The 8 Things That References Say Candidates Need to Improve On

The New York Times had an interesting feature in the Sunday Review section on October 18, titled “Why What You Learned in Preschool Is Crucial at Work.” It discusses how important social skills are for today’s fastest-growing jobs. In the same vein, this article also goes on to say that research proves that jobs that do not require social or math skills, such as those involving manual labor, are rapidly disappearing and being replaced by jobs that require socializing and thinking.

As David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, points out, “[i]f it’s just technical skill, there’s a reasonable chance it can be automated.” So while technology has provided many conveniences, it has taken a toll on the job landscape.

According to the New York Times article, “the only occupations that have shown consistent wage growth since 2000 require both cognitive and social skills.” This research closely mirrors the top comments from references who are providing confidential, online feedback on job candidates.

We analyzed feedback submitted on a representative group of 3,200 job candidates who each received feedback from at least four references. The candidates were applying for one of many different job roles, such as project manager, customer service rep, field sales, software developer, cashier, executive, registered nurse, HR director, administrative assistant, skilled trades’ worker, accountant, store manager, university faculty, or engineer.

We used text analytics software to identify the key words and phrases provided by the references in response to the question, “Please indicate the top three areas in which this candidate could improve upon at work.”

Interestingly enough, a vast majority of the comments fell under the umbrella of what could be called “people skills” or characteristics that are compatible with “working with others.” More specifically, in the actual written words and phrases of the references, these key categories emerged in terms of areas for improvement:

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  • Being more sociable
  • Asking for help
  • Showing patience with others
  • Better team orientation
  • Listening more carefully
  • Being open to the ideas and opinions of others
  • Sharing information with others
  • Building relationships with others

This feedback confirms that the Times article is onto something. In a society so focused on technology and inter-connectedness via the Internet, it is encouraging to see that people skills are more important than ever.


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Cynthia A. Hedricks

Cynthia A. Hedricks, Ph.D. is chief analytics officer at SkillSurvey, Inc. An expert advisor with global consulting experience, she has spent most of her career improving the quality-of-hire for both small and large organizations. She has a Ph.D. in biopsychology from The University of Chicago. She regularly presents scientific research at the annual meetings of the Society for Industrial and Organization Psychology, and at numerous HR forums. Her research has been published in peer-reviewed journals; most recently in the International Journal of Selection and Assessment.