How to Measure Soft Skills… Without Being Biased

In the world of hiring, two of the biggest trends right now are also slightly at odds with each other.

On the one hand, you have the growing importance of soft skills as a way to identify great candidates who are likely to succeed in today’s modern workforce. On the other hand, you have the enhanced awareness of unconscious bias, along with focused efforts to reduce bias by incorporating more objective, data-driven methods into the hiring process.

Sometimes these two efforts can conflict. Let’s dig into why.

“Soft skills” are qualities that can be hard for us to measure; things like critical thinking, communication skills, problem solving ability, attention to detail, creativity, or emotional intelligence. They are positioned in contrast with “hard skills,” which represent the ability to do certain tasks or to have a specific competencies. It includes things like the ability to use Excel or fix a piece of equipment, for example.

While both hard skills and soft skills are important to look for in job candidates, employers are increasingly interested in soft skills because these can predict an employee’s long-term ability to adapt to the rapid changes in today’s workplace. According to data from LinkedIn, 92% of talent professionals said that soft skills were just as important, if not more important, than hard skills. These are the skills that won’t be automated or phased out by changing technology.

But soft skills are typically not as easy to measure as hard skills because, well, they’re “soft.” And some of the fuzzier skills, like communication and interpersonal skills, start to get dangerously subjective, giving the hiring manager too much wiggle room to make a hiring decision based on someone’s general likeability or charm.

This is where the quest for soft skills can sometimes infringe on the territory of our other major trend in HR right now – the goal of hiring a more diverse workforce by applying more objective methods to the hiring process. Unconscious bias is one of those things that affects everyone involved in the hiring process, no matter how well-intentioned we are. A lot of research has been conducted on tangible ways to reduce unconscious bias, and many of them involve relying on methods that are the most objective or quantifiable.

So, how can you measure soft skills in an unbiased, objective way?

First, you need to identify the soft skills that are actually relevant to the role. Some of the most universally relevant soft skills include critical thinking, problem solving, trainability, and adaptability. These are not only relevant to a candidate’s ability to do the job today, but also their ability to succeed at whatever their job may become in the future.

Second, you need to identify ways to measure these skills, beyond a gut-level evaluation during an interview. Some qualities are easier to measure than others. For example, critical thinking and general trainability are pretty easily captured by a simple cognitive aptitude assessment, while other qualities like interpersonal skills or creativity may require a fuzzier, yet still measurable rubric.

Third, no matter how you choose to evaluate and measure soft skills, be sure to do so in a standardized way. This means treating each candidate the same, putting them through the same steps in the hiring process, and attempting to compare them across the same dimensions. That way, when you make your final decision, you are comparing apples to apples, rather than apples to oranges. This helps to reduce some of the bias in the process and keep you from selecting a candidate based on intangible qualities that may not be relevant to the role.

Soft skills are so important in the modern era of work. However, the quest for soft skills should never devolve into the quest for candidates who rate highly on your “likeability” scale or who dazzle you in an interview. The goal of any hiring process is to identify the person who has just the right combination of skills and abilities to be the best at the job. It’s important not to let any superficial evaluations get in the way of that goal. It IS possible to measure soft skills without leaning too heavily into bias; the soft skills simply need to be measured in an objective and standardized way.