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.