By Gillian Hasley, eBusiness Manager, Monster UKIE

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 in lower-level positions due to their inability to handle the social demands of leadership, or bulldoze through the organisation, leaving a trail of poor morale and increased turnover.

Hiring employees based on technical knowledge without looking at social skills is like designing a car 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 and 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' or 'interpersonal savvy'.

Social skills depend primarily on four fundamental characteristics:

Self-awareness - Monitoring how our actions affect the behaviour of those around us.

Sensitivity to others - Showing concern toward the needs and feelings of others.

Social intelligence - Understanding methods for influencing others' behaviours 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 lunches 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 behaviour. 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.

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