Mary Jo Spiekerman, SPHR, SHRM-SCP August 1, 2017 4 min read

Recruitment: The Pursuit of the Purple Squirrel

Everyone is talking about the labor shortage. It is negatively impacting almost every industry and it seems to be prevalent in both rural and urban areas. Employers are struggling to find solutions to address the shortage with the goal of attracting a larger and higher quality applicant pool.

Along with addressing issues that exist outside the company, it is important to take a critical look at internal practices that may result in barriers to successful recruitment. One of these is ruefully called by those of us in the recruitment field as “the pursuit of the Purple Squirrel”.

purple squirrel

There are times when organizations try and pack a wide array of responsibilities and experience requirements into a job description for a vacant position. This might manifest itself as describing high levels of authority along with responsibility for completion of clerical tasks. It might be requiring many years of experience and advanced education coupled with entry level compensation.  It might be expecting completion of precise and highly detailed work along with tasks that require great flexibility and creativity. The resulting minimum qualifications for the recruitment demand a highly unusual candidate. Hence, the characterization that they are a “Purple Squirrel.”

While this approach can be tempting, and might be seen as the answer to address a variety of work that is being left undone in your organization, there are significant drawbacks to it.

  • Long time to fill: When candidates must have many qualifications, and groups of qualifications that are not typically found in one candidate, the result is a protracted recruitment. This can be problematic for the organization especially if the vacancy puts pressure on other employees or results in a loss of production income. If the company waits for a certain number of applicants to fill the pool before moving forward with interviewing, early applicants may move on and take other positions, compounding the problem of a small applicant pool.
  • Overpaying: Requiring advanced education and experience when those things are desirable but not essential may result in the organization having to compensate the position at a high level in order to attract candidates. Those may be dollars spent unnecessarily and may not fit well into the company’s compensation structure.
  • A “Jack of all Trades” may be “Master of None”: When such a candidate is hired, they will likely have weaknesses that come to light later which need to then be offset somehow. That might mean hiring other staff with strengths complementary to the incumbent’s weaknesses or outsourcing some responsibilities to third parties. This could result in additional costs and organizational dysfunction. And then when the Purple Squirrel decides to leave the organization, what they leave behind is an awkward vacancy to fill.

So when recruiting, resist the temptation to pursue the Purple Squirrel. A plain, Brown Squirrel may be the best choice for your organization!



Mary Jo Spiekerman, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

With over 20 years of human resources management in numerous industries, Mary Jo is uniquely qualified to advise the clients of Hausmann Group on human resources related issues. She provides guidance on complex employment topics such as employee relations, talent management, recruitment, onboarding, and training. Mary Jo and her team help “lighten the load” for clients that may otherwise spend a lot of time, effort and energy attempting to do their own risk management and employee benefits administration. Mary Jo is especially excited about the journey Hausmann Group has taken to become designated as a Great Place to Work by the Great Place to Work Institute. She began studying the process over 10 years ago and when she joined Hausmann Group she knew the pieces were in place to catapult the agency onto the list of the 10 Best Places to Work in Insurance, which was achieved in 2015. Mary Jo is a graduate of Marian University with degrees in Business Administration and Human Relations. She is currently a member of the Board of Directors of Community Support Network and serves as a consultant to the Personnel Committee of her village board. When she’s not working she takes the time to relax with family and friends at her cabin on the Wisconsin/Upper Michigan border.