Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Hiring 101 – 2: interpersonal skills and fit to corporate culture

Posted in HR and personnel by Timothy Platt on June 3, 2012

This is my second installment in a series on hiring best practices. And my goal in this series is to discuss and provoke thought about the issues that businesses face, and both in defining their staffing needs and finding and securing employees to meet them, and on doing so through a consistent system of processes that would limit both their due diligence and risk remediation concerns and be supportive of their employees. That last point, I note should be a proactive concern for the hiring and employing business as well as for their employees, and for a variety of reasons that I will also be discussing in this series.

I began this series with Part 1: rethinking skills and experience requirements and priorities, focusing on immediate hard skills and experience needs, and on building and maintaining a workforce that includes employees who hold the necessary skills sets and in the right numbers (see soft skills in contrast and for reference further down in this posting.)

The hard skills and experience that a job candidate brings to the table when interviewing with your business are very important and in most cases they dominate the discussion of the interview process, and I add in the filtering process that would select out candidates who even make it as far as a first round interview. But I write this with a tight mental focus on four of those words that I just used: “and in most cases.”

The topic of discussion for this posting is an area where finding the best combination of hard skills and relevant experience to the job cannot legitimately be the only, or even the governing decision making criteria when selecting a best job candidate and making an offer to hire. And I start my explanation of that with a real world example from my own experience where I chose to hire the technically second most qualified candidate – and the most technically qualified was in fact much more skilled and experienced hands-on for the specific job requirements at hand – technically.

The job that my team and I were hiring for was web site programmer and we needed someone with impeccable skills in Java and JavaBeans, a solid working knowledge of Oracle database coding and systems and also legacy technology maintenance skills for Tcl/Tk systems as we migrated from that but still had to maintain it. Our technically best candidate was tremendously impressive for his hands-on coding and computer technology skills. But he drove everyone he interviewed with crazy at the prospect of having to work with him. He was arrogant and difficult and completely full of himself – and that was when he was presumably on his best behavior for a job interview. He met with each of a group of team members who would work with whoever was hired and we all came to the same conclusion. He would not and could not fit into our team as a productive contributing member.

One of the soft skills areas we all saw as crucially important was communications skills and we also all sought out team members with good interpersonal skills. This hire was supposed to be able to meet with and communicate effectively with internal clients from the various services we helped support through the company web sites. He needed to be able to draw out the insights and details that would tell him what he had to focus on as to need and priority in the work he did, so these web sites would offer the right functionalities and services to meet both our internal organizational needs, and the needs of the outside community members who would come to the sites. But this candidate could not listen. He simply knew best and he made it clear that he would only work on what he saw as important. He drove us to distraction at the prospect of having to face him Monday morning and for the entire week ahead and for every Monday morning and its week to follow.

We hired the second most qualified candidate who had solid Java skills and Tcl/Tk skills that were adequate, but who had less than ideal skills and experience levels for Java Beans. And she would have to rely at least at first on the help of one of our Oracle programmers and database admins to get up to speed on our systems for them. She had wonderful interpersonal and communications skills. And she knew how to talk about the technology and its details in simple, nontechnical terms when that was needed, and how to translate nontechnical expressions of need into actionable technical terms. We all thought her to be great and when we hired her, our stakeholders who met with her came to absolutely love her, for her skills and interest in helping meet their needs and in ways they understood.

This posting is about soft skills such as communications and interpersonal skills and it is about corporate culture fit and finding people who can fit in and work smoothly and comfortably in the business setting and with their fellow employees. And work with members of the larger outside community such as clients, and suppliers and other supply chain partners where necessary too: that always has to be considered as a possibility when evaluating potential new hires.

I gave an extreme example here and intentionally. First, this experience comes readily to mind for me as it pressed home so clearly and succinctly the need to consider more than just technical hands-on capabilities. But I also selected this because of the way these softer skills and the more technical skills can blur together. For this position, good communications skills were an essential to make those hard skills work – if this hire was to work on the right tasks and with the right features in their work flow’s products. Businesses hire complete individual people and they come as complete packages, so for hiring purposes hard and soft skills have to be considered together. The trick is in placing the right emphasis on what is looked for, and an emphasis that goes beyond just the technical and hands-on and even for technology positions. And as at least a first cut analysis of that, I would propose two simple sounding questions.

• Can this candidate meet the requisite hands-on and/or supervisory skills requirements to satisfactorily perform their job?
• And can they do this while working smoothly and effectively with the people around them so as to facilitate their in doing their jobs too – or at the very least so as not to distract and hinder them?

With this I finish at least a basic, first-draft cut on skills needed and offered, and on finding the right candidate to that level. I am going to turn to consider the issues and concerns of workforce diversity and discrimination in the hiring process in my next installment.

You can find this posting and series at HR and Personnel, and also see Business Strategy and Operations and its continuation at Business Strategy and Operations – 2.

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