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Rethinking Soft Skills in HR

A crossword puzzle with the words soft skills.

​Recruiters often emphasize the importance of so-called soft skills such as leadership, teamwork and communication—skills that are not specific to any particular job and can be applied to any role a worker takes on. Both job candidates and HR departments may need to re-evaluate their approach to these skills because while they are not technical, they are essential—particularly when it comes to being successful in HR.

Reframing Soft Skills

According to the employment website Indeed, employers recognize the importance of soft skills when hiring new people. For example, a candidate who appears to be committed, motivated and able to resolve conflict is likely to have the capacity to stay with the company for a long time.

Laura Mazzullo, founder and owner of East Side Staffing, a New York City-based recruiting firm focused on the placement of HR professionals, sees the term "soft skills" as a bit of a misnomer and instead refers to them as "core cultural contribution skills"—skills that would allow a job candidate to make the greatest contribution to a company's culture. "I try not to call them soft skills because I think they're some of the hardest and most necessary life skills," she said.  

When working with HR departments looking to add new team members, Mazzullo begins by defining the core competencies that are needed in HR. And those are often things that would be construed as soft skills—being a strong listener, being detail-oriented, having a large degree of empathy and so on. "I tie those into the interview process, so when I'm building a competency-based interview guide for my hiring managers, they're asking candidates about those skills and we are ensuring that the people we hire have those skills," she said. "So, they're absolutely crucial and important to discuss."

Mazzullo noted that the skills needed in HR are often less technical than those needed for other professions. "It's not like when you're hiring an engineer, you specifically need this type of software or system experience," she said. "A lot of times, we are thinking about what qualities they're bringing into an organization."

HR departments, when bringing on new candidates, should think about areas where they are lacking, Mazzullo said. Even if they are hiring an entry-level employee, there are typically significant gaps that the new person could fill. Is the team missing empathy? Kindness? Collaboration? Humor? HR teams need to incorporate that kind of introspection into the hiring process, as it will help them to make the right hire.

Philosophy and Motivation

Since the skills needed to be successful in HR are often less technical, recent graduates who are interviewing for HR jobs should find ways to explain to hiring managers their philosophy toward the profession. "Junior-level candidates need to think about their values, the way they like to work, the way they like to be led, the way they collaborate and what their strengths are," Mazzullo said. "That really is what makes a strong HR professional."

J.T. O'Donnell, founder and CEO of the online career coaching service WorkItDaily, stressed that prospective HR employees need to emphasize their intrinsic motivation for wanting the job. "Why will you get up every day and do the job, even when it's tough?" she asked. "We need to hear what's going to get you up every day and come in. We need that story, and the more powerful that story is, the better."

A powerful story that emphasizes your motivation and your soft skills can open doors that might appear to be closed to young and emerging professionals. O'Donnell recently worked with a college senior who wanted to get into recruiting once he graduated. He found his dream job, but the job posting was looking for candidates with five years' experience. And even if he got it, he would have had to relocate.

O'Donnell advised the student not to apply online, because his application would be immediately discarded. Instead, she recommended that he do some research and find the contact information for the hiring manager and then send a disruptive cover letter to put his soft skills and motivation on display. He did, and he beat out all the other candidates. The employer even paid for his relocation.

"I don't want college students thinking they can't go after jobs that say they need years of experience," O'Donnell said. "Tell the story, and they'll pay attention to you." 


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