“Ah! well a-day! what evil looks; Had I from old and young! Instead of the cross, the Albatross, About my neck was hung.”Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1834
Recruiters have always had to deal with the proverbial Albatross hanging round their necks. We call it a “purple squirrel.” The etymology of this term remains uncertain, but we can be sure that like Ahab, our industry’s White Whale is something we’re all after, even if the prize remains elusive. And, like the mythical Albatross, the Purple Squirrel remains our primary quarry, a hunt that for some reason we participate in as a point of pride.
Why we brag about our inability to source the hardest-to-find candidates is hard for me to fathom; that we openly broadcast our inability to source the highly experienced, highly skilled talent our employers pay us to find is a bit asinine, honestly.
By continuing to focus on the “purple squirrel,” we lose track of sourcing reality, the incessant need to fill pipelines, requisitions and diverse candidate slates.
By continuously going after the hardest to find candidates, we neglect our responsibility to the more mundane searches that might not be as interesting, but are every bit as essential as the “purple squirrels” so many sourcers seem to prefer.
The Saga of The Purple Squirrel.
OK, hold up a minute. I figure there’s like a .01% chance you might not have heard of the term “purple squirrel” before, on account of the fact you’re probably too busy recruiting and researching to care about such pointless pedantics. So, if you’re not familiar with this all too ubiquitous term, first off, good for you, dude. Seriously. Forget I said anything.
But just so all of us are on the same page, when most sourcers talk about a “purple squirrel,” they’re describing that candidate who’s practically perfect in any way. The one whose background and experience are exactly what the hiring manager is looking for. The one who can charm his way through interviews, highball the offer and still come onboard without any training or ramp up time and become one of your organization’s all stars. The recruiter, in turn, looks like a hero for finding such a rarified catch.
The truth of purple squirrels, of course, is that the perfect candidate is as rare as a real life purple squirrel.
And no, in real life, purple squirrels don’t really exist. Same goes for recruiting, too.
To me, the “purple squirrel” is more than a stupid buzzword or meaningless catchphrase, like so many recruiting related aphorisms and sourcing-specific semantics. To me, the entire concept is instead symptomatic of a greater truth – and one with far reaching implications for everyone in the business of talent (and beyond). Recruiters, you see, don’t have a “seat at the table.” Hell, they don’t even know where the table is, or exactly what seat they should be looking for in the first place; no one ever tells us those kind of details, do they?
Recruiters, instead, are widely seen as tacticians at worst, order takers at best, peons in a pointless process where we mostly “qualify” a requisition by more or less letting the Hiring Manager not only have it their way, but then ask if they’d like some fries with that, too. I’ve been a part of countless intake meetings as a manager, recruiter or recruiting manager over the course of my career.
And yet, for some reason, I’ve never – not once – heard anyone push back against the initial requirements, even if the combination is utterly unusual or absolutely unnecessary. It’s only after the fact that recruiters come back to the hiring managers to negotiate these requirements, a reactive strategy that underscores the fact that “passives” aren’t limited to candidates when it comes to recruiting.
The fact is, no one wants to admit, at least at first, that any search is impossible. Nope. We’re too confident in our ability to hunt down one of those proverbial “purple squirrels,” even if everyone knows that such a pursuit is futile. This is the impossible dream that’s becoming a real recruiting nightmare.
The Problem With Purple Squirrels.
So what, you ask, is the problem? I mean, sourcers are paid to find those needles in the talent haystack, after all; the hunt for the purple squirrel is their entire raison d’etre, and justification for the existence of this discipline as an independent function. To me, however, the problem of choosing chasing purple squirrels over better big picture outcomes becomes the primary cause of several common, yet critical, issues that often emerge downstream in the recruiting process.
For example, we’ve all been through that scenario where we somehow uncover those really hard-to-find candidates to a hiring manager after a painfully difficult search, only to have them summarily dismissed due to some missing requirement they forgot to mention in an intake meeting or include in a job description. I hate it when that happens. And it happens to the best of us, because for some reason, we’re too busy focusing on the impossible to sweat the small stuff. This obviously can screw sourcers over, big time.
When you have to let perfectly good candidates go because of some subjective or specious requirement that was so essential the hiring manager forgot to mention it until after you’d submitted your slate, there are some pretty profound consequences not only on the requisition but for you as a recruiter, too.
Not least of which are the fact you’ve wasted a bunch of time sourcing candidates who you never knew never stood a chance, and in the process pushed up your overall time to fill – this happens when you have to start a search over at square one. Of course, what sucks even worse is having to tell awesome prospects “thanks, but no thanks.”
No thanks. Of course, there aren’t any consequences for the hiring manager – it’s all your fault. You’re the recruiter. Which means you have to take the blame for any associated bullshit. And there’s always associated bullshit when bad hiring managers happen to good recruiters.
Now, if consumer marketing were to produce an advertisement for a product that failed to mention exactly what the product does, or what some of the key selling points are, or who the intended audience for that ad actually is, there’s a pretty good chance that marketing is going to be held accountable when that campaign inevitably falls flat. Similarly, if your accounting department failed to close the books at the end of the month, and because of bookkeeping the whole budgeting process gets pushed back, there’d be consequences for the accountants, you can be sure of it.
If a hiring manager, however, completely neglects to provide timely feedback, completely forgets completely critical requirements for the role and because of those fundamental failures, a position goes unfilled, then for some reason, it’s the recruiter who has to deal with the fallout.
That doesn’t really seem fair, now does it?
The High Costs of Hunting Purple Squirrels.
There are some other problems that arise when recruiters devolve into order takers. Too often, it results in our collective voice being too weak to effectively advocate for the best talent or become true business partners for our internal stakeholders. We’ve been largely silenced – and sometimes, too often, that means that we don’t get a say in how recruiting actually gets done. We’re only there as intermediaries, really, part of the process but not part of the decision making. This makes us every bit as interchangeable to our hiring managers as most of our candidates, no matter how skilled we happen to be.
I remember one search I was doing for a finance role; I had recruited an Audit Manager straight out of the Big 4 who not only had a CPA, but a top MBA as well. All this after only three years or so of overall experience. Now, if you know anything about finance or accounting (or the Big 4), you know that this is a big deal – and the rarity of this combination made this candidate as close to a “purple squirrel” as they come. Or so it seemed.
The candidate was summarily rejected upon submission due to not having the requisite number of years of Big 4 experience. I remember rejecting the candidate thinking, “what a loss for the company!”
The sad thing is, the loss could have been avoided, if I just would have been given a chance to justify my decision in submitting such a uniquely qualified candidate. Of course, all the hiring manager saw were years of experience, and a recruiter who clearly didn’t know how to do math or read requirements on his own requisitions. Therefore, neither of us deserved the courtesy of a follow up conversation, much less additional consideration; I had to cut my candidate loose. It sucked for both of us.
Finally, and possibly worst of all, the lack of hiring manager accountability and lack of reciprocal respect in the recruiting relationship almost always leads to a CYA approach to talent attraction. Because when the recruiter is being pressured by the powers that be over time to fill, the hiring manager might have a hundred untouched submissions sitting in their inbox; while the recruiter is having their activity audited, the hiring manager is ignoring or simply not taking action on any of the candidates you’ve already sent over. This leads to more submissions, more silence, and more shit for the recruiter.
The hiring manager? Not so much.
I’ve been in this precarious position before, and I know how to prove beyond a reasonable doubt I’m doing a reasonable job of finding qualified, interested and available candidates. For the average open role, I send out 300 emails, which generally lead to about 30 interested candidates with the exact skill sets I’m looking for, and then proactively screen the top 10 and submit the top 5, as a rule. I keep records of all of this, which is helpful, since in the absence of results, showing your work matters as much in recruiting as it did in high school geometry.
Of course, by stressing the means over the ends by focusing on activity over outcomes, this CYA approach inevitably leads to more and more recruiters spamming their talent pools, communities and connections, ultimately poisoning the well we damn well need to keep f we’re going to keep recruiting. The CYA approach also means, of course, that everything that doesn’t have an assigned metric or associated measurement probably won’t ever get done.
For example, candidates who don’t get hired and never receive a follow up communication, or those who simply submit applications to sit in the “black hole” obviously leads to bad experiences for the candidate and a bad interaction with your employer brand.
The reason why candidate experience is so universally poor is simple, and it’s sad. It’s because there are no metrics attached, no baselines we’ve got to stay above, and thus, most recruiters are going to ignore those in favor of stuff like chasing “purple squirrels” instead of extending candidates the common courtesy of a call or follow-up e-mail. That’s how their success is measured, and recruiters won’t manage what’s not being measured, because what’s not being measured isn’t their problem.
Unlike, say, unresponsive or unctuous hiring managers.
The Solution: How To Kill A Purple Squirrel.
OK, Houston. So recruiters and sourcers obviously have a problem, and a pretty endemic one at that. So what, exactly, are we supposed to do about it? Well, I suppose acknowledging that we have a problem is the first step towards recovery, right? The next step, I suppose, is to start proactively preventing and preempting these problematic process and people issues so that we can get ahead of the problem – and start working towards a solution.
When we conduct an intake meeting, we’ve got to start doing a better job setting the agenda and working as advisers, not order takers; similarly, when we screen candidates, we need to make sure we’re crystal clear on what our hiring manager is looking for, and that we’re delivering on the promised profile.
That profile, of course, should be the result of conversation and consensus, not simply because that’s what the hiring manager wanted. What’s best for them might not be what’s best for their employer, and that’s where your experience and expertise as a recruiter come in.
This should start with providing the hiring manager with detailed, relevant information about the job market, candidate availability, demand, supply and so forth. For example, you can start off an intake meeting by saying something like,
“I know you don’t do this everyday, but I want to give you an idea of what the job market looks like right now. According to the BLS unemployment is 2.5% for college educated professionals in the US over 25 – which is the profile of the candidate you’re looking for. Also, I’ve done some research on Glassdoor and I’ve found that our competition is paying between 72,000 and 78,000 for people in a similar role. Based on the current market, I think we should probably try to go towards the higher end of that compensation range – it’s going to be tough since this kind of role is so in demand. Of course, that also means that I’m going to need you to turn around any candidates I share with you as quickly as possible. Does 48 hours sound reasonable?”
Yeah. You can’t come to the table with buzzwords and BS – you need to provide actual facts and relevant figures if you’re going to purport to know the market, push back on the hiring manager or add any value to the conversation whatsoever. If you can’t bring this sort of back up, there’s no reason to bring you back into the process – and you’re right back to being an order taker. And no one wants that.
There’s one other way recruiters and sourcers can do a better job of managing hiring managers besides simply setting expectations. There’s been a lot of commentary about the increasing correlation between recruiting and marketing, a theme that’s quickly become one of the hottest trending topics in talent today.
While it pains me a little to admit this, there’s actually quite a lot recruiters and sourcers can learn when it comes to marketing ourselves to the business – particularly, when it comes to differentiating our business partnerships with the “HR Business Partners” with whom we share a function.
We may actually be wise to brand ourselves better and consider taking a page out of the generalist playbook – Recruiting Business Partner sounds like it has a lot more gravitas and cache than, say, “purple squirrel hunter.” And yeah, I know someone who actually has that as their official title. I don’t get it, either. What I do get is that by promoting the fact that we’re here to help, rather than hinder, the hiring process, and that we want to partner with the business instead of simply be providers, we need to start telling our clients, colleagues and candidates that.
Let’s start by finally killing off that whole “purple squirrel” thing once and for all. We’ve all got way bigger things to worry about in talent acquisition today.
About the Author: Mike Wolford has over 9 years of recruiting experience in staffing agency, contract and in house corporate environments. He has worked with such companies as Allstate, Capital One, and National Public Radio.
Mike also published a book titled “Becoming the Silver Bullet: Recruiting Strategies for connecting with Top Talent” and “How to Find and Land your Dream Job: Insider tips from a Recruiter” he also founded Recruit Tampa and Mike currently serves as the Sourcing Manager at Hudson RPO. An active member of the Recruiting community, Mike has spoken publicly in an effort to help elevate the level of professional skill.
By Mike Wolford
As the Talent Intelligence Titan with over 15 years of progressive experience, I've dedicated my career to revolutionizing the talent acquisition landscape. My journey, marked by leadership roles at esteemed organizations like Claro Analytics and Twitter, has equipped me with a deep understanding of recruiting, sourcing, and analytics. I've seamlessly integrated advanced AI technologies into talent acquisition, positioning myself at the vanguard of recruitment innovation.
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