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Why employers are looking for 'purple squirrels'

Lydia Smith
·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
·4-min read
Photo of candidates waiting for a job interview
The 'perfect' candidate may not exist. Photo: Getty

It’s not easy to find the perfect hire who has exactly the right skills, abilities and experience to do the job in question, and fits in well with a company and team. More often than not, employers will find someone who fulfils most of the requirements, but doesn’t quite tick all the boxes.

It’s so difficult, in fact, that recruiters have coined the term “purple squirrel” to describe candidates with the perfect but often impossible combination of skills for the job. The implication is that trying to hire someone with many specific requirements is as hard as trying to find a purple squirrel in the wild.

But should employers still be looking for these so-called purple squirrels — or is it a waste of time?

Recruiters may be looking for someone that doesn’t exist

At face value, it makes sense for employers to outline exactly what they are looking for in a hire. A detailed job description is essential for attracting the right candidates and setting out expectations when it comes to duties and performance.

READ MORE: Why being a 'jack of all trades' is a good thing

However, adding in too many education, experience and skill requirements might not actually be helpful when it comes to finding the right person. It paints the picture of a perfect candidate who may not exist — and so hunting far and wide for this individual is most likely going to be a waste of time.

Even after interviewing lots of excellent candidates, a recruiter may put off actually hiring someone if they believe there may be someone even better out there.

Only hiring purple squirrels may lead to a lack of diversity

In a Harvard Business Review (HBR) blog post, “Why Women Don’t Apply for Jobs Unless They’re 100% Qualified,” women’s leadership coach Tara Sophia Mohr cited an interesting statistic from a Hewlett Packard internal report. Men apply for a job when they meet 60% of the qualifications, but women only apply if they meet 100% of them.

Moreover, an organisation’s ideal candidate can often look exactly like the hiring manager or the previous employee. Therefore, it’s unlikely they will bring in new ideas and viewpoints to boost a business.

READ MORE: How to get over 'career fear'

By advertising a long list of requirements, a recruiter may end up with far fewer female job candidates — and miss out on hiring someone who would do a great job. If you’re hiring fewer women, you will have a less diverse workforce too. And aside from ticking boxes — or more importantly, just doing the right thing — research from McKinsey & Company indicates that diverse businesses are more successful.

A purple squirrel might lie

If a candidate seems too good to be true, they might be. The longer your list of very specific requirements, the more likely the applicant may have told a “white lie” on their CV or cover letter. According to a recent survey by CV-Library, 92.5% of UK adults have got away with lying on their CV. Of the 1,000 workers polled, a third (31.4%) said they would be willing to lie about the dates of their previous employment and 11.4% would fib about their previous responsibilities.

READ MORE: How to talk about CV gaps with an employer

Failing to spot the signs of fabricated experience or abilities can lead to a number of problems. Not only may they struggle to do the job, you may end up having to fire the employee — and starting the expensive hiring process all over again. A recruiter may find themselves under fire for hiring someone unfit for the job. And if you do manage to find a legitimate candidate with everything you’ve been looking for, you may have to increase your salary offer to attract them.

So instead of searching for an elusive purple squirrel, employers may want to prioritise candidates who have skills that are more difficult to learn on the job. If necessary, you can train someone up once you have hired them, which may mean they’re more likely to stay in the role too.