Beyond Technical Abilities: Evaluating Soft Skills

By Katherine Spencer Lee

(Back to article)

When managers prepare to hire new IT staff, they frequently concentrate on the "hard" skills essential to perform the work, such as five years of experience with Microsoft SQL Server, JavaScript expertise or in-depth knowledge of network security strategies.

Yet as much attention -- if not more -- should be paid to the "soft" skills that are less easy to quantify when evaluating candidates.

Often, the key to a successful hire is how well the individual fits in with the team and company. The way someone interacts with others, explains technical information and relates to broader business issues, for instance, can make all the difference in his or her effectiveness on the job.

What follows are some of the "ideal" qualities you should look for when recruiting IT staff and tips for assessing these abilities during the screening process:

Communication Skills

Few IT professionals work entirely on their own. Rather, most are active participants in designing, implementing, managing and supporting technology projects, which means they frequently interact with other employees, clients and outside vendors.

As a result, strong written and verbal communication skills are critical to successfully completing their responsibilities.

A candidate's cover letter and resume can give you an idea of his or her writing abilities. Watch for typos, grammatical errors and misspellings, as these can indicate problems that could arise in documents at work.

To assess verbal skills during interviews, try to use open-ended questions that require detailed explanation, such as, "Describe a situation which you …" or, "Can you explain … ."

Business Acumen

The role technology plays in a company's success is growing, so those driving and supporting IT must understand its role within the organization as a whole.

IT professionals don't need to be experts in healthcare, for instance, but they should know how technology can benefit your firm's dealings in that industry and contribute to business growth.

These questions that can help you gauge business knowledge during an interview include:

  • What do you think your current/past company could do to be more successful?
  • Have you ever prepared a budget? If so, what steps did you take in the process?
  • What do you know about our firm's industry?

    Interpersonal Skills

    Diplomacy and tact are critical when working on teams to complete technology and business initiatives. IT professionals must be able to build successful relationships with managers and colleagues throughout the organization as well as understand the unique requirements of each end-user group.

    Interview questions that can help you evaluate interpersonal skills include:

  • How would your current/previous coworkers describe you?
  • Who was your best boss ever and why? Who was the worst, and looking back, what could you have done to make that relationship better?
  • How do you handle conflict? Can you give me an example of how you dealt with a workplace conflict in the past?

    Bottom-Line Success

    Technology professionals with a history of accomplishments at work are likely to make lasting contributions in future positions, so be sure to ask candidates about the greatest achievements in their previous jobs and throughout their entire careers.

    Some people may equate success with receiving a promotion or special award, while the actual process of setting objectives and accomplishing goals motivates others. Compare responses to how your best employees might answer.

    Take a close look at your hiring criteria and make sure you have noted all of the qualities essential to perform the job effectively. By considering not only technical expertise but also a balance of soft skills, you'll find you're making better additions to your IT team.

    Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a provider of IT professionals for initiatives ranging from e-business development and multi-platform systems integration to network engineering and technical support. Robert Half Technology has more than 100 locations in North America and Europe, and offers online job search services at Robert Half Technology.