Employability matters

Where competence meets personality

Finding the right people to work for your company can often be a challenge. Traditionally, employers have been told to hire applicants based on their strength in the two realms that contribute to performance: “can do” (innate or learned skills and abilities) and “will do” (motivation). Trying to cover both domains has fueled a robust industry of psychometric tests, guides to structured interview techniques, and even attempts to analyze biographical data in an empirical fashion to predict future performance. It now turns out that despite the experts, employers have often focused on a different and equally or more important criterion of “employability” which may be separate from performance: interpersonal skills. Not the interpersonal skills that contribute directly to work performance, but those that make an employee bearable to be around.

What specifically is meant by these “interpersonal skills”? In a recent review article in the journal Industrial and Organizational Psychology , psychologists Robert Hogan, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Robert Kaiser discuss what we know and don’t know about the factors that make people more employable and thereby successful in their careers.

People Skills Matter to Employers

Hogan and his colleagues note that a number of government studies have shown interpersonal skills to be a high priority to employers. Analysis of employment ads also show the stress employers put on “good social skills”. They present numerous studies showing that “being rewarding to deal with, ” including “sensitivity to others,” makes people employable. [If this sounds a lot like what is called emotional intelligence, it should, even if that specific term is amorphous and may be a collection of loosely related characteristics]. Other studies show that derailed executives (those whose once-promising careers go off the rails) are similar to successful ones in terms of skills, experience, motivation and even track records of success. Where they differ is that they are likely to have abrasive personalities and a history of troubled relationships in the workplace.

They summarize:

“The set of attributes that combine to make people employable (or successful in their careers) also explains why some high IQ people are unemployable. Unemployable people are irritable, challenging, and disputatious – not rewarding to deal with; they also display bad judgment; still others are stubborn, nonconforming, and insubordinate. Unemployability, therefore, is a composite of irritability/rudeness, social insensitivity, and incompetence, which explains the links between dark side personality traits and counterproductive work behavior”.

Hogan and colleagues urge their fellow psychologists to stop telling employers what they should want (purely strong performers) and start listening to what the employers want (employees they can live with). In fact, Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, says that his company conducts two separate interviews with candidates – one for performance capability and a separate one to determine fit with the Zappos culture. Zappos will fire or not hire stellar candidates who cannot fit into the Zappos culture.

Things to Keep in Mind

Having said this, there are a number of caveats to consider:

The importance of such skills will obviously vary according to the amount of customer or coworker interaction is needed for job performance. An abrasive person who peers into a computer all day does less harm than a receptionist, sales person, or others with the same negative traits. As an employer you still need to define what social skills will be needed for your workplace and the specific job and tailor your inquiries, interview questions and reference checks to what you need.

Good interpersonal skills are not a trait that necessarily generalizes across situations, even within the same person. Someone can be suave, engaging, and complimentary with clients and bosses – yet hated by coworkers and subordinates for being vicious, backstabbing, and controlling.

Employability does not equate to or negate the importance of actual work performance. No matter how nice some people are, he must be competent in his their line of work. It is not responsible to over-value the soft skills, although some employers do that because they value minimizing conflict in their workplace over everything else. Ideally, social skills would be the tiebreaker among otherwise equally capable candidates. If the candidates are of unequal competence, and the lesser skilled is better socially, how much skill would an employer be willing to give up for the added benefit of better social competency? This is an interesting and not easily resolved dilemma, and the answer likely varies by profession and industry.

There are exceptions – small business owners who cannot be dislodged, their relatives, and some bureaucratic executives who are inexplicably protected in perpetuity – who can get away with being annoying for the long haul. But the message for you is that in most cases, your socially challenged manager, no matter how great a rainmaker or technician, will have to change or leave. The only question is how much you will tolerate in terms of turnover, conflict, and even lost business before you take the issue in hand.

Fred Mael, PhD, helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers. www.maelconsulting.com. This article appeared in the August 2013 issues of Baltimore SmartCEO and Washington SmartCEO magazine.