columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

I run a nonprofit and hire part-time workers to work in recreation-type centers across the city. Strong interpersonal skills are part of what we look for. However, interviews make people nervous, and it can be a little hard to judge those skills in interviews.

My question is about checking references and getting managers to talk about interpersonal skills with us. For example, we recently interviewed someone who was great on paper and good during the phone screen, but was much weaker in person and seemed so nervous that it was hard to get a read on what she would be like day-to-day. I moved forward to the reference check just in case. No one would give me anything other than glowing reviews about her interpersonal skills, and it sounds terrible now that I'm typing it out, but I just wasn't convinced. If managers had said, "Yeah, Mary can come across a little oddly on first impression, but she has XYZ strengths that helped her build strong relationships," then I would have had my mind put more at ease.

We ended up not hiring Mary for a few reasons, but mainly because it just felt too risky based on our gut reaction to her.

But since this comes up every once in awhile, how should I handle situations like this? How frank can I be when asking past managers about social skills? Can I say "Mary came across a little oddly in our conversation, like she was extremely nervous; is that something that has been an issue in the past?" I'm having trouble thinking of direct questions to get at this issue!

Green responds:

Yes, you can absolutely ask references about interpersonal skills! Many jobs require a particular type of social skill--whether it's being able to quickly build rapport with people, establishing trust with a skeptical audience, putting people at ease, dealing effectively with strong personalities, or all sorts of other things.

The key is to think about what's truly needed in the role. You don't want to fall into the trap of rejecting someone great because she doesn't seem outgoing enough if the role is, say, doing data entry by herself all day. In other words, make sure it's not just about whether or not you like someone's personality, but about what traits are (and aren't) linked with excelling in the job.

You can define that pretty broadly. Excelling in the job will usually mean not being an arrogant jerk, interrupting people, being rude, and so forth. You just don't want to get overly broad and reject someone for being shy or offbeat or quirky or otherwise different from the rest of you when it really won't matter. Sometimes people run amok with this and reject people for simply being different from the rest of their team, justifying it as a matter of team cohesion. You want to watch out for that, because that's how you end up with homogenous teams with group-think, as well as very little diversity of race, age, socioeconomic background, etc.

Anyway, as for what to say to references, it's fine to be pretty direct. I probably wouldn't say "Mary came across a little oddly," but it would be fine to say, "Mary seemed like she might have been quite nervous in our interview. Did you ever observe nerves being in an issue in her work or in her relationships with colleagues?"

You can also ask things like, "I had trouble getting a sense of what Mary is like to work with day-to-day. What can you tell me about her personality and her relationships with others at work?" Or, "The person in this role will have to establish warm relationships pretty quickly with a variety of personalities. Can you tell me about times you've seen Mary do that?"

In some cases, too, it can make sense to ask the candidate about your concern directly. In this case, if you did a second interview with Mary, you could dig into times in the past when she's had to use interpersonal skills at work, build relationships with people, and so forth. In other cases, you can just name the concern for the candidate and see what they say.

For example, if you were worried that a candidate was too soft-spoken to be able to successfully deal with your office's domineering personalities, you could say something like, "This job requires fielding some pretty difficult personalities. You seem pretty soft-spoken and I wonder how you'd approach that." You might end up hearing that your very soft-spoken candidate has tons of compelling stories about doing that successfully in the past...or the ensuing conversation might solidify your worries. Either way, you'll get better information by naming your concern and asking about it.

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