If you’ve been in recruiting for very long, you may have heard the term “purple squirrel.” I remember the first time I heard it. It was probably my first week in marketing training for agency recruiting. I came to my mentor smiling ear to ear with my new job order. He looked at it and said, “Do you hunt squirrel?” Confused I said, “Uh no, but my grandfather used to hunt squirrel.” (Yeah, I really did.) Needless to say, he laughed out loud. In fact it was such a genuine hearty laugh that the whole bull pen stood up, head-sets in tact, to signal their displeasure at the disruption. “I bet he never bagged a purple one, " he said. Ouch. By this point, I was aware the joke was on me, but I still had to have the term explained to me.
For a recruiter, a “purple squirrel” is a candidate that matches the seemingly impossible criteria the hiring manager has asked for on a bad job order. Finding this candidate is likened to finding a purple squirrel. The lesson being that purple squirrels should be avoided at all costs because even if they could be found, which is unlikely, the time you’ll invest is not profitable. That being said, many will still take one of these job orders at least once. Whether it is the spirit of the hunt that makes us think we can find one of these folks, or the commission we’re going to get if we do, the lesson is really hard to learn unless you actually find one of these purple squirrels.
“My candidate was seemingly perfect to the very end. I COULD find a so-called purple squirrel. Ha!”
I knew the job order was bad, but it was my best client. It took a while, but I found this prize winning rodent with a magnificent violet hue! His cover letter, was smart and articulate. His skills matched the job description and then some. He had more experience than required, but just enough to make him look really good to the client, not overqualified. The compensation was a hard sell, but the perks and benefits were enough for me to close him on accepting an offer at their high end. The icing on the cake was that he actually lived in the location that the client was completely prepared to re-locate someone to. That alone would save them 10K right off the bat. He showed up impeccably dressed and interviewed well. We were going to get the offer, pending reference checks, drug screen etc.
That is when I realized that I had moved too quickly with my process after spending so long on sourcing a fit. After all, this was a match I assumed would be practically impossible to find. What did I leave out? The reference checks! That part of my typical process got lost somewhere in the excitement of falling witness to a live purple squirrel.
No big deal, right? We’ve come this far. I’ll just call and let him know, call them quickly and we’ll be on our way. I was already thinking about how I was going to spend that fee on a little travel over the summer. I left a quick voice mail, “Hi Joe! I talked to the hiring manager and we expect to see your offer letter today. Of course, it will be contingent on background check and drug screen. Give me a call so I can get your references and give you more details.”
” Then it happened. My perfect candidate showed his furry purple squirrel tail! “
First, he returned my call with immediate questions about what the issue was and why they needed to do a background screen. “Um, well, that is a very typical process for most clients I work with. Is there a problem I should know about?” I asked with hesitation because I really did not want to hear his answer. It snow-balled from there. By the end of the call I had way more information than I ever wanted to know, including the fact that he had no idea how to reach two of his past three employers and he would be refusing a drug screen. I won’t even go in to the criminal history, but based on the role, I’ll just say it could have been a factor. Frankly, whether or not the information I receive would have disqualified him is irrelevant because he simply refused to do any of it. His behavior on the call was borderline scary and left me sure I did not want him to have another conversation with my client. I knew for a fact that the screening was required of all employees in this organization, so it was over. Essentially he pulled out. It was done whether I let them find out from him directly or I pulled the candidate with limited disclosure as to why. Either way, I was going to take a black eye with the client on this one.
1. If a candidate seems too good to be true, they probably are. This has nothing to do with their color or species. Be very, very cautious when you find a perfect candidate for a bad job order.
2. Don’t waste time on bad job orders in the first place. Even if you are lucky enough to find a purple, polka-dotted, FLYING squirrel, you should probably avoid working with them. In this case, the client eventually determined that they needed to adjust their job requirements to align with the salary they were willing to pay and we filled the position.
3. Always, ALWAYS check references on your candidates before you submit to clients. You won’t call their current employer obviously, but you need to have some kind of assurance they are who they say they are, even if the references are personal. I managed to keep my client despite the significant time we all wasted on this disaster, but I could have lost a great account.
4. Prep all of your candidates on what they can expect with your client’s hiring process. I assumed this candidate would know that a background check and drug screen would be required for the position he was interested in. Instead, he reacted with shock and frustration that it would even be necessary. Never, assume. Never.
Have you ever found a purple squirrel and had a better outcome? If so, I’d love to hear about it. Sign off below!
Amy McDonald works in an executive role with several employment websites including REKRUTR.com. She has been working in the human resources and recruiting industry for over 20 years. Amy has worked with hundreds of recruitment professionals throughout her career, training best practices in sourcing candidates and refining the recruitment process. In her spare time, Amy also participates as a thought leader and contributor for recruitment information with BIZCATALYST360.