The Top Five Soft Skills Necessary for the HR Professional

by Michael Haberman on November 29, 2011 · 9 comments

I was interviewed the other day as an HR “expert.” Naturally I was flattered. I am a sucker for an ego play. They wanted to talk about what it is like to be in HR and what does it take to get there. There were a number of questions, and I will have the podcast published later. I talked for almost 45 minutes on a variety of questions, but the one I wanted to write about today is the area of “soft skills” that are needed to be a great HR professional. Here is my list. After you have read them please add your own suggestions.

  1. The ability to speak in front of a crowd is a key skill. In fact this skill can probably do more for you career than almost any other. To be able to make a presentation or speech with confidence and minus all the “ums” and “likes” and “ers” will set you heads above the others around you. It is well worth time, money and effort to learn how to do it well. Even the ones who are good at it realize that time needs to be put into the craft of making a good presentation. So get yourself to a Toastmasters, Dale Carnegie or some other professional coach and learn how to do this well.
  2. The ability to “read” people is another key skill. Most of us who have been around have developed an ability to read people. We acquire the ability to sense if someone is lying to us or trying to hoodwink us. We have a feel for “body language” and what it may be telling us about attitudes. This, however, is something we can all get better at with training. You can learn to notice and understand some universal expressions, postures and micro-expressions that reveal subtleties about an individual that will then allow you to better understand how to deal with them.
  3. The ability to have a “backbone” and not be intimidated is a key trait. Too often HR professionals are seen as being weak because they back down when intimidated by a controlling manager or executive. A “backbone” comes from the strength of your convictions and the strength of your knowledge of your “craft.” The more knowledgeable you are the more confident you will be in your encounters with managers. With that knowledge comes strength. Although age plays a factor it is not sufficient. I have known my fair share of weak HR managers who have been well into their 50s.
  4. Empathy is the fourth soft skill I consider key to being an HR professional. Without the ability to see another point of view or to understand the nuances of a situation you will be robbed of the ability to make the appropriate decisions at the appropriate time.
  5. The skill that I consider the last of my list is “listening.” You must have the ability to put aside you agenda and to listen and “hear” what someone is saying and how they are saying it. You must be able to make the person understand that you have heard what they are trying to say in addition. Generally this requires a focused mind and a disengaged mouth.

Being in HR and doing it well is a tough job. To be a true HR Professional you must have the foresight of Nostradamus, the vision of Issac Asimov, the wisdom of Solomon, the courage of David, the speaking ability of Cicero and the brashness of Theodore Roosevelt. Piece of cake!

What “soft skill” would you add to my list?

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Karin November 29, 2011 at 10:03 am

I think what we refer to as ‘soft’ skills are actually the hard skills-many people find them more challenging and retreat into the so called ‘hard skills’ because those they can manage.

I will add finely honed intuition and vision to your list for HR professionals-rarely found in competency lists but very valuable when used in conjunction with those cold ‘just the facts’ data we purport to love.


Martin Birt November 29, 2011 at 2:43 pm

Point 3 is spot on. I’ve sometimes phrased it to new HR hires as “Be right and speak truth to power.” My overwhelming experience however is that the most senior people are very much aligned with the culture, principles and history of the organization. It is more often the hard charging mid-level managers who have to be reminded of “how we do things here”.


Clemency Okena July 28, 2016 at 2:47 am

Thank you for sharing, I am very new at this and some of the skills your mention above are really not “soft” especially if it is a new role you have been promoted to.


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