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Oct 28, 2020
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

For years, talent experts have been urging employers to weigh a candidate’s soft skills over their hard skills when hiring. After all, employees can learn many technical capabilities on the job, while things like collaboration or creativity are often more challenging to nurture.

However, until recently, there’s been little pressure to focus on soft skills. Plus, in yesteryear’s candidate-driven market, it was tough enough sourcing strong talent without adding another layer of requirements.

Fast-forward six months and the stakes couldn’t be higher. In what feels like no time at all, we’ve seen the lowest unemployment rate in recent history transform into one of the highest rates as the pandemic runs rampant through every facet of our economy.

The impact on recruiting has been tremendous. Most organizations are recruiting on restricted budgets with fewer resources. And so now, all of a sudden, a soft skill like adaptability is the best quality a candidate can have.

I myself have been hiring new people and have marveled at the change in my own priorities. Here’s what I learned from my experience hiring people — and why I think it took a pandemic to finally get employers to prioritize soft skills.

Soft Skills Are Now Dealbreakers

Leading up to the pandemic, soft skills were always a factor in my hiring decisions. But were they the make-or-break requirements like they are now? Honestly, not usually. Traits like adaptability and flexibility were important marks for a candidate but not necessarily absolute must-haves.  

Now, if someone isn’t adaptable and flexible and open to frequent changes in priorities, that’s a dealbreaker for me, my team, and other hiring managers. So what does adaptability look like? For the recruiter roles I’m hiring for, it could mean:

  • Jumping into hiring for non-technical roles as needed, even if someone was hired to be a technical recruiter
  • Picking up a search they previously didn’t expect to own if a teammate becomes unexpectedly slammed
  • Jumping into initiatives outside of strictly recruiting, like cultural projects, internal comms, etc.

In today’s new paradigm, flexibility, strong communication skills, and the ability to adapt as working conditions evolve are the most important qualities a candidate can have. This hasn’t just happened at my company. It’s a shift in priorities we are seeing across many workforces.

The Popularity of Adaptability

Back in July, Lever commissioned a survey of 700+ talent leaders on everything from how they were using their time during COVID-19 to whether or not they were on a hiring freeze. The results painted a resilient picture of talent acquisition during this crisis. When it came to skills prioritized in recruiting, over 60% of respondents agreed that they will need to hire workers with skills that weren’t necessary pre-pandemic. These included: 

  • Adaptability (68%)
  • Communication (60%)
  • Technology proficiency (58%)
  • Resilience (47%)
  • Change management (28%)

You might be wondering: Why would these skills be considered “new” by talent professionals in 2020? After all, experts have been practically yelling at employers for years to prioritize such skills.

My answer? Because it took extreme external pressure to change old habits and priorities. Now that companies of all sizes and industries of all types are facing mind-boggling uncertainty, we’re seeing soft skills come into their own. The challenge going forward, though, will be how to screen for them.

The Impact on Screening

Perhaps another reason why recruiters have been slow to prioritize soft skills is because these skills can be tricky to measure. At Lever, we standardize our screening for soft skills through a mixture of behavioral interviewing and automated assessments during our hiring process to help recruiters and hiring managers address and measure capabilities accordingly. Here are three best practices we’ve found can help:

  • Apply empathy. It’s important to screen for adaptability, but you also have to show candidates your organization is adaptable and empathetic, too. While the pandemic has resulted in an influx of candidates to the market, that doesn’t mean recruiting will be easy. Most workers want to feel safe in the workplace and supported in the event they get sick.
  • Apply behavioral interviews. Communication is part of daily work, and the best way to know if a candidate has good communication skills is to understand how they handled situations in the past. Behavioral interviewing allows you to do just that and role-play to understand those experiences.
  • Apply automation. Automated assessments allow for reduced bias and the ability for recruiters to cast a wider net. By bringing assessments into your broader automation workflow, you mitigate the risk of objective bias creeping in. (Check out CodeSignal research team’s assessment frameworks.)

While it’s hard to say whether the prioritization of soft skills will become normalized after COVID-19, I certainly hope it will. The workplace is changing quickly and the things that make us human — our empathy, creativity, resilience, and emotional intelligence — will always remain our greatest assets as workers (and as people).

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.