Human Resources: Should You Hire Based on “Hard” or “Soft” Skills?

In the game of business, hard skills are what most employers and human resources staff believe they should be investing in. In some instances, this might be smart bet, but not so fast…

You may not care if the company bookkeeper has great people skills such as flawless communication abilities or a friendly personality — as long as they’re able to do their job perfectly. This would lead you to believe you need to hire someone with an MBA from a top accounting college and (maybe) a little experience working in the field.

That would be  a mistake though, because there are at least a few key soft skills they do actually need to be a truly great bookkeeper — skills like punctuality and the ability to think critically — ie., things they’re unlikely to learn from you or on their own at this point in their life.

Fact is, some jobs will require a certain amount of hard skills, and some will require certain soft skills. Therein lies the problem for managers and human resources staff when trying to fill certain positions with the best candidates possible.

human resources tips: hard skills or soft?

List of Hard Skills:

  • Degrees/certifications
  • Industry-specific experience
  • Ability to operate various machines
  • Computer skills
  • Foreign Languages
  • Typing speed/proficiency
  • Design

List of Soft Skills:

  • Communication ability
  • Friendliness
  • Punctuality
  • Work ethic
  • Problem solving
  • Creativity
  • Patience

What’s Right for the Company?

The hard skills are always the easiest to get down on paper. You know your company and your industry, and the types of equipment and services you deal with. Soft skills are often an afterthought — just look at the copy/pasted lists of soft skills listed in the majority of Monster and postings online.

This is especially true for inexperienced startup managers or new human resources staffers who may not see the value that hard-earned life skills can bring to the table. The reality is, though, that it’s all but impossible to teach someone with poor social skills to be sociable, or to turn a life-long “tardy cat” into someone who shows up 15 minutes early for work every day. The same can’t be said for teaching someone who has good listening skills and patience how to use SalesForce or WordPress…

Sometimes a trade-off needs to be made between hard and soft skills in order to get the best bang-for-buck out of your team.

The Hard and Soft Skill Dilemma

It’s a definite dilemma that most employers face, even if they aren’t aware of it. Do you really need a salesman who has direct experience selling “Blue Widgets” in a B2B scenario? Why not a fresh and hungry kid fresh out of college who’s sole mission is to be the best salesperson on the planet — to kill it at all costs? Chances are, when they have the right soft skills — sociability, ability to persuade, internal motivation, creativity, adaptability, etc. — it’s pretty much a given they have the right attitude necessary for you to teach them about Blue Widgets and how to sell them to the business owners in your demographic.

In fact, choosing someone with the hard skills and experience necessary to hit the ground running the first day they’re hired might be a downright bad choice, especially if you and other staff are already experienced at selling Blue Widgets and can teach the teachable. By contrast, is there anyway you can truly tell if experienced “Candidate A” is burnt out, sick of their life, and just coasting until retirement — or until they find something better? In some cases, maybe. In others, not very likely…

However, the fire in the hungry, yet inexperienced “Candidate B” is hard to mistake and even harder to fake. You can tell they’re sociable just by talking to them. Creativity can be brought out by presenting them with innovation-driven questions. Persuasion? Hey, if they can talk you into hiring them, there’s a good chance they’re persuasive, eh?

hard or soft skills: which is best for human resources managers
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Priorities Need to be Set Before the Interview

I know I’ve been trying to sway you to the soft skill side of the office for this entire article. That’s because so few outside the world of sales and marketing place enough importance on these all important life skills, which include a person’s all important moral compass. However, many of you out there — particularly in the trades — need to place a huge weight on technical skills. Let’s face it, you can’t hire a farm boy fresh out of high school today to go out and start servicing your customers HVAC units tomorrow…

What I’m saying is that you can at least prioritise between these two categories of skills to make sure you get the best employee possible. Consider the HVAC scenario: a typical employer running an HVAC company would feel compelled to give preference to someone with 20+ years experience in the field, over someone fresh off their apprenticeship, or with even a decade of experience. More experience generally equals more hard skills.

I know this because I grew up surrounded by life-long tradesman and spent lots of time around the “shop”.

However, I would say that a select few of the tradesmen I ever met had truly excellent customer service skills. And, their managers were constantly harping on the entire team to up-sell customers on newer or more exciting or efficient products. Most were great at installing and servicing equipment, and great problem solvers, but in the end were less valuable because they lacked the actual people skills to help take the company to the next level by upselling, cross-selling, and providing hands-down service to get maximum referrals.

The fact is, your company requires a delicate balance of hard and soft skills, and it’s up to you to figure out — to constantly evaluate what that balance is — then adapt your hiring strategy to find the best fit.

How much does your company value soft skills?

Are they of primary importance, or simply a nice bonus to the team?

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