Hard, Soft, and Spongy Skills

Tammy Cohen, PHR, SHRM-CP
June 14 2016
We’ve all heard of hard and soft skills, but do they aptly describe the breadth or depth of skills we might look for in candidates? Soft skills too often encompass social abilities and focus less on individual abilities and proficiencies, which is why we should start using a new term for the individual skills that are often overlooked.
Managers often conduct their own initial candidate assessments, reading multiple resumes and applications in an effort to select the best person for any given job opening. Candidates’ skills are compared with the job duties and organizational goals to find the best fit, and those skills are often divided into two categories: hard skills and soft skills. Hard skills are fairly easy to quantify by looking at an applicant’s previous work experience and documented technical proficiencies. Previous employment and education verifications can show that a candidate has used particular software and programs effectively. Portfolios and skills assessments can demonstrate a candidate’s technical aptitudes. Soft skills cannot usually be shown on a resume or portfolio. Instead, they must be assessed through interaction with the applicant or references from former team members and managers. The former can be misleading as applicants in interviews are often on their best behavior, so the latter is often used to verify observed behavior. HR may describe positions by their requirements for:
  • Hard skills over soft skills;
  • Soft skills over hard skills; or
  • Adequately developed soft and hard skills.
Overall, soft skills are considered to be more important to businesses than hard skills. Hard skills are often taught in educational settings, but educational institutions overwhelmingly organize learning as an individual activity over a team activity. Since soft skills aren’t generally learned through schoolwork, they must be learned through on-the-job practice.  

The Case for Sponginess

  The corporate world concentrates heavily on the importance of soft skills, which makes the current “hard-versus-soft” descriptions insufficient. Soft skills are more often used to describe “interpersonal” or “people” skills than self-management skills, personal motivations, or individual adaptability. Individuals vary more than occupations, and soft skills encompass too many identifiers to effectively assess a candidate for employment. Instead, we should assess the whole and comprehensive picture of their skill sets. We should look at hard, quantifiable knowledge and soft, interpersonal understanding, as well as malleable, “spongy,” personal factors and abilities. A new skills organization could look something like this: Hard (technical) skills that can be assessed with standardized testing:
  • Typing
  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Math
Soft (social) skills that can be evaluated with peer review and reference reports:
  • Collaboration
  • Communication
  • Conflict resolution
  • Emotional intelligence
Spongy (individual) skills that can be appraised through candidate interviewing:
  • Adaptability
  • Learning agility
  • Problem-solving & critical thinking
  • Creativity & innovation
  • Initiative
Assessing spongy skills would require critical evaluation of a candidate’s answers to scenario-based questions. For example, you could ask a candidate to describe their technology use across positions. If a candidate’s proficiency extends over only a couple of programs, they may rank low on learning agility, adaptability, or initiative and be less likely to succeed at learning new software in the future. Stanford Research Institute International and Carnegie Mellon Foundation research reports that 75% of long-term job success depends on soft skills, but is that accurate? I’d be interested to see what kind of results such a study could find by splitting soft skills into social and individual categories. It may be that as innovation becomes vital to business success, spongy skills predict organizational success better than social and technical skills.

About Tammy Cohen

Tammy Cohen, an industry pioneer and expert in identity and employment screening, founded InfoMart 30 years ago. Deemed the “Queen of Screen,” she’s been a force behind industry-leading innovations. She was most recently the first-to-market with a fully compliant sanctions search, as well as a suite of identity services that modernizes talent onboarding. Tammy revolutionized the screening industry when she stepped into the field, developing the first client-facing application and a due diligence criminal search that has since become standard for all background screening companies. Cohen has received national awards and honors for her business and civic involvement, including Atlanta Business Chronicle’s Top 25 Women-Owned Firms in Atlanta, Enterprising Women Magazine’s Enterprising Women of the Year award, the YWCA of Northwest Georgia’s Kathryn Woods Racial Justice Award, and a commendation in the 152nd Congressional Record.

About InfoMart

InfoMart has been revolutionizing the global background and identity screening industry for 30 years, providing businesses the information they need to make informed hiring decisions. They develop innovative technology that modernizes talent onboarding, including a first-to-market biometric identity authentication application and a verified sanctions search. The WBENC-certified company is a founding member of the Professional Background Screening Association, and they have achieved PBSA accreditation in recognition of their consistent business practices and commitment to compliance with the FCRA. The company is dedicated to customer service, speed, and accuracy, and it has been recognized for its success, workplace culture, and corporate citizenship with over 45 industry awards. To Get the Whole Story on InfoMart, please visit, follow @InfoMartUSA, or call (770) 984-2727.

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