Hiring Employees: When to Hire for Personality Over Skill

You can teach many skills, but you can’t always improve an attitude.
If you have to choose between an applicant with exactly the right skills and one with the right personality, which should you go for? (Photo: Michaelpuche/Shutterstock)

You have a small staff, so every employee counts. But hiring that perfect person can be a challenge. There’s been a lot of talk lately about a supposed talent shortage, at least in some industries, and how employers struggle to find workers with the skills and experience to do the job.

According to a Manpower survey, 32 percent of employers reported facing difficulties filling jobs in 2015. Skilled trade vacancies are the hardest to fill, the survey found.

If you have to choose between an applicant with exactly the right skills and one with the right personality, which should you go for?

That depends.

First, consider whether the candidate meets the minimum qualifications for the job. That may include a degree or certification, a foreign language ability or certain basic skills.

For other skills that may be lacking, ask yourself: Can the skill be trained — and do you have the time to train someone? If the answer to either question is “no,” the applicant with the strongest skill set and most experience is likely the best person to hire, said Sabrina Baker, founder of Acacia HR Solutions, which specializes in human resources for small and medium-size businesses.

If the answer to both questions is “yes,” consider hiring for personality —  or more important, said Nathan Tanner, attitude. Tanner is author of the bestselling career strategy book Not Your Parents’ Workplace: Critical Lessons for Interns and Young Professionals.

Many different personalities can work well together, Tanner noted, so attitude is what really counts. A good attitude is especially important if your employees work in an open environment or have close contact with customers. The more an employee has to interact with customers, Tanner said, the more important the right attitude is.

“I believe that personality, or attitude, trumps skills. In a small business employees will likely be required to wear many hats,” said Tanner, so a versatile team player may be just the ticket.

A “learning mindset” is also important. Baker said she looks for someone with an appealing personality and basic skill set who seems ready and willing to be trained.

Attracting the right applicants

Hiring decisions will be easier if you attract the right applicants in the first place. Job ads shouldn’t be just a list of requirements, but rather, an accurate description of what the job entails, what you expect of the employee in terms of performance and personality and an accurate description of the work environment.

Indicate the kinds of traits you’re looking for, whether it’s an eagle eye for detail or an outgoing disposition.

Tanner suggested looking at your current staff to identify the attributes most important to your team. “Look at the top performers. What do they share in common? Once you’ve identified these core cultural elements and values, you can then look for them when hiring.”

You may need to cast a wide net to find the talent you need. The Manpower survey found that more than one in five employers have started using nontraditional recruiting practices. For ideas, check out 5 Secrets to Smarter Staff Recruitment.

And don’t forget that in this job market, you’ll likely need to offer a competitive wage if you do hire for skills and experience.


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