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Hard skills vs. soft skills: Do employers consider soft skills as important as hard skills?

Written by Adnan Sami Khan

Hiring based on skills – rather than relying on resumes – is an increasingly popular practice among recruiters. Our 2023 State of Skills Based Hiring report found that 73% of employers already use skills-based hiring techniques, and 88% of them saw a reduction in mis-hires after switching to a skills focus in recruiting. 

Employers are using skills testing to identify their candidates’ skills and evaluate the balance of hard skills and soft skills they would bring to their teams. 

What a skills test can’t tell you, however, is whether employers consider soft skills as important as hard skills.

Those who hire candidates based primarily on their soft skills might find great communicators who perhaps struggle with the technical demands of their jobs. Meanwhile, candidates hired primarily for their hard skills might deliver results under standard conditions but struggle in situations where teamwork is necessary.

In this post, we help you understand the variables at work when weighing up candidates’ hard and soft skills. We discuss which skills are easier to measure, the role of employee development initiatives in balancing your workforce’s skills, and more. 

But first, What’s the difference between hard skills and soft skills?

What’s the difference between hard skills and soft skills?

On the surface, defining the difference between hard and soft skills is pretty simple. Hard skills are technical and soft skills are interpersonal. That’s the end of it, right?

Not quite. Like most things in hiring, skills aren’t black and white, and understanding the nuances is key. It’s best to start with where the phrases “hard skills” and “soft skills” come from.

The history of hard and soft skills

The earliest known example of splitting skills into “hard” and “soft” types came from U.S. Army documents from the 1970s. Officials defined soft skills as job-related skills that affected “people and paper,” such as inspecting troops and preparing efficiency reports. In contrast, they defined hard skills as “physical” skills with machinery and weapons.[1]

The purpose of this was to understand what types of skills new recruits picked up in different training courses and to ensure that they were developing balanced skill sets that catered to all their responsibilities.

The concept was taken up enthusiastically by businesses as a means of better analyzing their candidates’ and employees’ skill sets, but hard and soft skills have outgrown their original definitions 50 years later.

What are hard skills?

In the digital age, the definition of hard skills has shifted away from its original meaning. Due to increasing computerization, fewer and fewer jobs require physical or manual skills with machinery, and the more thought-intensive nature of digital skills blurs the boundaries between hard and soft skills.

McKinsey research has shown that the demand for technological skills has increased since 2002 and is only accelerating, with physical and manual skills decreasing in value.[2]

Automation and artificial intelligence will accelerate the shift in skills that the workforce needs


So, how do you define hard skills in this landscape?

One common definition of hard skills is that they are role-specific skills that address the core outputs of the job at hand. For instance, the hard skills of a marketing professional might include:

  • Google ads

  • Search engine optimization 

  • Social media marketing

These are technical skills that directly impact success in a marketing role.

Hard skills can also be specific to the employee’s seniority level within their career path. Workers can gain them through formal training and progressive certification.

Take the example of an accounting professional. The skills needed by a senior tax manager over an assistant tax manager are more complex; in this way their skills are specific to their level of seniority and responsibility.

Another common definition of a hard skill is that it remains fixed with little room for interpretation or personalization. The purest example of a hard skill in this sense is mathematics.

However, a skill doesn’t have to meet all of these requirements to be considered a hard skill. As we’ll discuss in a moment, the boundary between soft and hard skills can be fuzzy. 

Think of these requirements as more like symptoms to diagnose the “hardness” of a skill:


Seniority specific

Developed through formal training

Fixed base of knowledge

Accounting (advanced)





Project management



Not always


Mechanical Reasoning





The more “yeses” you have, the more confident you can be in considering it a hard skill.

What are soft skills?

The definition of soft skills, on the other hand, remains largely the same as it always has: They are personal traits, often related to personality type, that affect how you communicate and collaborate with others as well as motivate yourself when working alone.

They are usually applicable to a wide range of roles. While they may become more important or sharper the higher up the career ladder one moves, they don’t fundamentally change.

They’re not often associated with formal training and may need to be adapted across cultures or business contexts.

The most commonly-used example is communication. On the surface, it ticks all of the boxes for a soft skill:

  1. A person’s communication style is closely related to their personality type 

  2. It’s required to a greater or lesser degree in nearly every role

  3. People tend to think of it as an innate quality rather than a trained skill

However, just like with hard skills, there’s more nuance to soft skills than meets the eye.

As we’ve discussed, soft skills are frequently presumed to be innate and aren’t usually certified through formal training. The lack of certification or financial investment in developing soft skills often leads employers to undervalue them, but the notion that soft skills develop naturally and without work is false.

Take the example of leadership. Many of us will know “natural born leaders” – people who have always had some form of leadership skills. However, there are thousands of leadership training programs available focused on taking this natural ability to the next level.

The same is true of many other soft skills: They might start as a natural talent, but they are developed with hard work and training. For example, many soft skills are taught in liberal arts programs, including: 

  • Oral communication 

  • Critical thinking

  • Ethical judgment

  • Effective teamwork

  • Written communication 

  • Applying skills and knowledge to the real world

Though, of course, university isn’t the only place one can gain these skills.

Soft skills are required in every job role, whether you’re hiring a customer success representative or a Java developer, but they are also frequently core competencies, especially for leadership roles.

Leadership and people management skills are central requirements for chief executive officers and line managers alike. In fact, the further up the management ladder one moves, and the more time one spends managing other people, the more important these skills become. 

One study conducted by McKinsey found that 20 leadership traits correlate with organizational performance, all of which are related to four key soft skills:

4 key soft skills that correlate with organizational performance
  1. Insight – Offering a critical perspective on a business problem

  2. Integrity – Giving praise and exemplifying organizational values

  3. Courage – Championing desired changes and remaining calm in the face of uncertainty

  4. Agility – Motivating teams and recovering from failures while maintaining positivity

Now you understand exactly what separates hard skills from soft skills. But how do these definitions help you weigh the value between hard and soft skills to compare job candidates?

Do employers consider soft skills as important as hard skills: Hard skills or soft skills?

It’s already clear that there’s more overlap between hard skills and soft skills than meets the eye and that they have different uses in the workplace. So, how can you decide which skill set is more important when making a hiring decision?

We present the arguments for both sides. First up: hard skills.

The case for hard skills 

The argument for prioritizing hard skills during hiring is pretty obvious. Because these are the skills most closely related to the role’s core competencies, they are frequently thought of as money-making skills.

This is partially what makes skills testing so significant. Skills test results are almost 10 times more effective than looking at a candidate’s years of experience when predicting job performance, with work sample tests and cognitive ability tests proving particularly useful.[3]

However, there are other factors to consider.

It’s more obvious which hard skills you need

Hard skills are usually the reason you’re hiring for a role in the first place. It’s more obvious when you’re missing them than when you’re missing soft skills because your teams miss targets or run overtime on projects. This makes them most likely to be picked up during a skills gap analysis.

Hard skills often clear the way for soft skills

It’s true, too, that in many professions, individuals need strong hard skills for their soft skills to come to the foreground.

Take sales, for example. To deliver a dynamite pitch to a potential client, salespeople must first maintain solid lead-generating processes to find these clients. This requires various hard skills, such as newsletter marketing and smart use of customer relationship management software.

Hiring for hard skills is more practical

Hiring for hard skills may make more practical sense. By virtue of being more technical, they are easier to measure. For instance, it’s easy to objectively measure PostgreSQL skills using a PostgreSQL test, whereas more subjective skills like teamwork require a varied approach, including skills tests, structured interviews, and collecting references.

Focusing on hard skills, therefore, makes your hiring process easier, quicker, and less labor-intensive, all of which are significant factors when it comes to reducing cost-to-hire.

Hard skills offer clearer pathways for upskilling

Hiring candidates with the strongest technical skills reduces the required training upfront, saving you time and money. 

When training is necessary, the pathways for employee upskilling are clearer.

How do you acquire new hard skills?

Because hard skills are built around relatively stable frameworks and systems compared to soft skills, which can vary in application and relevance depending on the industry and specific company culture, they are easier to acquire.

Some of the common learning pathways for developing hard skills are college courses, employee coaching or mentorship programs, online certifications, and on-job training programs. These resources tend to be formally structured and their progress is easier to measure using skills tests.

This all seems pretty conclusive. However, let’s first hear the argument for soft skills before we make a final decision.

The case for soft skills

There’s a common saying in hiring: “Hard skills get you hired; soft skills get you promoted.”

If we were speaking on behalf of Team Soft Skills, we’d point out that many of the arguments in favor of prioritizing hard skills merely prove that all employees should meet a baseline hard skills requirement. 

In other words, hard skills may guarantee that employees can do their jobs, but they don’t necessarily guarantee that they will excel or apply their skills and knowledge effectively throughout your organization.

This is why so many hiring managers still swear by soft skills when hiring. Research shows that 94% of recruiting professionals believe that employees with stronger soft skills stand more chance of being promoted than those with more experience and weaker soft skills.[4]

Let’s dig deeper into that belief.

Soft skills are harder to automate

There’s a strong argument for the fact that hard skills have a shorter shelf life in today’s digital business environment. Business leaders in 2020 predicted around 40 percent of their workforce would require reskilling in the near future.

Hiring a candidate who scores 100% on a hard skills test today but shows little curiosity about the direction in which their sector is evolving could prove to be a short-term investment.

By contrast, most soft skills are evergreen. They consistently prove difficult to automate and, therefore, might be considered of more long-term value to employers.

Indeed, Deloitte predicts that two-thirds of occupations will be considered soft-skill intensive by 2030, compared to half of all jobs in 2000. According to their report, this is partly down to rapid growth in the number of jobs in areas that are already soft-skill rich – 2.5 times the growth rate of jobs in other occupations.[5]

Upskilling soft skills is crucial, too

With this accelerated rate of change in mind, many employers are naturally starting to consider upskilling and reskilling in hard skills as a given for every employee, using skills-based methods to support employee development initiatives. 

But while it’s true that many hard skills may need updating or replacement more urgently than soft skills, this doesn’t mean that soft skill development should be neglected.

In fact, investing in simultaneous soft skill and hard skill development may make your upskilling initiatives more effective overall, as employees with strong soft skills like enthusiasm or motivation will be more likely to proactively identify opportunities to apply their new hard skills training.

Most of the skills that companies were most focused on developing in 2020 were social, emotional, and advanced cognitive skills, which can all be complementary to hard skills training.

We understand the reluctance to do this. After all, the learning pathways for hard skills are clearer than for soft skills. However, there are methods for developing soft skills out there.

How do you acquire new soft skills?

Some organizations are already using virtual reality to develop employees’ soft skills,[6] but you might also use: 

  • Mentoring initiatives for junior employees

  • Mentorship opportunities for senior employees

  • Workshops with colleagues 

  • Team-building activities 

Before deciding on the best strategy, it's important to prioritize which soft skills are most important for the role and which skills the employee is particularly lacking. This process can be bolstered by inviting feedback from an employee's peers and direct managers.

Although it can be more difficult to measure soft skills development, setting clear outcomes for the employee and measuring improvement against these objectives is still important.

It should be noted that soft skills are much more difficult to learn than hard skills because they often cause employees to change deep-rooted behaviors and attitudes. Mastering new soft skills requires consistent effort, self-reflection, and application before real change is noticeable.

You can still use skills tests to make data-driven decisions

Team Soft Skills must concede that soft skills are more labor-intensive to hire for because they require more than just a skills test. For instance, you might use 360-degree feedback to evaluate a candidate: collecting feedback from multiple perspectives, including the candidate’s peers and managers.

However, assessments are still a useful place to start because they enable you to make data-driven decisions.

You can also use structured interviews to make more objective comparisons between candidates’ soft skills. 

Structured interviews require that all candidates are asked the same questions in the same order. For example, to assess collaboration skills, you might ask each candidate the same behavioral question: “How do you motivate other team members?” Each interview panelist might then rate candidates’ answers based on pre-agreed criteria and compare scores.

It’s clear that there are strong arguments on both sides of the debate. But where does this leave us in terms of weighing hard skills versus soft skills to make the right hire?

The key, we believe, is in reframing how we think about hard skills and soft skills when looking at open roles.

Hiring for skills isn’t a box-tick exercise; it’s a jigsaw puzzle

However, truly inspired hiring decisions are based on adapting what you’re looking for based on other factors that might not be as predictable. 

These include:

1. The specific role you’re hiring for

As we’ve discussed above, some roles, like sales, require a certain basis of hard skills for soft skills to become valuable.

2. The team you’re hiring for

While you undoubtedly know some of the skills required for your open roles off the bat (a Java developer needs to know Java, after all), finding the best hire hinges on the particular mix of hard and soft skills you already have in your team and how your candidate fits in.

For instance, your web development team might have a wealth of skills and experience in programming languages, but by discussing the situation with team members and stakeholders, you might realize that communication breakdowns between teams impact their performance.

You could then look specifically for communication and collaboration skills in new hires as well as use an Enneagram personality test to predict how they might gel with their colleagues.

3. Your organization’s maturity

Many startups begin with small, highly skilled teams, so bringing the right soft skills in at the right time can help you create and maintain a cohesive company culture

By weighing these different factors and thinking critically about the impact that soft and hard skills have on the role you’re hiring for, you can make a decision that benefits your team while also keeping one eye on your new recruit’s future development opportunities.

Stop fighting over “hard vs. soft skills”: Find the right fit using skills assessments

Now you have a comprehensive understanding of what hard and soft skills are and how they benefit your organization separately. More importantly, you now understand how to look at the bigger picture while hiring and choose the candidate with the perfect mix of soft and hard skills to benefit your business.

To start using skills assessments to identify candidates’ hard and soft skills, read our guide to using pre-employment testing. And to see what skills other employers are currently prioritizing, check out our list of the top skills employers look for today.

Or if you’re ready to go one step further and find someone who adds value to your culture as well as your skills resources, try our Culture Add test.


  1. Haines, General Ralph E. (1971). “Systems Engineering Specialty Workshop”. Defense Technical Information Center. Retrieved February 28, 2023. https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/pdfs/ADA089254.pdf 

  2. Bughin, Jacques; Hazan, Eric; Lund, Susan; Dahlström, Peter; Wiesinger, Anna; Subramaniam, Amresh. (May 23, 2018). “Skill shift: Automation and the future of the workforce”. McKinsey Global Institute. Retrieved February 28, 2023. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/skill-shift-automation-and-the-future-of-the-workforce 

  3. Bock, Laszlo. (April 7, 2015). “Here’s Google’s Secret to Hiring the Best People”. WIRED. Retrieved February 28, 2023. https://www.wired.com/2015/04/hire-like-google/

  4. “New Research Defines the Soft Skills That Matter Most to Employers”. (August 28, 2017). iCIMS Hiring Insights. Retrieved February 28, 2023. https://www.icims.com/en-gb/company/newsroom/new-research-defines-the-soft-skills-that-matter-most-to-employers/ 

  5. O’Mahony, John; Rumbens, David. (May 2017). “Soft skills for business success: Building Australia’s future workforce”. Deloitte Insights. Retrieved February 28, 2023. https://www2.deloitte.com/au/en/pages/economics/articles/soft-skills-business-success.html 

  6. Meister, Jeanne C. (January 11, 2021). “How Companies Are Using VR to Develop Employees’ Soft Skills”. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved February 28, 2023. https://hbr.org/2021/01/how-companies-are-using-vr-to-develop-employees-soft-skills


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