Selecting for Soft Skills: A Case Example Using Role Play with Live Actors

Introduction Most managers are well able to articulate their needs for and select candidates with the right professional and technical skills. Where they often fall short, however, is in selecting for those softer skill sets that can make or break the organization. This is especially true in the knowledge-based high tech sectors where employees interpersonal and communication styles can play as important (if not more important) a role as their technical and professional skills and qualifications. The challenge for most managers in the selection process, however, is to gain an accurate reading of the competencies of candidates in these softer skill areas. A Case Example HRSG assisted the Information Technology Branch (ITB) of Revenue Canada in dealing with this challenge by developing a role-play exercise to assess the interpersonal, judgment, verbal fluency and dependability requirements for Team Leaders and Senior Systems Analysts. The Context The Branch had advertised the vacancies, screened the applications for basic requirements and given the applicants who had met these requirements a written test to assess their technical and professional skills. HRSG was asked to advise the Branch on how best to assess those soft competencies that could not be assessed through written means. HRSG recommended a short role play exercise using professional actors. This exercise would be geared to assess competencies needed to deal effectively with clients internal to Revenue Canada. The Scenario Candidates were asked to participate in a simulated meeting with a client played by an actor and provide a verbal report of the meeting to their supervisor played by a selection committee member. The meeting with the client lasted 30 minutes and the verbal report to their supervisor lasted approximately 15 minutes. In advance of the role play, the candidate received a memo from the supervisor indicating that he had heard that there were some serious problems with a project currently underway with one of the candidate’s clients. The memo instructed the candidate to find out what is wrong and see what you can do to fix things and to get back this afternoon with a report. The problems presented in the memo were based on hearsay information, and were somewhat exaggerated relative to the situation to be explored with the client. This was, of course, unknown to the candidate. As well, the actor was provided with two additional concerns or issues to be presented in the role play that were not described in the supervisor’s memo. The Meeting with the Client Professional actors were hired to play the role of an impatient and somewhat hostile client. From the client’s perspective, there were some problems and set backs in the project underway that needed immediate attention and resolution. To ensure candidates were given the same opportunity to demonstrate their competency, the actors had strict written guidelines within which to play the role and respond to questions or options presented by the candidates. The Meeting with the Supervisor This meeting was played out with one of the selection committee members playing the role of the supervisor. The candidate provided the supervisor with the verbal report of the meeting with the client and the actions the candidate intended to take to address the client’s concerns. The purpose of including the meeting as part of the role play exercise was to assess: how well the candidate understood the client’s concerns; what actions the candidate intended to take to address the client’s issues; and, how dependably the candidate relayed this information to the supervisor. Where appropriate, the supervisor probed to gain accurate information in each of these areas. The Assessment Process The selection committee observed the role-play exercise and assessed the candidate’s performance using a set of behaviorally-anchored competency rating scales developed specifically for the role play exercise. The Benefits Realistic assessment of client management competencies While there were a large number of applicants to process (almost 200), the selection committee felt that the time invested in the role play provided them with a more realistic assessment of the behaviors and competencies Team Leaders and Senior Systems Analysts need to display in dealing with clients - more than would have been possible through other more traditional means (e.g. interviews, reference checks). Freedom to observe and assess competencies in a job-related standardized context The use of professional actors freed the selection committee to observe and assess candidates within a standardized context (a preview of how they would likely perform in the job) using a set of standardized scales developed specifically for the role-play exercise. Spin-off learning and development benefits Candidates had the opportunity to gain feedback on their performance in the selection process providing them with valuable information for creating learning plans targeted to their particular needs. At the organizational level, the process also provided an overall assessment of employees’ client management skills and where the emphasis needed to be placed in providing organizational programs to develop these competencies. Credible process in the eyes of the employees Because the exercise provided the candidates with a realistic challenge, the role-play was seen by the candidates to be a credible and valid way of assessing the client management competencies needed for success in Team Leader and Senior Systems Analyst positions. Word of the success of this approach has spread quickly, and other parts of the Branch are now implementing similar selection strategies.


Lorraine has over 20 years experience as a human resources practitioner in a wide variety of practice areas, and is particularly well known for her expertise and extensive experience in developing competency-based human resource management programs and tools, such as self-assessment and multi-rater feedback systems, competency-based interviewing, competency-based human resource planning and development, and job evaluation systems. Much of Lorraine's work involves the design, facilitation and de...

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