There is an axiom in business circles which suggests that hard skills will get a person an interview, but soft skills will land that person a job. This means an applicant with years of education and experience in the field might have the hard skills necessary to fill the position, but lack skills such as leadership ability or self-motivation necessary to perform well on the job. An ideal candidate for many job openings has a combination of both soft and hard skills, with a number of human resource directors preferring to see soft skills such as time management and a willingness to be trained.
Soft skills are qualities, personality traits and social skills which everyone possesses in varying degrees. Some people make friends easily, for example, which would be considered a valuable skill in the world of sales. Others are extremely punctual, or able to make rational decisions under pressure. A person may also have the innate ability to work with co-workers from other cultures, or learn a new language quickly. These would all be considered valuable skills.
Unlike specific hard skills such as mathematical ability or mechanical aptitude, discovering a job applicant's soft skills can be notoriously difficult. Some companies use special psychological screening tests to determine if an applicant has the right temperament or personality for a specific job title, although these tests cannot always predict how an applicant would perform under real world conditions. A new employee may have the technical skills and experience to work on a customer support team, but lack the soft skills such as patience or the ability to work under stressful conditions to be effective in the position.
Some employers use open-ended interview questions about an applicant's work or life experiences in order to determine desirable soft skills. For example, an applicant for a managerial position might be asked about a past incident in which he or she had to assume leadership. Another applicant might be asked to recall a time when he or she had to resolve a conflict or deal with a difficult co-worker or customer. How an applicant handles such probing questions during an interview can also reveal a number of other soft skills, such as the ability to form answers quickly or to see the positive side of a negative situation.
Many employment experts strongly urge job seekers to improve their soft skills along with their hard skills such as continuing education or specialized training. Many employers are reluctant to hire technically skilled applications who display little emotional investment in their careers or the ability to work well with others under stressful conditions. Having a proper balance of soft and hard skills is one way to level the playing field when competing against hundreds of other applicants in a tight job market.