CXO

Tips for gauging soft skills in IT hires

Soft skills, such as the ability to listen and communicate well, separate the merely technically proficient from the all-around team players. Get some expert tips for gauging your next potential hire's ability to work within your organization.


Technical skills are pretty easy to gauge. Give the candidates a test, run down a list of established questions, and see how much they know. But even top technical skills aren't always enough to cut it. You have to find people who will work well with your company, your culture, and your clients. You need to know that your hires have the soft skills—such as listening and communicating—necessary to keep everybody happy and make them more effective employees.

According to the experts we consulted, you can assess soft skills by asking the right questions and knowing what to listen for in the answers. Here are some of the tips they proposed that you can put to use in your next interview.

Propose work-related scenarios and listen for clues
"Ask the candidate how he [or she] would proceed with a specific assignment and listen carefully to the answer," said Helen LaVan, professor of management at DePaul University. "If the answer involves sitting down and writing code, this person is more a lone wolf than a team player."

That's not always a bad thing, LaVan points out, but if your line of work requires extensive analysis and collaboration, you'll probably want to hear an answer that indicates the candidate likes to talk with others when working. A person appropriate for a team type job might answer with something along the lines of, "I'd gather information from other managers, and ascertain who the end-user is and what format they need data presented in," and so on.

LaVan said it’s important to pose the following scenario to your candidate: "Despite your best efforts, you're going to miss a deadline. What do you do?"

Some people will tell you they'll stay at the office until the job is done—nights, weekends, whatever. That's nice, but you also want to hear that your prospective employee will alert the appropriate people that the deadline will be missed and tell them when the project will be finished, LaVan said.

"When you hear that [type of] response, you know you're dealing with a real team player," she said.

As the candidate is answering, be sure to note the type of language your prospective hire uses, LaVan advised.

"Does the candidate speak only in jargon? Is that how you want him to communicate with clients and peers?" she asked.

Know what you want
Career coach Lisa Taylor Huff suggests making a list of the skills and personal qualities you're seeking in a new hire before you begin actively interviewing. Be sure your list includes personal qualities that will work well with—but don't precisely mirror—your own.

"It's often tempting to hire someone just like you, because [they seem] comfortable and familiar," she said. "But the best teams have a variety of individuals with strengths that complement each other's weaker areas."

Ask for details
When searching for a team player, Huff said it’s important to ask for details.

"Everyone you interview will claim to be a team player. Make your questions more targeted, and you'll get a better sense of whether the candidate can back up that claim," she said.

You can ask, for example, how he contributes to a team environment. Look for answers that involve real collaboration and demonstrate that the candidate isn't afraid to delegate tasks when appropriate, Huff said.

You'll also want to look for clues that indicate that your candidate isn't fueled entirely by ego. Someone who wants to do the whole job—and claim all the credit—is concerned only with promoting himself, not the company as a whole.

Problem-solving style
"Two important questions to ask are 'What are your methods for problem solving?' and 'What are the resources you turn to when researching solutions?'" said Paula Moreira, author of Ace the IT Resume and Ace the IT Interview. Have the candidate walk you through her problem-solving process and see if her style matches your departments’ needs.

When the candidate reviews resources, look for answers that go beyond asking an officemate for help, Moreira said. While it's important to communicate with team members, it's also important to know when it's time to hit the books or the Web for some real research. After all, if you spend your entire day answering questions, you'll never get your own work done, she said.

Trust your instincts, but include your team
The experts advised that you trust your instincts—to a point. Unless your company is Just You, Inc., you're not the only person who's going to interact with your new hire. So, you shouldn't be the only one trying to gauge that person's personality. Have the candidate meet with several people one-on-one and in a casual group setting, if possible. You'll be able to observe firsthand how well the candidate integrates with the rest of your group. You'll also be able to question individual team members later on about their reactions to the new prospect.

Another benefit to including your team in hiring decisions is that it helps your group understand how integral their opinions are to the company's success. That's the kind of motivation money can never buy.

In the end, if you have to choose between hiring a candidate with stellar soft skills and one who is a technical genius but an exercise in miscommunication, you're usually better off with the superior soft skills, Huff said.

"Technical skills are easy to teach. Effective communication—that's much harder to learn," Huff said.

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