Hiring for technical skills versus soft skills and cultural fit

The best approach probably lies somewhere in the middle

Hiring for technical skills versus soft skills and cultural fit

By Brian Kreissl

Many HR practitioners and others are saying employers should hire for attitude, cultural fit and soft skills and train new hires on the necessary technical or professional skills they may be lacking.

On the other hand, others are warning that basing hiring decisions too much on cultural fit and soft skills may end up screening out diverse candidates and lead to a groupthink mentality. Yet another perspective talks about skills shortages and how employers are having such a difficult time finding people with the right skills.

So, who is right? Do we hire for skills or cultural fit? Are HR professionals focusing too much on the softer side of recruitment and failing to consider whether candidates actually have the right skills to do the job, or is there too much focus on technical and professional skills and competencies these days?

I believe the best approach might be somewhere in the middle, and focusing too much on either soft skills and cultural fit or specific technical skills could be exacerbating skills shortages, turning off candidates and making it harder to fill vacancies. Going too far one way or another could be creating a situation where practically no candidate is considered good enough, and that helps no one — least of all employers.

I have previously discussed the phenomenon of employers holding out for the proverbial “purple squirrel” candidate. We have all seen the job postings asking for 15 years of industry experience, an advanced degree and a long laundry list of skills, experiences and technologies, all for a relatively junior-level job. Invariably, those postings stay up for months on end or get reposted every few months for up to several years.

Combining two or more jobs into one

Aside from requiring previous industry experience in a job where it isn’t really relevant, and insisting on people who have held the exact same job title and experience with proprietary software they couldn’t possibly have learned elsewhere, one of the problems I see is employers are often combining what used to be two or more jobs into one. Jobs become so specialized and require such a broad range of skills that practically no one is qualified for the job in question.

To top it off, if some people actually have all of the required skills, competencies and experience, some employers claim those individuals lack focus or are “all over the map” with their education and experience. When employers actually find what they’re asking for, they often don’t seem to want it.

The idea is to be versatile and have a broad base of skills but still be able to position yourself as a specialist. It feels like employers these days want candidates to take a poison pill so they ruin themselves for any other type of jobs and scream from the rooftops exactly what type of job they are looking for and how they define themselves.

I remember what it was like looking for a job in the mid-90s. Employers got so picky about technology that they insisted on experience with version 2.1 of a software package.

If you only had experience with version 2.0 they weren’t interested, in spite of the fact the difference between the two could be documented on the back of a napkin and it would literally take 10 minutes to master the new version. It feels like we have returned to that type of recruitment environment, and employers aren’t relaxing those stringent requirements now that the labour market has gotten tighter.

A baseline of technical skills

While I agree up to a point with people who say it’s better to hire for soft skills and cultural fit and train people on the requisite technical skills, I personally think there has to be a certain baseline of technical or professional skills before it makes sense to hire someone. I have also written about the dangers of basing hiring decisions too much on cultural fit.

So, by all means be prepared to relax your candidate wish list that no mortal being could ever hope to live up to and be prepared to provide training to new hires, but get off your high horse about how super wonderful and superior your organization is culturally and how practically no one measures up. Being so ridiculously picky won’t help your organization in the long-run — especially when every other company starts behaving the same way.

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