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Purple Squirrel or Pink Elephant?

A purple squirrel nibbles on some food

If you haven’t heard of a purple squirrel before, you’re not alone. The somewhat arcane term is popular in the HR world and refers to a candidate who perfectly matches a job’s requirements in every way, from education, to skills, to personality. But does the proverbial purple squirrel really exist, or is it as illusory as Jack London’s pink elephants and blue mice? And if they are real, how can they best be caught?

Purple squirrels on parade

The concept of the purple squirrel has received some scrutiny of late, particularly with the North American economy still slogging along in recovery mode. Many believe that employers’ relentless pursuit of the purple squirrel is no more productive, and potentially no less destructive, than Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the white whale. These critics argue, citing a rise in what they call unrealistic job postings – often left up for months or even years – that employers are being delusional to the point of damaging their businesses without realizing it.

Peter Cappelli, Professor of Management at The Wharton School, Director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources, and author of Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs, argues that employers mistakenly believe that a salary unpaid is a salary saved because they don’t have sufficient ways of measuring the toll that a missing headcount is taking on the business. Other critics, such as NBC journalist, John W. Schoen, even blame the North American skills shortage debate on the purple squirrel hunt, arguing that there is in fact no skills shortage in most of the job market; just an obsession with finding candidates who likely don’t exist. Furthermore, many argue that what few candidates are interviewed endure increasingly lengthy and off-putting recruitment processes, which are made even more off-putting if they are currently employed and therefore don’t need to leave their jobs. This talent is then driven away, potentially spreading the word to other candidates about their bad experiences.

However, it can be argued that with so many more people out there searching for jobs, employers now have more applications to go through, not to mention ample applicants to choose from. Therefore, why not take the extra time to find what otherwise might have been an unavailable purple squirrel? After all, if a successful company like Google calculates that hiring a top technologist over an average one equates to 300 times more productivity, who wouldn’t? And some even propose that with more job seekers and less jobs, perhaps there’s simply less room in the market for someone who isn’t a purple squirrel.

But the question remains: Is there really such a thing as a purple squirrel?

How to catch a purple squirrel

The tech industry in particular has given us many famous purple squirrels, including Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Biz Stone, Elon Musk, Sheryl Sandberg, and Marissa Mayer. For many, “purple squirrel” has become synonymous with terms such as “game changer”, “pioneer”, “visionary”, “trailblazer”, and the like. Given that equation, it’s no wonder that some believe employers are simply asking for too much in their job postings these days. But purple squirrels are out there. The question is whether they’re so rare that most organizations shouldn’t expect to get one. For instance, each aforementioned purple squirrel is a high-profile personality – at least they are now. For that reason, many believe that purple squirrels can only be found once they reach the top of the business world and become virtually unattainable. But they must be hiding somewhere until they reach that point, and the best place to look is the middle-management level where they’re in the midst of having a more hands-on influence on operational efficiencies, technological innovations, and general creativities.

So how does one lure a purple squirrel? High-profile purple squirrels are obviously difficult to catch because they’re fully aware of their asset value. If you’re in a position to pursue the purple-est of squirrels, be prepared to customize your recruitment process for many personalized options and concessions – not to mention compensation (and we’re not talking about peanuts). However, identifying the purple squirrels who may think of themselves as mauve at best, not realizing just how purple they really are, can be done proactively by joining social media groups that such individuals are likely to participate in and through which they exhibit their thought-leadership. Adecco’s own LinkedIn group, for instance, is an excellent source of HR and recruitment thought-leadership. In fact, approaching an employment agency can prove particularly fruitful in the pursuit of a purple squirrel. As professional purple squirrel hunters, employment agencies can leverage an array of strategies, tools, and networks that most organizations simply don’t have access to, enabling them to attract even the most passive of passive candidates. Is it any wonder why there are so many of them around the world?

Paint the squirrel purple

Is a purple squirrel born or made? Even better: Can you make your own purple squirrel? While some purple squirrels are no doubt born – and are no doubt rare – who says they can’t be bred, so to speak? While getting the next Mark Zuckerberg on the payroll would have a potentially colossal payoff, it is a daunting challenge. Certainly, some employers would benefit from examining what it is they really need, how they recruit, and what they include in their job postings, but having realistic expectations does not have to mean lowering them.

Instead, for some employers, uncovering a purple squirrel is just a matter of heightening the expectations they have in their current workforce and/or putting more faith in the range of applicants they attract. Investing in training and professional development is a great way to bring to the surface an individual’s latent purpleness. In fact, in sectors such as the tech industry, top talent can be defined by those with an insatiable thirst to learn more and stay on the cutting edge of their industry’s evolution, growing and adapting with it. Pushing aside such individuals to scour the forests in search of a sasquatch that already knows everything the second there’s an advancement is hardly the most efficient way to get ahead of the competition.

So, while purple squirrels are closer to blue whales than they are to blue mice – rare, but real – and while they are worth pursuing with passion (but not with Captain Ahab-like tunnel vision at the expense of your crew), they may be closer at hand than you think.

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