Why It’s Still Good to Recruit Purple Squirrels

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young man open suitcase Purple squirrels are mythical creatures rarely spotted in nature and seemingly rarer in the corporate world. They’re those perfect job recruits supposedly impossible to find so some have stopped hunting. They might still be worth pursuing.

The term has been around for a while. According to the Urban Dictionary, “For all practical purposes, there is no such thing as a ‘Purple Squirrel;’ not in nature and not in the job market. It is a metaphor used by recruiters to identify the unrealistic expectations of a client company.

“The happy exception is when a perfect candidate, with exactly the right qualifications and experience, is actually found for a job opening. That person would then be referred to as a ‘Purple Squirrel.’ But every human being is flawed, and even if the candidate has all the requirements, i.e. IS a Purple Squirrel, they might not even get a phone screening.”

Companies are going to have to think outside their normal recruitment parameters, sometimes, to find their Purple Squirrels.

John Sullivan, writing at ERE.net, said, “The most stunning thing, however, about Purple Squirrel recruiting is the fact that there is literally a zero chance that these valuable game-changers and pioneers can be recruited using the existing recruiting process at 99.5% of the world’s major corporations. For example, everyone would agree that Steve Jobs, even in his youth, was a Purple Squirrel, but the fact is that he was rejected by the recruiting process at HP, despite all his talent, simply because he had no college degree.”

The immediate benefit to Purple Squirrel recruiting is it helps overcome a slowly recovering economy that no longer allows much corporate investment in training. As pointed out at Daily Kos, “There is less apprentice training, traditionally the bailiwick of unions, per capita in the US than in other industrialized nations. That leaves employers to invest in training, which many if not most are unwilling or unable to do.”

Lance Haun, writing at the Harvard Business Review, says training may create more Purple Squirrels than a company might find by external hiring. “Keeping existing employees happy and onboard is the cheapest form of hiring. Retention would have to become a huge strategy to avoid hiring,” he said.

If training isn’t an option, the same Daily Kos article suggests the best way to hire Purple Squirrels might be to ask current employees. It cites the case of Ernst & Young, which “has set an internal goal to increase the number of hires from internal referrals to 50%. Currently, E&Y now hires 45% of its non-entry-level participants from employee recommendations. That is up from 28% in 2010. Many employers feel that this is the best way to find their purple squirrels, someone who is like those who are currently successful in their company.”

There is a caveat, though. “The problem with this approach (according to Federal Reserve Bank of New York research) is that 63.5% of employees recommended candidates of the same sex and 71.5% recommended the same race or ethnicity,” the article said.

Dr. Sullivan, in his ERE.net article, has an effective recommendation for finding those elusive purple squirrels. He advises looking for them before having a specific employment need. He advises, “Develop a talent community – this approach was pioneered by Microsoft, and its basic premise is that the only way to have conversations and build relationships with Purple Squirrels is through non-recruiting topics. That means building online social media based talent communities containing hundreds of participants that are based 100% on learning and best practice sharing.”

By the way, just in case you were wondering, there have been purple squirrel sightings. A New Jersey shore couple caught and photographed one, according to AccuWeather.com. The hue could have been caused by the rodent nibbling on a pen or an unfortunate encounter with a Port-A-Potty. Experts aren’t sure why.

By Keith Griffin