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Updated Jan 19, 2024

Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills: Which Should You Hire For?

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Patrick Proctor, Contributing Writer

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When making new hires, we typically have a good grasp on the skills we are looking for in candidates. However, we often focus heavily on the hard skills a candidate has and not as much on soft skills, even though well-rounded employees have both hard and soft skills. An employee with highly tuned technical skills will not necessarily be successful in a job unless they also possess people skills or the ability to work well within teams.


What are the differences between hard skills and soft skills?

Hard skills are tangible abilities workers have that help them do their jobs while soft skills are qualities or characteristics that can enhance workplace performance, improve company culture and support team members. Both are important as hiring a candidate that has both the necessary hard skills to fulfill their role and the right soft skills to complement your team is key.

Hard skills

Think of hard skills as more quantifiable and binary. You can generally measure the work product that results from hard skills’ capabilities ― for instance, the candidate either knows a computer program or does not.

These are some examples of hard skills:

  • The ability to type a certain number of words per minute
  • Knowledge of a computer program or skills relating to information technology support
  • Proficiency in a language
  • The ability to certify and run a machine or system that requires common training for operators
  • Data analysis
  • The ability to copywrite or edit documents
  • A specific degree, industry-recognized certifications, licensure or awards

Soft skills

Soft skills are the interpersonal abilities or personality traits that employees bring to the table. They are those intangible qualities that employers search for as they bring on new team members. An employee who is a technical expert in their field but lacks the soft skills to work well with others likely won’t be as beneficial to your company as someone who has those added traits.

Soft skills are also more diverse than hard skills. Here are some examples:

  • Effective communication skills
  • Expression of empathy for colleagues’ troubles and stress points
  • Self-awareness and the ability to “read the room”
  • Ability to work well in teams
  • Flexibility to pick up tasks and embrace changes in plans
  • Leadership qualities
  • Ability to manage time efficiently, such as meet deadlines and project targets on time
  • A solid and consistent work ethic
  • Attention to detail
Key TakeawayKey takeaway
Both hard and soft skills are essential to build a well-rounded organization. Hard skills are more tangible and quantifiable, while soft skills are more interpersonal and difficult to measure, although you certainly know when they are not present.

How are hard and soft skills used to build teams?

Research shows that 54 percent of organizations believe they are managing significant skills gaps that directly impact their overall organizational performance. Actively managing your team for a healthy balance of hard and soft skills is essential to your company reaching its goals. Many organizations, large and small, use various skill assessment tools to get an accurate read on individual abilities and skill sets as new team members are hired. Data from TalentLyft shows that 82 percent of businesses use some form of skill assessment.

Ensuring that you have the necessary technical expertise on your teams is important. However, so is having the right leaders, project managers and facilitators on your teams. The organization of the group should be an equal priority to the organization of the projects themselves and the tasks needed to complete them.

Measuring hard skills: Quantifiable data

Hard skills are simply easier to track and measure because you can look at hard data, such as test scores, progress toward budgetary goals, success in meeting project deadlines or data entry error rates. Hard skills are tangible and binary ― a person has the skill or they don’t.

Most managers are always assessing or tracking many of the team’s hard skill sets without knowing it. When achievements are many and goals are met, then hard skills are typically well represented within the team at large.

Measuring soft skills: Observation and analysis

Soft skills remain more challenging to measure and track within a team. A general assessment and performance review is necessary to determine if the most critical soft skills are present enough to meet the team’s needs. You can assess team leaders’ performance by tracking deadlines, seeing how punctual team members are and asking employees how engaged and happy they are within the team. Although these are more subjective methods of measurement, soft skills are still essential to success and do not always surface in tangible ways unless you probe like this.

Regardless of your need to build in additional support for hard or soft skills on your team, the process should look roughly like the image below. You need to identify a focus area, equip your employees with the skills training to succeed and then assess how your training and skill-building efforts are doing.

Building teams that incorporate a range of complementary hard and soft skill sets is a great way to ensure future balance and effectiveness of the team. Hard skills are easier and more tangible to measure and assess while soft skills are observable through more subjective analysis.

How to interview for hard and soft skills

In addition to what you search for on a resume, the interview questions you use to tease out candidates’ skill sets and other attributes are critical to determining who is most qualified to work for your company.

Employers often use skills assessments ― for both hard and soft skills ― to gauge the cumulative abilities and skill sets of current employees. These tests can also help you measure whether a candidate has the attributes to perform the job successfully.

Interviews and assessments: Hard skills

The most reliable way to assess hard skills is to employ a widely used skill assessment test that addresses industry- or job-specific tasks. These skill sets are easier to assess in a binary way. These are some common hard skill assessment tests:

  • Computer skills assessment
  • Work sample test
  • Cognitive ability test
  • Basic math or writing assessment

Interviews and assessment: Soft skills

The best assessment phase for skill sets is during the interview process. Develop questions that allow you to extract the information you need. You can find sample interview questions online to help you assess job candidates’ soft skills and attributes. Consider the STAR interview response technique. You can use it as a guide for effective questions to ask applicants:

  • Situation: Ask the applicant about a time they faced a difficult situation at work. Instruct them to provide enough context for you to understand the challenges they faced.
  • Task: Inquire about the tasks the candidate identified as necessary to address the situation. Ask them how they came up with these tasks and organized their time to address each.
  • Action: Learn more about how the candidate acted once they identified some constructive tasks they could take. Did they involve others or escalate the issue to management?
  • Result: Ask the candidate what the results of their actions were and what they learned from the experience. What might they have done differently knowing what they know now?

A candidate’s responses to questions that analyze a situation using the STAR method will reveal key things about their ability to analyze a situation critically, come up with solutions, plan tasks, organize their time and take appropriate action. It also demonstrates how well they reflect on their decisions, whether they’ve succeeded or failed and how they grow from handling challenges in the workplace.

Build your team with complementary skills

When recruiting candidates, it can be easy to determine whether they have the hard skills they require to do the job, but it’s also important to consider how their soft skills will complement your team. Recruiting and hiring people with the right combination of hard skills and soft skills can help level up your business in terms of both productivity and culture. When recruiting and hiring candidates, evaluating their hard skills and soft skills in context with your team’s can help you choose the best possible candidate.

Tejas Vemparala also contributed to this article.

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Patrick Proctor, Contributing Writer
Patrick Proctor, SHRM-SCP, is certified as a senior professional in human resources. His more than 15 years of executive level leadership inform his work on inclusive and engaging workplace culture, as well as educating senior leadership teams about human capital management and organizational strategy. Patrick has written dozens of articles on global business, human resources operations, management and leadership, business technology, risk management, and continuity planning
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