career planning, recruitment

Exorcise the Purple Squirrel!

A few weeks ago, I was really taken by an HBR article about the “purple squirrel”: a candidate who’s an absolutely perfect fit for a role. It’s still on my mind, so I want to talk a bit about the purple squirrel! And, more particularly, how we can exorcise the purple squirrel from our job hunts and our recruiting campaigns. (Although it’s not this guy’s fault…)

Photo credit Geran de Klerk at Unsplash

The key piece of advice in HBR is to maintain a flexible growth mindset and be on the lookout for new areas to grow into. It’s good advice!

But, the whole point of the purple squirrel metaphor is to question the narrative of the “perfect candidate” for an over-specified job. As the HBR article acknowledges, ads looking for the purple squirrel often involve a “nearly impossible” combination of skills and experience. They’re job descriptions that ask for 5 years experience in a programming language that has only existed for 3 years. Or that ask for every leadership attribute under the sun for the salary of a new-graduate job. 

Purple squirrel ads are the recruiting equivalent of a PUA “negging” a beautiful woman. They seem designed to make the organisation seem more spectacular than it really is. They scream: “You need all of this if you’re to have a hope of working for us!” Plus, they discourage able candidates while encouraging people not to take the role seriously, so anyone and everyone who feels like chancing it will apply.

Job descriptions are rarely well written. People use previous ones as templates and leave everything but the kitchen sink in there. They’re often not written inclusively. But then organisations complain about “problems in the pipeline” when they don’t get the diversity of candidates they need. They shouldn’t be surprised.

So, how can you exorcise the purple squirrel?

If you’re a job candidate:

  • Review job descriptions sceptically. Put aside your imposter syndrome or anxiety for a moment and ask yourself: Can they honestly expect all those skills and experiences in one package? Purple squirrel ads should be a red flag about good of an employer they are. They’re not about how competent you are!
  • Look at the “essential” and “desirable” listings and focus on the “essential” requirements. Got most of them? Think about what else you add that’s desirable. Not just the things they’ve listed; what else can you bring?
  • If there are no “essential” and “desirable” markers on the job ad, contact them to ask about what the top priorities are. 

If you’re a recruiter or hiring manager:

  • Exorcise the purple squirrel by not writing purple squirrel job adverts! Need something more practical than that…?
  • Unless you really do have identikit roles in your organisation, write your job descriptions from scratch. Throw out usual blurbs and wordings. Think about this role and the person you’d like to invite into this team. Then start to write. Make a top-three list of things that someone in the role absolutely has to achieve. What’s essential to do the job well?
  • If you’re struggling to whittle it down, look for people in your organisation with similar roles. Identify three key common skills or competences they share. Look for who can deliver those three things and see what else they might be able to bring. Candidates may surprise you with the value they can add that you hadn’t even imagined!

Let us know if you see any particularly bad “purple squirrel” ads that we can commiserate over, or if you’ve managed to snag a “purple squirrel” job and would be happy to share some of your insight!