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DSS Consulting, Inc., specializes in many high-tech staffing solutions. Identifying and understanding the aspects of each job, and then guiding candidates through the screening and pre-interview process, is an art best performed by recruitment pros with a human touch. Let the DSS artists create a career masterpiece for you.

Reviewing Candidates

Assessing Soft Skills

by Nancy S. Ahlrichs, SPHR


  • Soft skills like relationship building are often overlooked.
  • Employers hire for hard skills, but fire over soft skills.
  • Behavioral interviews gauge soft skills.

If you have ever been disappointed after hiring someone with all the right technological know-how, product experience, excellent diction or other hard skills, you know the pitfalls of job descriptions and interviews.

The Big Mistake
Since the 1998 McKinsey study, "The War for Talent," found that star performers are 50 to 100 percent more productive than average performers, employers logically want to hire more star performers who not only outperform their average peers, but also fit in and stay longer at the job.

But all too frequently, every element of the recruiting process -- advertising, job descriptions, interview questions, reference checks -- focuses on the hard skills part of the job opening, and disregards the critical importance of soft skills. As a result, employers have inadvertently lowered productivity and increased turnover. We hire for the possession of hard skills and fire for a lack of soft skills.

Holistic Hiring
Today, leading companies focus on integrating the necessary soft skills into all aspects of hiring. Soft skills are often referred to as competencies, or collections of observable behaviors that excellent performers exhibit much more consistently than average performers. These might include building relationships, fostering open communication and motivating others, but each organization should define these further.

Christine Deputy, a regional director of human resources for Starbucks Coffee Company, shares how Starbucks lowered turnover of store managers when it returned to using the best managers' competencies as a key element of the hiring process. In her August 2001 presentation to the IQPC Diversity Recruitment and Retention Conference in San Francisco, Deputy told the audience that the critical success factors for hiring are, "technical skills and knowledge, competency (behavior) profile and cultural fit."

Benefiting from Behavioral Interviews
Using focus groups and interviews with top store managers, Starbucks developed nine competency groups that are used as the basis of interview questions. Specific sets of questions were then developed to elicit evidence of experience using each competency. This is behavioral interviewing. Behavioral interviewing skills are built into Starbucks' management training program.

Like Starbucks, other employers are no longer asking candidates, "What would you do if 'X' happened?" Instead, they focus on uncovering behaviors already used by the candidate in earlier work situations. They ask candidates describe a time when they demonstrated each needed behavior. Typically, candidates are asked a three-part question: To overview a situation, describe what they did and share the outcome. "If they cannot tell a story, they do not have the competency," say Deputy.

To increase the odds of receiving qualified applicants, many employers build the requisite competencies into their job descriptions, advertising, reference checks and training programs. They train hiring managers as well as human resources specialists in behavioral interviewing to reduce the number of technically qualified hires who lack the soft skills needed to do well. Interviewing for soft skills and training for hard skills is the less expensive, more direct way to increase productivity and decrease turnover.

Does He Play Well with Others?

by Dr. Steven Hunt

Hiring decisions often focus largely on candidates' technical skills and expertise, with relatively little attention given to soft skills. This can result in hiring employees who have the cognitive firepower to succeed but lack the social skills required to effectively use what they know. These employees tend to either rapidly leave due to interpersonal conflict and frustration, stall out in lower-level positions due to their inability to handle the social demands of leadership or bulldoze through the organization, leaving a trail of poor morale and increased turnover.

Hiring employees based on technical knowledge without looking at social skills is like designing a racecar with a powerful engine and substandard steering and braking systems. Your car is likely to go somewhere fast, but not necessarily in the direction you want; it may even hurt a lot of innocent bystanders along the way. Fortunately, there are relatively easy and inexpensive ways to decrease the risk of hiring the cognitively skilled but socially inept.

Social skills reflect a person's ability to work with others in a way that accomplishes near-term business objectives while strengthening longer-term working relationships. The concept of social skills has been around a long time, although it is periodically repackaged under titles such as "emotional intelligence," "tacit knowledge" and "interpersonal savvy." Social skills depend primarily on four fundamental characteristics:

  • Self-awareness: Monitoring how our actions affect the behavior of those around us.
  • Sensitivity to others: Showing concern toward the needs and feelings of others.
  • Social intelligence: Understanding methods for influencing others' behaviors and perceptions.
  • Self-control: Being able to control our actions and emotions, particularly when under stress.

One need not be highly adept at all of these to be socially skilled. However, a serious deficit in any one area can result in major interpersonal performance problems in the workplace.

There are several methods for assessing job candidates' social skills, and an interview is the least complex. A candidate's lack of social intelligence may show up during the interview process as social errors. Carefully observe how the candidate interacts informally with others. Create social settings such as group discussions or luncheons that require candidates to display social skills. Moderately low levels of social intelligence won't be a problem unless the job requires the ability to quickly develop rapport with others.

Sensitivity to others can also be assessed during an interview, but it is a bit more difficult. During the interview, ask candidates to describe influences on their careers or interpersonal conflicts they have experienced at work. Pay attention to how they describe others in their answers. Answers that are highly judgmental or give little credit to the contributions and interests of others could be associated with low sensitivity to others. References can also be a good source of information. Ask people to describe what the person was like to work with. If they say things like "highly independent" or "difficult to manage," you may want to probe a bit more.

Self-control and self-awareness are perhaps the most difficult social skills to assess. One of the best ways to assess these social skills is to use a role-play exercise. This involves having candidates interact with trained assessors in a simulated work scenario (e.g., having the candidate give feedback to a fictional under-performing employee). If properly structured and conducted, role-playing can be one of the most valid predictors of social skill.

Social skills can also be assessed using standardized questionnaires such as personality tests and social style measures. These tests measure underlying beliefs, preferences and attitudes that affect interpersonal behavior. Many of these measures are relatively straightforward to use, fairly inexpensive and can be highly valid. There are a wide variety of well-designed measures to choose from, but it's often difficult to tell the difference between a good measure and one that looks good but does little. Consequently, it's a good idea to consult with an independent assessment expert when choosing this sort of measure.

Once you rate a candidate's social skills, it's important to decide how much weight to give that information, depending on the position you're filling. The right decision will help ensure a smooth ride inside your organization.

How to Interview: Ask the Right Questions

by Dr. Wendell Williams

Organizations must always keep in mind that an interview is a verbal test. Unlike pencil-and-paper tests, however, interviews rely on the interpretation of human beings -- an added complication. There is huge potential for error, depending on the questions asked, the answers given and the interviewer's personal bias. Typical interviews don't have structure and are usually nothing more than casual conversations. In fact, many interviewers focus solely on getting to know the candidate. This may be nice for social gatherings, but it has almost no predictive ability in the hiring process.

Two solutions have emerged to enhance an interview's predictive accuracy: situational interviewing and behavioral interviewing. Both techniques rest on job analysis, a very structured process that involves asking both jobholders and their managers a very detailed list of questions. The goal is to develop a list of critical job competencies. These become the target list against which each applicant is measured. Regardless of the interview technology used, any system that skips this process will be highly inaccurate.

Situational interviewing is characterized by questions like, "What would you do in this situation?" Theoretically, the questions would apply to job situations, and an applicant would give responses that indicate he has the competency. This technique helps separate the know-nothings from the "know-somethings," but it has limitations. For example, an applicant who cannot give you the right answer is more likely to fail than an applicant who gives the right answer. On the other hand, there's no guarantee someone who gives the right answer will know what he is doing in the workplace.

Behavioral interviewing involves questions like, "What kind of problem solving have you done in the past? Give me an example that includes the situation, your action and the results." It is based on the theory that using the competency successfully in the past is a good predictor of doing the same in the future.

Regardless of which interview technique is used, accuracy depends on job analysis, interviewer training and interpreting applicant answers properly.

The One-Question Interview

by Lou Adler


  • One question can elicit a lot of key information.
  • But the follow-ups are just as important.
  • It puts everyone on an even playing field.

Over the course of the past 20 years, I've been searching for the single best question to ask in an interview. I've sought after a one-question interview that would overcome generalizations and exaggerations, reduce typical candidate nervousness, minimize the impact of first impressions, and actually determine if the candidate is both competent and motivated.

Here's what I've come up with: Could you please tell me about your most significant accomplishment?

Now for the next 10 to 15 minutes, I'm going to make sure I get the following clarifying information:

  • A complete description of the accomplishment and its impact.
  • The actual results achieved and the process used to achieve them.
  • When it took place, how long it took and whom it was with.
  • Your title and role.
  • Why you were chosen.
  • The three to four biggest challenges you faced and how you dealt with them.
  • Some of the major decisions made.
  • The environment and resources available.
  • The technical skills learned and used.
  • The team involved, including titles and reporting relationships.
  • Some of the biggest mistakes you made.
  • How you changed and grew as a person.
  • What you would do differently if you could do it again.
  • What you liked and didn't like.
  • The budget available and your role in preparing and managing it.
  • How you did on the project vs. the plan.
  • How you motivated and influenced others, with specific examples to prove your claims.
  • Specific examples of how you dealt with conflict with specific examples.

This type of information is extraordinarily revealing, but bear in mind that few candidates will give you all this information on their own, so it's the digging in that matters. It's the interviewer's responsibility to extract this information from the candidate, not the candidate's responsibility to give it to the interviewer in a soliloquy about his greatest feat. This is what real interviewing is about -- getting the entire answer to this very simple but very powerful question. The key: Understand the accomplishment, the process used to achieve the accomplishment, the environment in which the accomplishment took place, the candidate's actual role, and why the candidate was motivated to do it.

Then pursue this same question in the same level of detail with the candidate for a variety of different accomplishments. Ask the candidate to describe two to three different individual and team accomplishments of the past five to 10 years. Put them in chronological order to see the person's growth and impact over time in different jobs and with different companies. Also ask about accomplishments that directly relate to job-specific needs. For example, "Describe your biggest accomplishment in setting up manufacturing scheduling systems."

With this approach to digging in and finding out about major accomplishments, you'll have what you need to make a reasoned evaluation of a person's ability to deliver similar results in a similar environment to your own.

By fact-finding in this way, you put all candidates on a level playing field. And when you can get all members of the interviewing team to conduct their interviews this way, you'll remove another key source of hiring errors -- the tendency of most interviewers to talk too much, listen too little and ask a bunch of irrelevant questions. Don't spend time learning a lot of clever questions to ask during the interview; spend time learning to get the answer to just this one question.

This one question, along with the requisite follow-ups, is all it takes.

Behavioral Interviewing Reinvented

by Jim Kennedy

Can a successful but static business practice gradually lose its effectiveness? In the case of behavioral interviewing -- a technique that predicts on-the-job performance far more accurately than other interview methods -- the answer is yes.

Behavioral interviewing is based on the premise that how a job candidate behaved in the past is the best predictor of how he will behave in the future. To elicit such information, a behavioral interviewer first identifies the skills or competencies necessary for a particular position (for example, decision making, persuasion skills, and problem-solving ability) and then uses a series of probing questions to reveal whether candidates actually possess those qualities.

Rather than simply asking candidates what they did in their jobs, behavioral interviewers ask candidates how and why they did it. This approach is extremely effective at identifying unqualified applicants or those who tend to exaggerate in interviews and on their resumes. The result is that more of the most competent and best-qualified candidates get hired.

Unfortunately, the behavioral interview has become a victim both of its own success and the fact that hiring practices have changed since the technique was developed 30 years ago. Traditional behavioral interview questions are predictable and often overly structured, and a virtual industry now exists solely to coach prospective candidates on how to prepare for them.

In fact, many candidates routinely invent examples of behavior before their interviews, or spin out prepared examples in real time in response to predictable questions. That means that behavioral interview questions are no longer as effective or useful as they once were.

But the behavioral interview can regain its effectiveness. Here are just a few of the suggestions we offer.

  • Use a Process of Discovery.
    Rather than resorting to predictable, structured questions, use questions especially geared to each candidate when you hear answers that need follow-up. Clarify what you hear until you feel satisfied that you're seeing the real person.
  • Take Time to Get the Complete Picture.
    It's important to know the combination of a candidate's strengths and limitations. The competencies you're looking for don't stand alone; they need to be considered in relation to all of a candidate's qualities. For example, someone who has strong analytical skills can lose much of that advantage if he is not also decisive.
  • Don't Just Rely on Questions That Prompt for Specific Examples.
    This makes it more likely you'll inadvertently telegraph or reveal the response you're looking for and makes it easier for candidates to respond with prepared answers. Competencies that emerge naturally from the interview are more powerful and believable than requested or prompted examples of competencies.
  • Seek Repeated Evidence That Shows a Pattern of Behavior.
    This is far stronger than a single example, and requires you to cover multiple jobs or time periods.
  • Drill Down for Specific Details with Every Story You Hear.
    Focus not just on the candidate's version; also ask how knowledgeable coworkers would describe the same event. When candidates claim results from what they did, ask for specific metrics and probe for further details.
  • Ask What the Candidate Learned from Past Experiences.
    This reveals the capacity to grow in a job and helps confirm the authenticity of claimed accomplishments.

Going beyond the original behavioral interviewing techniques isn't necessarily complicated or difficult. But it does require a different way of thinking about each interview and a recognition that business practices must keep pace with a changing marketplace. Users of behavioral interview techniques need to stay ahead of sophisticated and well-coached candidates, today and in the future.