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Hiring: Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills

Patrick Proctor
Patrick Proctor

When hiring employees, you should evaluate both hard and soft skills to make the most well-rounded hires.

  • Regardless of the job, employees need both hard and soft skills to succeed in today's workplace.
  • Hard skills and soft skills play off each other. They help define the strengths of individuals and teams as well as how projects get tackled.
  • Knowing how to hire for certain hard and/or soft skills is essential to your company's success.
  • This article is for small business owners and supervisors who want to learn more about hard and soft skills that employees must have and how to ensure that new hires are right for their business needs.

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 work well within teams.

What are the differences between hard skills and soft skills?

Hard skills

Hard skills are often the more tangible of the two types of skills. Think of hard skills as more quantifiable and binary. You can generally measure work product resulting 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 IT 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 – i.e., people skills – 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 (e.g., meet deadlines and project targets on time)
  • A solid and consistent work ethic
  • Attention to detail

Indeed offers its own list of key hard and soft skills to help define one category from the other:

Key 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% 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% 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. 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. Basically, 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 really 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. 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 even 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.

Key takeaway: Building teams around individuals' 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 is 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. The Indeed Career Guide suggests the STAR interview response technique. You can use it as a guide for effective questions to ask applicants:

  • Situation: "Share circumstances about a situation you dealt with in the workplace and the unique challenges it presented you with."
  • Task: "Discuss your involvement in the situation and how it made you feel."
  • Action: "Outline how you responded initially and what action solved or placated the issue. Did you involve others? If so, why?"
  • Result: "Describe the outcome of your actions. What behaviors were present (by you and others who contributed to the outcome)? Are there data (statistics, sales numbers, etc.) that show your results were positive and created a path forward?"  

Sample interview questions

STAR-cultured questions help tease out the candidate's more specific answers to an interview's questions with real-world responses. Open-ended questions (which avoid simplistic "yes" and "no" responses) like these best support this goal:

  1. "Can you describe a time in the workplace when you had to manage your team through a difficult or uncertain situation?"
  2. "When you have multiple deadlines to meet, how do you decide what tasks to prioritize?"
  3. "Thinking back through your career, can you share the most significant problem that you solved in the workplace?"
  4. "How have you trained your team leaders to introduce new duties or tasks to co-workers who are unfamiliar with them?"
  5. "Describe a situation where your team's end results did not match initial expectations. How did you adapt to this outcome? How did you describe the reality to managers or other superiors in the company?"
  6. "How do you approach circumstances when an employee or multiple employees disagree with one of your decisions?"

Key takeaway: Hard skills are best assessed through binary tests that directly measure specific proficiency or have a right and wrong answer. Soft skills are better assessed through thoughtful interview questions that require candidates to pull from their personal experiences in the workplace.

Patrick Proctor
Patrick Proctor,
Business News Daily Writer
Patrick Proctor, SHRM-SCP, is certified as a senior professional in human resources. He has consulted and operated at the C-suite and executive levels for more than 15 years. Patrick actively maintains expertise within the worlds of human resources, organizational development, operations management and corporate social responsibility. Patrick is a contributor to business.com and Business News Daily, writing about HR and business management topics impacting leaders.