Why Soft Skills are Critical for Hiring, Onboarding, and Employee Performance

May 3, 2023

min read


Kerry Wang

When Searchlight started to hire our team in 2019, Anna and I asked our mentors: “What makes a great early-stage employee?” The vast majority of advice told us to focus on Soft Skills like grit, coachability, and optimism. Now that we’re a few years into building our company, we absolutely agree that Soft Skills are the most important predictors of performance. Today, our software helps companies like Coinbase, Zapier, and Calendly assess their job candidates for traits from structured dataset of vetted soft skills.

Substantial empirical research has shown that Soft Skills are essential to strong job performance. We’ve synthesized academic research around Soft Skills to share everything you need to know.

What are Soft Skills and why are they important?

Soft Skills are the general knowledge and abilities required to perform a job, such as personality and behavioral traits. Soft Skills are a broad category that includes communication skills (e.g., empathy), performance management skills (e.g., persistence), leadership/organization skills (e.g., charisma), and political/cultural skills (e.g., active listening). Recently, forward-thinking talent leaders have renamed this category of skills as “Power Skills” to emphasize that they are critically important for success. Searchlight uses “Soft Skills” and “Power Skills” interchangeably.

Soft Skills are vital for high job performance, and can matter more than other traditional indicators of employee success.

#1: Soft Skills matter for job performance — sometimes more than being smart

A study of 316 full-time human resource representatives at department stores found that certain Soft Skills (such as persistence and empathy) improved job performance (as rated by direct managers). Even more, the study found that the predictive power of Soft Skills was larger and more consequential than the predictive power of cognitive intelligence. In this situation, being “smart” was less important to success than having relevant Soft Skills.

#2: Hiring processes that include Soft Skills increase diversity

In the college admissions context, research with nearly three thousand college students has found that selection based on cognitive intelligence and Soft Skills leads more ethnic minority applicants to be admitted as opposed to selection based on cognitive intelligence alone. Generalizing these results to hiring, holistic selection procedures that incorporate attributes such as Soft Skills may increase the diversity of new hires, which is an important goal at many organizations.

#3: Soft Skills promote better self-regulation, leading to positive life outcomes 

A randomized controlled experiment (the gold standard in economics and behavioral science) found that teaching children Soft Skills causally produced better outcomes in adulthood: better academic achievement and a lower likelihood of committing a crime. In summarizing the research, the author of the research, James Heckman (a Nobel Prize-winning economist) quipped: “We now have very hard evidence that you have to have soft skills in order to succeed.”

#4: 89% of mishires are due to missing soft skills. The Society for Human Resource Management found that three out of four employers struggle to find graduates with the Soft Skills they need. And according to the Harvard Business Review, research over the past few decades has found that the most important leadership qualities are centered around Soft Skills and emotional intelligence. 

So what are Hard Skills?

The opposite of Soft Skills are Hard Skills, or the technical attributes required to perform a job. Examples of hard skills include computer programming, foreign language proficiency, data analysis, and architecture. Necessary hard skills vary based on the role and even the specific organization in question. For instance, different organizations have different technology stacks (e.g., React vs. Angular) and require software engineers to have different hard skills. 

In contrast, soft skills are universally applicable and relevant.

How Does Searchlight Measure Soft Skills?

Searchlight has worked with DEI experts, people and talent leaders, data scientists, and I/O psychologists to create a list of mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive (MECE) Soft Skills.

Some techniques we used to create our structured list of Soft Skills:

  • Trans-situational by design: Our soft skills are relevant across workplaces and jobs
  • Unique Variable Analysis: Using this statistical test ensures that our attributes are non-overlapping
  • Adverse Impact Analysis: We continuously audit our Soft Skills to ensure that no demographic group is less likely to have a particular skill

Then, to assess if an individual has a soft skill, we tap into research that shows that multi-rater ratings of personality and performance are more predictive than self and individual ratings. We designed a 360 assessment to measure soft skills comprehensively with a self rating and feedback from managers and colleagues. Searchlight’s lightweight Soft Skills assessments removes the need to rely on multiple vendors and tools (like the Myers-Briggs personality test, situational judgment tests, and soft skills surveys).

Our Soft Skills assessment is both unbiased and comprehensive. Here’s how we validate this: 

  • Unbiased: We self-audit, conducting ongoing adverse impact analyses to determine whether ratings on a given Soft Skill are different depending on gender and ethnicity. If a Soft Skill shows potential signs of adverse impact, we remove it.
  • Comprehensive: We built our Soft Skills assessment building on established theories in organizational psychology and behavioral science (e.g., warmth and competence model of leadership), ensuring that our assessment does not exclude Soft Skills that have predictive power.  

As a result, Searchlight has helped our customers reduce the number of mishires and even make hiring processes more efficient by replacing interviews with our accurate data on candidate soft skills. Since our Soft Skills dataset is structured and benchmarkable, Searchlight helps companies surface the Soft Skills that are drivers of outsized employee performance and discover the Soft Skills gaps that they have opportunities to fill on their teams. 


You can’t ignore Soft Skills when making talent decisions. When kicking off a candidate search, we recommend aligning your hiring team around the Soft Skills that you are unable to compromise on, just as you would for the Hard Skills. Searchlight’s Soft Skills assessment enables organizations to reduce mishires and hire candidates more likely to become happy, engaged, high-performing employees. 

Kerry Wang

Co-Founder & CEO

Kerry, our CEO and co-founder, merges Org Psychology and Computer Science expertise. Passionate about people, psychology, and tech, she enjoys weekend reading and reality TV.

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