Looking for an Applicant with Great Soft Skills? Ask Their Co-Workers

Study of 20,000 job references finds managers tout experience, not interpersonal skills

By Roy Maurer Aug 4, 2017
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New research suggests that co-workers tend to emphasize interpersonal behaviors, like being helpful or compassionate, when providing references for job candidates, as opposed to managers, who are more likely to focus on experiences or completed tasks.

SkillSurvey, a cloud-based reference checking, sourcing and credentialing firm in Berwyn, Pa., analyzed references from 10,000 managers and 10,000 co-workers for 5,000 job candidates.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Conducting Reference Checks]

Soft skills are the attributes that enable someone to effectively interact with others—like relationship-building, good communication and adaptability—and are a major part of the mix of traits that makes a great teammate.

"While managers may be able to speak to a candidate's abilities, a co-worker may provide more insights about a candidate's office presence and effectiveness as a teammate, which has the potential to impact customer service, company culture and organizational success," said Ray Bixler, SkillSurvey's CEO and president. "These results really drive home the importance of a holistic reference check, where feedback from both former co-workers and managers is taken into consideration."

Colleagues tend not to suggest people who lack these traits, said John Sullivan, an HR thought leader, author and professor at San Francisco State University. "If you rely on employee referrals, you will find that most employees simply won't refer someone on their team who doesn't have the necessary soft skills. But with a referral, you also get an additional opportunity to verify soft skills by asking the referring employee to list and assess the soft skills of those that they refer."

To dig deeper, give references a list of soft skills and ask them to rank the ones that best reflect the candidate, Sullivan said. "It also makes sense to ask the reference to give an example of how they have seen the candidate exercise [these skills]. If any references rank any essential soft skills toward the bottom of the ranking or not at all, you should be concerned."

How to Assess for Soft Skills

Assessing soft skills during the job interview—the most common method of determining if the applicant has these traits—can be problematic, because candidates are in "interview mode," engaged with the interviewer and on their best behavior, experts believe.

Sullivan offered the following tips for assessing candidates' soft skills:

  • Ask candidates to force rank their soft skills from the strongest to weakest. "The force ranked list can quickly reveal which of the soft skills they believe they have and the ones they consider themselves to have as the strongest," he said.
  • Give them an online test. There are many vendors that offer online soft skills testing.
  • Assess candidates surreptitiously. "Companies like Zappos and Southwest have assessed candidates' soft skills when they're not expecting it," Sullivan said. This approach has receptionists, shuttle drivers, café workers and other staff who encounter the candidate assess and report back their attitude and interpersonal skills outside of the formal hiring process "when they think no recruiter is watching."
  • Put them to work. "By far the most accurate way of assessing soft skills is to give candidates an opportunity to work with the team," Sullivan said. "When feasible, ask them to work on a night, weekend or remote project." This applicant-project approach needs to have a defined short duration and should be paid, he added. "These approaches allow employers to make more accurate soft skill assessments, while also providing the candidate with a realistic job preview."

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