Top 10 qualities and responses to look for when interviewing a potential job candidate

When you have a key position open in your organization, you want to fill it as soon as possible with the best person you can find. You write a detailed job description, search through and find the best resumes, check LinkedIn profiles and, eventually, you narrow down your list to the top candidates.

As you prepare to interview these potential employees, however, it is essential to look beyond the technical skills of each candidate. In fact, those so-called "hard skills" are only part of the picture when it comes to finding the right person for the job. According to a 2014 survey by CareerBuilder, 77 percent of employers consider "soft skills" just as important as hard skills when it comes to evaluating candidates for a job, and 16 percent of the 2,138 managers surveyed say soft skills are even more important than hard skills.

So if a hard skill is the technical know-how for a particular job, what are soft skills? The term "soft skills" refers to a group of harder to measure personal qualities and social attributes that make someone a strong employee. The fact is that many workers have the necessary degrees, skills and knowledge to do a job, but, after they are hired, they may turn out to be all wrong for the positions for which they were hired. Some of these hires who look so good on paper can be unmotivated, dishonest or just plain hard to get along with.

While you can train an employee in hard skills, soft skills are more an inherent part of the person's character and are difficult to acquire on the job. If you are looking to hire a new employee, there are some key qualities you can look for when you are interviewing candidates. By carefully wording your questions and by listening for certain types of attitudes and responses, you find out who will fit the position and your company culture on all levels.

1. Communication

A study by the research and a consulting firm Millennial Branding showed that 98 percent of employers say effective communication skills are essential for their job candidates. By the time you have gotten to the interview, you already will have a handle on some of the candidate's communication skills. For instance, you probably will have corresponded by e-mail, viewed the candidate's social media pages and possibly spoken by phone or by Skype. Be aware of how much attention to detail the candidate revealed in these different forms of communication.

Now that you will be meeting face to face, it's time to ask some open-ended questions in order to gain a greater understanding of how this person will communicate with others on the job. Open-ended questions are a good way to evaluate communication skills. You could begin with a broad ice-breaker question such as: Tell me about yourself or tell me why you feel you are a good candidate for this job.

As your candidate responds, look for important communication qualities such as eye contact and an open body posture that includes unfolded arms and legs and a forward leading position. Next you can do more to assess communication skills by asking the candidate: Describe a time you had a problem with a supervisor and what you did to resolve it.

Here you are looking to see that the candidate values good communication. If he did nothing to resolve the problem, for example, that can be an indication of poor communication skills. Remember you are not evaluating the candidate based upon that problem -- in fact, it can even be an issue he or she had during a part-time job as a student - but are looking at ways the candidate has used soft skills to resolve the issue.

2. Positive attitude

According to leadership coach Mark Murphy, author of the book Hiring for Attitude, many employers miss clues during the interview that a job candidate will eventually fail as an employee. Referring to a study his company did that tracked 20,000 newly-hired employees in the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia that found that 46 percent of them had been fired or had received poor performance reviews over the past three years, Murphy contends that most new employees don't fail because of lack of skill. Rather, he says they fail because their personalities and their attitudes are not a good match for the organization.

A positive attitude is a quality closely linked with business professionalism. Even if you are hiring for an entry-level job or a volunteer position, you want someone who is upbeat and excited about working with your organization. When a candidate is enthusiastic about the job, it carries over into the workplace and into job performance.

Ask : How does this position fit into your career plan? The candidate's response will reveal what he knows about the company and your company culture and whether he sees a position with your company as a stepping stone or as a meaningful career.

3. Cooperation/Teamwork

How a candidate will fit in with the rest of your team is a huge consideration when making a hiring decision. Of course, there will be times when the candidate will work independently, but you will want to make sure that she can work well with your team on projects when necessary as well.

One way to ascertain this skill is by asking "Tell me about a time when you completed a group project at your previous position." Ask follow-up questions if necessary about the size of the group, the responsibilities your candidate had and the scope of the project. Also ask if the project was successful and why or why not?

Another way to gauge how well a candidate works with others is by asking: "When do you enjoy working in a group setting and when do you prefer to handle a project independently?"

4. Goal-Oriented

A strong employee is someone who sees this new position as a challenge. You will get the best job performance from an individual who sees the new job as a fulfillment of a goal rather than as just as the means to a paycheck or as another listing on a resume.

Find out how goal-oriented your candidates are by asking them a few simple questions such as:

- How do you measure your own success?
- Describe your short-term or long-term career goals.
- Tell me how your last job fit or did not fit into this plan.
- How will this job meet your career goals?

Another way to get a look at a candidate's career goals is to ask "Where do you see yourself in five years? The response you get to this question will not only reveal if the candidate expects to stay with your organization but will show how much he or she already knows about your company.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Business Skills course?

5. Flexibility

Flexibility is the valuable ability to adapt to different circumstances and different people and to handle unforeseen events with a sense of calm and grace. Companies that have been able to survive and even thrive during the last economic downturn have done so because of flexibility. They may have trimmed one aspect of their business while beefing up another, for example. In today's global economy, competition is fierce, and customers can leave you for your competitor's product or service with only the click of a mouse. As a result, flexibility is more critical than ever.

To determine how set in his ways your candidate is, ask him to describe a situation in which he had to adjust to changes over which he had no control.

6. Dependability

Hiring a reliable employee is the goal of every interviewer. You want to find a candidate who will show up on time and give his all to every project. You want to find someone who complies with your company rules and procedures and is trustworthy with company resources.

Trustworthiness is such an important soft skill, yet it is difficult to measure in an interview. What you are looking for from the candidate is how he has demonstrated dependability with prior performance. An opening question related to dependability could be: How would you describe your work ethic?

Follow that question up by asking the candidate to discuss a situation in which she had to go beyond the normal call of duty to get a job done. Ask for clarification on the candidate's job responsibilities when this incident occurred if necessary.

Keep in mind that there are no right or wrong answers to dependability questions. You are simply trying to gauge how candidates reacted in certain previous situations to help you determine how they will handle your workplace environment. Don't worry about fabricated scenarios. With clear, direct follow-up questions, you should be able to expose these as made-up examples.

7. Integrity

Hand-in-hand with dependability comes integrity. Despite what you may read in trendy headlines, companies want to hire people who conduct business ethically. The best employees are ones who are honest and upfront in all aspects of their employment. Apart from diligently checking the candidate's references, how can you assess your applicant's integrity? Here are some suggested interview questions:

- Tell me about a time when your integrity was challenged at work. How did you handle it?
- What would you do if an employer or a colleague asked you to do something unethical?
- Have you ever experienced a job setback or loss because you did what you felt was right?
- Are there any work situations when honesty could be inappropriate?

8. Creativity

The phrases "thinking out of the box" or "drawing outside the lines" have been used to the point of being meaningless cliches, but being able to think creatively is indeed a highly-valued soft skill in today's job market.

Managers are looking for versatile team members who can apply their skills to a variety of different situations and can solve unexpected problems that come up with ease and confidence. Here's an idea for a question to determine your candidate's creativity:

Approach the topic by commenting that your organization continually strives to do more - sometimes with less. Then ask the candidate to discuss a time he or she helped a recent project or become faster, smarter, more efficient or less expensive.

Strong job candidates will be excited with this question and eager to share their creative ideas. Another idea is to ask the candidates to share a time they had to solve a tough problem at work. Ask for as much detail as possible, including the deadlines and the budget for the project.

9. Organization

No matter what service or product your organization offers, a desirable job candidate is one who exhibits strong organizational skills and is excellent at time management. Although our culture has revered the concept of multi-tasking, current research is revealing that doing many tasks at once does not mean doing them well.

For example, a 2005 research study conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London found that workers distracted by e-mails and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers. When you try to accomplish two dissimilar tasks, such as writing an email and listening to a presentation, your brain cannot process both and encode them fully into your short-term memory.

When information doesn't make it into the short-term memory, the brain cannot transfer into long-term memory for later recall.

Another study by researchers at the University of California at Irvine found that office workers took an average of 25 minutes to recover from interruptions such as taking phone calls or answering e-mails and then returning to their original task. A 2007 article in The New York estimated that extreme multitasking costs the American economy about $650 billion each year in lost time and productivity.

Here are some interview questions to help you gauge a job candidate's organizational skills:

- Before you begin a new project, what steps do you take to get organized?
- How do you prioritize your tasks in an average workday?
- What steps have you taken (or would you take) when a project appears it will not make its deadline?

10. Intelligence

When you think of intelligence, what comes to mind? High SAT or IQ scores? Someone who is well-read? Someone who can speak several languages?

Broadly-speaking, intelligence is the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. Another more flexible definition is: "Intelligence is what you do when you don't know what to do." Howard Gardner maintained that intelligence has seven basic components: bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, logical-mathematical, musical, linguistic, interpersonal and intrapersonal. Emotional intelligence -- the person's ability to function within social or group settings --is one of the most desired skills to look for in a job candidate. This will determine how well the person interfaces with you, your team, and your customers. 

When you are faced with a stack of resumes from many qualified candidates for your position, how can you determine who has the intelligence for the job? That intelligence - that indefinable ability to make sense out of a complicated project, to figure out the next step when a project has gone haywire or to calm down an irritated customer -- is invaluable. An intelligent employee has the confidence to think on her feet. She doesn't get bored because she is always coming up with new ideas, and she has the ability to handle complicated situations whenever the need arises. An intelligent employee is innovative and adaptable to different surroundings.

Here are some questions to help you tell if a job candidate has the level of thinking you need for your company and is not just proficient at a certain job skill.

- From everything you know about this company, share how you will be able to make a contribution.
- What motivates you in your work?
- What frustrates you in your work?
- How will you continue to learn and grow in this position?

Be sure to leave time at the end of your interview to ask your job candidate if he or she has any questions for you. Surprisingly according to, the most common answer to this question is "no." Another common uninspired response is "When will I hear from you about your decision?"

A strong candidate will have questions that reveal that he or she has been listening carefully to what you say or don't say in the interview. This is the point in the interview when you can have a real conversation with the candidate. Listen for bold questions such as "Now that we have met and had a chance to talk, is there anything you see that would keep me from qualifying for this position?" or "What do you like about working here and what do you dislike about working here?" If your organization has recently made some changes or some headlines, a good candidate will ask about those changes.

A candidate who is bold enough to turn the tables -- in a pleasant way -- is someone worth noticing.

A few final thoughts: Take notes during the interview. First of all, especially if you are interviewing many candidates, your memory can fail you, and notes will help you keep your thoughts straight. When an interviewer takes notes, it also conveys a sense of professionalism and thoroughness about the whole process.

In addition, flexibility is not just for the candidate but for the interviewer as well. If a candidate gives you some unclear or incomplete responses - or just plain interesting ones - ask appropriate follow-up questions to clarify whatever you do not understand. While it is great to have your questions prepared in advance, it can be important to deviate from the script if you find it will help you know more about a potential employee.

After the interview is over, here are a few more tips. Check with your staff to see how the candidates behaved while they were waiting. How did they treat the receptionist? Did they engage with any other employees and, if so, how did that go? You are looking for any disconnect between the personas they revealed to you and the way they really are.

And, finally, do take the time to check the candidate's references - both the ones he gave you and the others he may not have given you. Ask detailed questions about job performance and work ethic and, if necessary, why the former employee left the position.

Are you still on the fence? Conduct another interview. For this meeting, you can ask other members of your team to be present. Make sure that you include key people who will impact the hiring decision and give them enough information so that they are clear about their role in the interview if they are to have one.

Whether it is first or second meeting, end the interview by being clear with the candidate about what to expect next. Let them know a timetable for your decision and keep to that timetable.

In her book, Interviewing by Example: Finding the Right Piece of the Puzzle, Janis P. Whitaker says an interviewer's job is to be sure that the new employee "fits into the entire picture of your organization."

"You need to look carefully at the entire picture, see what is missing (what skills and knowledge are missing)," she continues, "and search to find someone who has those attributes to fill the gap."

That right "fit" is a person who possesses the unique combination of hard and soft skills to get the job done in a way that will benefit all of you.