well so you understand whether a person lacks or has those soft skills,” Crain says.

What does it mean to screen well? During the interview stage, determine the abilities the candidate likely lacks. Then, after the person is hired, “use that information to help managers manage those gaps,” Crain says. “They’re the ones who’ll have to deal with it, after all. It’s got to be a collaborative effort between HR and the manager.”

… And Think Long Term

This brings up an often-neglected point: Concerns about soft skills don’t end when a candidate is hired. HR needs to support employees who are coming up short.

“Sometimes hard skills rule, but then you have to realize that you’ve got to help those people develop their soft skills,” Crain observes. “Companies often make the hire and forget about the development. HR is overwhelmed. They don’t have enough time to work on development, especially of soft talents. Managers have to be involved in coaching, but they don’t have time, either.” That creates a domino effect whereby continuing deficiencies wreak havoc on the company.

That dynamic is one reason Hess sees a future in which HR will regularly assess each worker’s soft skills and then create an individualized development plan. While technology will facilitate feedback and evaluation, he says, it won’t be central to delivering the necessary learning. “That’s going to be done in teams by individuals,” he says.

Indeed, Hess predicts that the increasing emphasis on soft skills will spur a dramatic change in HR. “Human Resources will become Human Development,” he believes. “Most people don’t have training in soft skills. They’ll need individual development plans, working with a mentor and coach to learn about thinking, relating, listening and collaborating.”

In many ways, that fits with the landscape Tulgan sees as Millennials and members of Generation Z continue their progression in the workforce. “Unfailingly, the trend has been that managers say [young] new hires are below expectations and standards” when it comes to soft skills, he says. Despite the growing need they see for these capabilities in the workplace, “employers are forced to source for hard skills while it becomes harder to source for soft skills across the board.”

To address that, he suggests taking a systematic approach to identifying both workaday and big-picture issues related to these abilities. “When it comes to acute issues, HR needs to work with managers to make sure expectations of performance are spelled out and made tangible,” he says. “Document, measure, monitor and coach. HR’s role is to partner with the managers and help them handle [individual issues] and decide on consequences.”

To a degree, that means organizations have to screen for development potential. “You can’t change the way someone is at their core,” Crain says, “but you can teach them to manage their approach.” For example, an introvert may have to learn to be more outgoing in certain situations, like at a trade show, while an extrovert who’s used to dominating the discussion at meetings may have to learn to state his or her case and then sit back and listen.

The Motley Fool doesn’t shy away from hiring for potential. “Don’t be afraid to take a chance on someone,” Healy says. “Sometimes the inclination is to check nine out of 10 boxes. Instead, we look for people we can train up.”

It’s All About the Role

The bottom line is that the weight these capabilities carry in a hiring decision depends on the role.

“Some [positions] require soft skills more than others,” says Parker McKenna, SHRM-SCP, chief human resource officer of the Springfield, Mo., public school system. “Generally, they’re as important, but, whatever the case, it is not an ‘either/or’ situation. It’s an ‘and.’ ”

Of course, a candidate must be qualified for the job first and foremost. “But once you’re past that, you evaluate finalists on fit, value and soft skills,” McKenna says.

That process comes with a caveat, however. “You want to be careful you’re not overwhelmed by soft skills,” Healy says. “They can mask performance issues. Someone can come off as collaborative, but then you discover they’re not working out.”

Byrne has run into just that situation. Recently, she had to fill two positions where the successful candidates would work closely together and also with four other team members. “I got so jazzed about one candidate’s experience, I got distracted,” she says. “I asked about soft skills but should have drilled deeper. I ended up hiring a person who had no team experience and no office etiquette. I should have gotten into the specifics of [the candidate’s] team experience.”

Noting that the individual is still with the company, Byrne calls the hire “not a mistake, but an obstacle.” Every day is a challenge, she says, “because that person doesn’t have a team orientation. I feel like I need to give that employee every opportunity to succeed and learn and be mentored for behavioral change.”

The experience taught her a lesson, Byrne says: “We’re always in a hurry to do our best job, but ‘hurry’ has to come out of the equation. I convinced myself that both of these candidates were going to be great, when I should have taken a step back and kept drilling down.”

Mark Feffer is a freelance business writer based in Philadelphia.

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