How to verify hard skills during interviews

In this article, we’ll investigate 4 tactics to verify a job candidate’s hard skills aka technical ability.

But before we do that, I need to address the elephant in the room. 

Hard skills are still important

There’s been talk recently (here and here) about how having soft skills overrides the need for hard skills.

Richard Branson has been quoted saying, “Most skills can be learned, but it is difficult to train people on their personality.”

Here’s the thing: Yes, Virgin America/Atlantic/Australia can train a high school graduate to become a flight attendant on the job.

Software companies usually want to hire programmers who already know how to code. Same applies to professional roles like lawyer. 

Now that issue is out of the way, let’s get on the same page about the definition of hard skills.

What are hard skills?

Hard skills are structured. They consist of specific rules and processes.

These are examples of hard skills:

  • Software use
  • Machine operation 
  • Data analysis
  • Report writing
  • Structured advice

They are teachable. Job candidates can acquire these skills through a combination of:

  • Formal education e.g. university degree, technical certification
  • Informal education e.g. learning on the job, self-taught study 

Some hard skills are measurable. Typing speed is a clear example.

A candidate who types 90 words per minute is much better for a typing job than one who types 10 words per minute.

Caveat: take care when measuring certain tasks. Say you want to measure programmers by number of lines written.

Is a genius programmer less productive for solving a problem in 25 lines versus an average programmer who needs to write 200 lines?

How do soft skills compare?

Soft skills like “getting along with others” have polar opposite properties to hard skills. They are:

  • Subjective – one person’s definition of getting along could be another person’s idea of submissive behavior
  • Harder to teach – soft skills require changing innate attitudes and actions towards people
  • Incalculable – you can’t viably build a metric around how well someone gets along with others 

I’m not devaluing soft skills. They are very important. How well you do at work often depends on the relationships you build.

What I am doing is drawing a distinction between the two types of skills. That should make the concept of hard skills clearer.

Now that’s out of the way, let’s get into the How-to.

4 tactics to verify hard skills

My research has uncovered a few tactics for assessing a job candidate’s hard skills.

Now here’s the thing.

Some of these tactics are more reliable than others. I’ve put them in order of nice-to-have to must-have.

#4 – Ask their referees

This involves asking referees to go into detail about the candidate’s work. You want to find out:

  • Scope of the role i.e. “Please list key tasks”
  • Which tasks the candidate excelled in
  • Which tasks they fell short on

There is one issue with this tactic. Referees could value abilities differently from how you would.

I’ve had situations where referees told me a candidate was a computer wizard only to find them well below my standard.

#3 – Ask them to about their process

Pick 1 or more task/s critical to the role’s success. Now ask the candidate to break down how they’d pull it off.

For complex or long timespan tasks, they should give you a high level overview of the people, processes and technology they’d use.

For simpler or repetitive tasks, they should provide a step-by-step overview of what they would do

For mission-critical/”no room for error” tasks, you might ask the candidate for a high and low-level overview

#2 – Get proof of ability

You are seeking tangible proof that the candidate can perform. This can be in the form of:

  • Software training certification
  • Continuing education certificate
  • Portfolio of work

If you have time, call certificate issuers to get a breakdown of what they test, how they score their exams etc. 

Beware: some 3rd party certifications may have lower standards than you. 
You may want to test their knowledge yourself. 

Which brings us to the best tactic…

#1 – Practical Test  

You already know how you’d expect a task to be done. Your top performers have paved a well trodden path.

Now you want to see if the job candidate can get close. Maybe they could teach you a new thing or two.

Take these measures for smooth practical testing:

  1. Get verbal or written consent from candidates 
  2. Avoid exposing trade secrets or confidential information
  3. Have all necessary equipment and data ready to work on
  4. Prepare a checklist of what you want to see and not see
  5. Set criteria for what constitutes bad, passable, excellent work  

What about the practical test’s content?

You want to be consistent when you create the test. That means making sure all candidates are exposed to the same or very similar tasks. 

To do this right, make sure you take these steps:

  • Don’t throw them into the constantly varying live work environment
  • Write scenarios for no more than 2-3 tasks critical to the job
  • Have a mix of straightforward and challenging tasks

Real life example of practical test

How to hire competent pharmacists

I’ll share what I do in my day job as general manager of a pharmacy group. I hire every pharmacist we employ.

Pharmacists are government regulated professionals with an important purpose: provide safe and effective medicines for every patient.

In order to do this, pharmacists need to be competent in core technical skills. But this is just the minimum requirement.

Over the years, we’ve learned that even pharmacists with good references won’t reach our high bar for core technical skills. 

We verify pharmacist skills with practical testing

Our test covers critical responsibilities including:

  • Clinical skills – Can the pharmacist compute drug interactions, therapy appropriateness and dosing data on the fly?
  • Dispensing – Can the pharmacist dispense & check medications at speed and with high level of accuracy?
  • Supervision – Does the pharmacist have environmental awareness required to make sure technicians are doing their job right?

Here’s how I run the test:

  1. Tell job candidate beforehand that we will test their dispensing and clinical skills – no ambush
  2. Start interview with warm-up questions related to past work, reason for applying to us etc.
  3. Explain our work culture and ask interview questions to work out if the candidate fits with it
  4. Invite job candidate over for practical test in quiet area of pharmacy
  5. Give a tour of tools and technology – show location of industry standard work aids and demonstrate use of less common ones 
  6. Present the problem to the candidate with an idea of desired outcome e.g. “This medication chart has errors. Rewrite it.”
  7. Observe without interrupting – move to stand as far back as possible, to watch the candidate in action and take notes  

How I assess the results:

  • I don’t seek an exact match to our prescribed workflow
  • I try to understand the candidate’s method for pulling off a task
  • I compare the candidate’s speed, precision and accuracy with set criteria e.g. time taken to rewrite medication chart 

How I get value from practical tests

Practical tests help us identify and avoid hiring bad work habits.

Bad habits increase risk of medication errors and severely reduce productivity. Not ideal in our line of work.

This is my rundown on our issue with bad work habits:

  • Bad work habits are notoriously hard to change 
  • Pharmacists review-dispense-check 100+ times a day
  • 1 minute slower every time  = 100+ minutes wasted 
  • That’s time we need spent on value-adding tasks like stock checks, clinical reviews, in-depth medication advisory etc.
  • Slower output = prescription backlog = annoyed customers
  • Economics don’t allow hiring additional staff to balance this out

Practical tests cut through BS references

I’ve seen a number of times where candidates with good references royally botch a core part of the job. After repeated retries.

A little root cause analysis often leads me to this conclusion: the referees did not bother much over the candidate’s workflow.

They could’ve been like, “You take over. I’ll be in the back office … for a few hours… everyday.” or “I don’t care how you do it, just do it.”

Bringing it all together

You’ll get maximum coverage over hard skills if you use all of these tactics during your hiring process:

  1. Run a practical test
  2. Get proof like certificates or portfolio
  3. Ask how candidates would do a task
  4. Check with referees

But if you can’t do it all, go with the tactic for your situation:

  • Hard skills critical to role? Run a practical test.
  • Practical test too hard? Ask candidates about their process.
  • Pressed for time? Get digital or paper proof of ability. 
  • Culture > hard skills? Check with referees + interview culture fit.

How to hire the most passionate people

I’ve written about interviewing candidates for technical ability and culture fit in the past.

Let me introduce a third dimension: passion.

Your ideal hire will hit the trifecta: strong technical ability, good culture fit and passion for the work. 

Before we dive into the practical How-to for uncovering passion, let’s explore how it manifests in a work setting. 

How does passion manifest?

Passion shows as greater commitment to the work. It can take the form of:

  • More compliant behavior – following policies and directives
  • More competent action – doing the job well 
  • Visibly positive attitude – smiling, going the extra mile 

Before I show you how to look for passion in job candidates, let me tell you this important truth…

Passion cannot be taught

You can improve an employee’s technical skills over time. But you can’t do the same about their passion for the work.

Not directly, at least. Let me put you in a scenario:

Imagine you’re doing a task that doesn’t spark any feelings within yourself. You aren’t upset doing it, but you aren’t happy either.

Suddenly someone comes up to you and says, “Come on. Perk up! This looks like an amazing task.” How would you feel? 

In that situation, I’d think, “I will feel how I want to feel. Thank you very much.” Outside force rarely stimulates genuine passion. 

With that in mind, let’s learn how to seek passion for work

It’s not always visible enthusiasm

Some folks are determined to think of passion for work solely as a form of unbridled enthusiasm.

To them, passion is this 🔥 that burns under your skin, boils your blood and tenses your loins.

Anything else is dispassion.

But I contend that passion can be expressed by a calm, analytical mind.

I’ve been passionate about my efforts, but that hasn’t turned me into a ‘Woo!’ shouter.

If you sit on Liz’s definition of passion, let’s agree to disagree. You can think of my idea of passion as interest in the work.

Can we agree on that? Let’s move on

How to identify passion

Don’t play amateur psychologist

Passion and interest for the work lives in a person’s mind. Just don’t play amateur psychologist to uncover it.

Do this instead

Dig into the candidate’s actions in their previous work. Actions often telegraph the underlying attitudes behind them.

For example, someone who neither loves nor hates the work would do the bare minimum required of a task. 

We want to answer this question: How would a candidate with interest in our kind of work behave?

We can do this by digging deep into a past situation that made them proud.

How to pull this off in interviews

Here’s a series of questions you can ask to dig into a past situation:

  1. Tell me about a past task that made you proud
  2. What was it about that task that made you feel that way?
  3. How often did you do that task?
  4. Was it a core part of your job?
  5. Did your previous manager value how you did it?
  6. What made the work challenging?

You can find more questions like this listed in Tom Foster’s post, How to Interview for Interest and Passion.

The more details you get, the better. A candidate has strong indicators of passion for the work if their answers tell you that:

  • They felt the work was important
  • They were proud of what they did 
  • They felt others valued their work too
  • Challenges made the work even more interesting

Sometimes, passion is everything

In some work situations, passion means everything. It can even be more important than technical ability or culture fit.

You might have seen people get passionate about work you’d find utterly mind numbing. 

This phenomenon applies best to what most people would call soul destroying work. 

Now, this concept varies by industry, region and situation. So I won’t paint broad brushstrokes by naming specific jobs.   

But more often it isn’t 

You can’t seek passion in candidates with blinders on to everything else.

Technical skills are also important 

99.99% of jobs* in the professional and technical space have prerequisite skills and competencies.

Education is an obvious example. You can’t have a line cook apply for a pharmacist role but it’s possible vice versa.

General competencies are also important. A high level of passion does not override a job candidate’s lack of basic computer literacy.

Culture fit is also important

Culture fit is just as important for long-term value.

You run a team and every employee should be able to work in harmony with the rest of the team.

In all, most jobs will benefit from hiring a passionate candidate. But be sure to balance it with the other 2 dimensions of great hires.

** Don’t quote me on that statistic. It’s for effect. It’s not real!


Why did that candidate reject your job offer?

This post was inspired by a slide on Greylock Partners’ Debugging Recruiting slidedeck 

There are a few reasons good candidates can reject your offer. 6 of them come to mind. They are:

  1. Another hiring manager made a better offer 
  2. Salary package offered wasn’t enough 
  3. You took too long after the interview to send an offer – even a few days after can be too long in some job markets
  4. They got a job offer from a stronger employer – could be a dream (e.g. Disney) or larger (Fortune 500) company 
  5. You spooked the job candidate during the interview 
  6. Role expectations weren’t clear – reporting relationships, decision authority, types of client & project assignments 

Some reasons can be controlled while others need you to stay near a crystal ball. In any case, don’t take a rejected offer to heart.


How to not make potential hires nervous

A bunch of factors can make job candidates nervous:

  • New and unfamiliar environment
  • Clear or apparent power imbalance between them and you
  • You asking incredibly hard “curveball questions

You might say, “Well, that’s part and parcel of interviewing for a job.”

But there’s one hitch with this thinking…

Their nerves can become your problem

You are interviewing people to find the best person for the job, right?

Imagine that among your pile of candidates, there is a perfect fit hire. They’re are confident with the work, good culture fit etc.

But what if they easily get nervous during interviews?

Chances are you could just say, “Nah” 👎.

Not helpful for either of you, so let’s cut the chance of that happening.

Do these 4 things to make candidates less nervous

1. Check the interview environment

Make sure the interview space is:

  • Comfortable with reasonable space to move & no awkward furniture
  • Private and free from distractions like office or work-floor noise  

2. Start by saying a comforting statement

You might have heard that first impressions count. Try to incorporate a rapport building starter when you greet job candidates.

It can be as simple as: “Thank you for coming to see me today. Let’s explore and work out if our needs fit with what you’re looking for.”

3. Be patient when they get stuck

Resist the need to power through the conversation if a job candidate errs or struggles to respond to a question.

Instead, pause and wait for them to regroup. If it’s been a while, affirm their pause with a politely toned “Take your time.”

4. Focus questions around the work

Fight the urge to investigate a job candidate’s personality. Your line of questions should purely seek work ability and culture fit.

It will help viable candidates think straight. Beats the alternative: a cutesy answer to “What would your superpower be”.