We hear a lot these days about the critical need for advanced skills and STEM education in the job market. Why, then, do so many companies base hiring decisions on corporate culture? According to one recent study, recruiters say culture fit carries as much weight in the hiring decision as a candidate's previous experience--more weight, in fact, than a candidate's' STEM skills. And this feeling is apparently mutual, with one in five job seekers saying a company's culture has the biggest impact on whether or not they'll accept an offer.

In a time when the right technical skills are hard enough to come by, however, is it risky to put a premium on something so intangible?

I don't think so. As early as 2005, emerging research showed that employees "who fit well with their organization, coworkers, and supervisor had greater job satisfaction, were more likely to remain with their organization, and showed superior job performance." Likewise, by 2008, additional research determined that just one employee's culture clash can end up costing an organization more than half of his or her salary. In other words, we now know that culture fit--while a somewhat esoteric qualification--can result in extremely measurable consequences. And in a time when employees routinely change jobs every few years, it makes sense for companies and candidates to try to match themselves for the most effective contributions possible in the time they have together.

Welcome to the Soft Skills Revolution. While hard skills and training will remain crucial to companies in the coming years, the importance of culture doesn't show signs of weakening. So what does this mean for the hire-ers and the hire-ees?

You have to know what matters to you.

For companies, this means having a firm grasp on your core values. You can't expect employees to work together to fulfill the corporate mission if you don't clearly understand the underlying beliefs that make that mission important.

For candidates, this means knowing your own strengths and weaknesses. If you're a structured person who thrives with concrete rules and deadlines, you're probably not going to like a company that doesn't believe in traditional management positions. If you perform best when left to work in peace and quiet, you might watch out for companies that showcase pictures of raucous team-building exercises or open-space desk areas.

Pay attention to employment brand.

Companies need to be sure that culture is an instrumental and authentic part of the employment brand. Any job seeker interacting with you--whether on your career site or social media pages--should be able to tell what you stand for as an organization. And never confuse culture fit with an effort to ensure everyone in a company looks or acts the same. Diversity in the workplace--all kinds of diversity, including a balance of logical and creative people, introverts and extroverts, risk-averse folks and risk takers--is tremendously beneficial. Make sure you don't brand your company as a place where individual identity takes a back burner to a groupthink mentality.

Likewise, candidates need to look for these cues about culture on career sites, social media, or in job descriptions. When you research a company on sites like Glassdoor, what kind of reviews do you find? Are employee experiences positive? How does the company convey its mission online--and does it map to your own career mission? Companies that make use of multimedia channels, such as video testimonials, can give you a richer understanding of what life is like on a daily basis in the workplace.

Be prepared to say no.

Companies need to recognize that even candidates with impeccable technical skills and training can fail to mesh with the corporate culture. Do what you can in advance to filter out these bad matches, whether through knock-out questions, early video screens, or in-person interviews. Just remember that all prospects can still be valuable to you through their referral potential, so avoid burning bridges when you can. And be willing to fire or dismiss someone that violates your company's values--even though he or she may be high performing. Nothing undermines a culture more than holding onto a great engineer or salesperson who ultimately cares more about his or her personal career than the well-being of the team and, as a result, damages the morale of others. That said, though, if high performers are always aggravating the balance of the team, that might be a sign that your culture is geared more toward "getting along" than performance, which isn't sustainable in the long run.

Candidates should never pretend they can overlook something intolerable for the sake of getting an offer. If there's no way in the world you'd ever work for a company that lacks cutting-edge technology, be prepared to walk away when you go in for an interview and spot antiquated desktops and monitors. Or if you really need an environment where people are casual and relaxed, then you might rethink a company where suits are the norm in every photo you see online. Everyone has deal-breakers--but try to end things on a positive note to keep the relationship alive. You never know what might change down the road.

Don't get me wrong: The "hard" skills--things like STEM training, higher education, years of on-the-job experience--will always be important. In fact, I'd argue they are increasing in importance as we continue to advance our global, technology-dependent economy. But the "soft" skills, like the ability to fit and thrive in a specific corporate culture, are also of extreme significance in this new era. Both companies and candidates want to achieve purposeful and mutually beneficial relationships in the time they have together, and sometimes these less tangible things are what ultimately tip the scale.

Published on: Jan 29, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.