Why and How to Hire for Emotional Intelligence

Mary Lorenz

When you think about the most important qualities you’re looking for in your next candidate, is “high emotional intelligence” one of them? It should be.

Emotional intelligence may be labeled a “soft” skill, but the impact it has on your organization is anything but soft. In the past several years, there’s been mounting evidence to support the link between emotional intelligence and the bottom line. Research shows that employees with high levels of EQ tend to perform better, are more engaged, communicate better, collaborate better, adapt better to change and make better managers than those with lower levels. Meanwhile, low emotional intelligence is the second most prevalent reason new hires fail within their first 18 months on the job.

Perhaps for these reasons, hiring managers are placing increasing importance on emotional intelligence when evaluating job candidates, and it’s fast becoming one of the most in-demand skills for candidates across industries. In fact, the World Economic Forum predicts that EQ will be one of the top 10 most valuable skills in job candidates by 2020.

Identifying Emotional Intelligence

Of course, in order to identify EQ in candidates, you first have to know what you’re looking for. According to researchers Peter Salavoy and John Mayer (not that John Mayer), who coined the term, emotional intelligence is “a person's ability to recognize, understand and manage their emotions, as well as the ability to recognize, understand and influence the emotions of others.” In other words, people with high EQ don’t let their emotions get the best of them, leading them to make rash decisions or go on angry Twitter rants in the middle of the night.

According to Daniel Goleman, a renowned psychologist who popularized the term and has written several books on the topic, there are five main components of emotional intelligence:

  • Self-awareness: Employees with EQ know their strengths and weaknesses, and are willing and able to cop to them.
  • Self-regulation: Emotionally intelligent employees take time to think or act before they speak. They do not take it personally when they get negative feedback and instead use it to improve the way they work.
  • Motivation: They are self-motivated and don’t shy away from a challenge.
  • Empathy: Employees with EQ are sensitive to others’ feelings and can put themselves in their shoes. They tend to build trusting relationships with coworkers and work to do what’s best for the team.
  • Social skills: Emotionally intelligent employees can respectfully argue their point of view, making them better collaborators and contributing members of a team.

How to Evaluate Emotional Intelligence in Potential Employees

Because EQ is hard to quantify, identifying emotional intelligence in potential employees can be tricky. Start by asking behavioral-based interview questions – a tactic over half of hiring managers use to evaluate EQ, according to a recent Robert Half study. A few examples to consider:

  • “Describe a time you had a conflict with a coworker or supervisor. How did you handle it?
  • “Tell me about a time you got negative feedback from your boss. How did you react?”
  • "Tell me about a time you made a mistake at work. How did you handle the situation?”
  • “Tell me about a stressful situation you had at work and how you handled it.”
  • “Tell me about a time you had to adapt to a big change at work. How did you handle it?”

It’s also important to check references. In the same survey, 70 percent of HR managers cited reference checks as the most common way companies gauge a job applicant’s EQ. Some questions to consider for your reference checks include:

  • How would you describe the candidate’s ability to relate to others?
  • What do you feel are the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses?
  • How well do you feel the candidate handles stress?

About a third of hiring managers in the study said they used personality or psychometric tests to evaluate candidates for EQ as well.

Whichever route you go, it’s hard to overemphasize the importance of emotional intelligence when hiring – particularly as artificial intelligence and automation become more ubiquitous. In today’s competitive business environment, emotional intelligence can be a key differentiator.

Check out How to Evaluate Candidates’ Soft Skills.

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