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The Perils of Purple Squirrels

Posted on 23/06/2016 by Jo Hodge

Purple squirrel

On average, employers take 5 weeks and 6 days to recruit a new employee, and even longer for senior or specialist roles. 

High unemployment has led to a candidate-heavy job market.  With so many jobseekers out there eager for work, why are organisations taking such a long time to fill their vacancies?  

Even seeing lots of excellent candidates doesn't help employers to make a decision, as it encourages them to believe there’s someone even better out there.

So why are there delays?

Recruiting can be an expensive business, and the costs of hiring the wrong person are extremely high.  Although the economy appears to be picking up, not for profit organisations still fear that there may be further turmoil ahead and remain cautious about hiring.

With the glut of candidates to choose from, employers feel they can wait to find their perfect candidate; one who has all of the ‘desired’ points on the job description, as well as those ‘required’.  Even interviewing lots of excellent candidates can encourage employers to wait, as they believe there must be someone even better out there.

Red tape and overly complicated processes can also delay an organisation’s hiring process and the saving on overheads made by not recruiting can feel like an incentive to keep a vacancy unfilled.

But keeping a job open for months on end or spending extra effort recruiting doesn't actually address the core reasons why it is so hard to find the perfect candidate.  One of those reasons is that perfect candidates are too rare to bank on – they are ‘purple squirrels’.

What is a purple squirrel?

A purple squirrel is a term recruiters and hiring managers use to define an ultra-rare candidate who is perfect for the role, down to the last detail.  A purple squirrel will have all the skills and experience required, fit perfectly into your organisation’s culture, live in the right area and, crucially, will work for the salary offered.

These candidates do come along occasionally, but too rarely to build a recruitment strategy on.  Purple squirrels are not a product of successful recruiting, but more often simply due to luck.

The impact of delays on recruitment

Maintaining the momentum of your recruitment process is important to keep candidates motivated about the role, and delaying could be a crucial factor if they are deciding between two jobs.  Even though the market is candidate-heavy, the best candidates are still in high demand, and they won’t hang around while you wait to see if someone even better turns up.  They will go to more decisive organisations, and their negative recruitment experience could reflect badly on your employer brand.

A recruitment campaign only lasts so long.  If your possible candidates have found jobs elsewhere, you may have to start the process again from scratch - using up your valuable time and wasting money.  As the economy starts to recover and hiring increases, the demand for good candidates is just going to increase even more.

Positions left unfilled for a long time also become less attractive to potential candidates, like houses that remain unsold – everyone thinks there must be something wrong with the role.  In fact, Britons believe that job vacancies that remain unfilled for more than 72 days are roles that nobody wants.  This means that the longer you wait, the less likely you are to find a really good employee to fill the role.

And the impact on your organisation

Obviously, organisations cannot function without employees.  Unless you reorganise to absorb duties elsewhere, you are eventually going to have to fill a vacancy.  While a job is not being done, productivity in that department drops, and the longer you leave it, the harder it is to build up momentum again.

Taking a long time to recruit also puts unfair amounts of pressure on your other employees, who will have to cover the essential duties of that role.  This may affect productivity and ultimately retention, as overworked and disgruntled employees are less likely to remain loyal and motivated.

Remember the perfect candidate may not be the best one

In the long term, it is more important to find a candidate who fits the culture of your organisation.  When recruiting, you should prioritise ‘hard to learn’ requirements like people skills over specific skills that can be learnt on the job.  Employees who are trained up to do a role have more incentive to succeed and tend to stay longer in a role.  Rather than waiting to find the perfect candidate, why not invest that time in training up a good one to become perfect in the role.

Another area to consider is the opportunities for flexible working.  Again, this can lead to a more loyal and motivated employee.  Being flexible in one area may also mean that you can negotiate with the salary offered.

The ‘perfect’ candidate that an organisation is looking for can often be one that is exactly like the hiring manager or the departed employee.  While they may be able to pick up the ropes quickly, a candidate like this will not bring in new ideas or fresh viewpoints to your organisation.  It is generally accepted that a more diverse workforce is a more effective and resilient workforce.

The view from TPP

At TPP, we’ve represented our share of purple squirrel candidates, and we know how very rare and in demand these employees are.  When we work with you to fill a vacancy, we use a combination of job advertising, social media, our own database of contacts and search and selection to find both active and passive candidates we might be suitable.  We then interview them, face-to-face wherever possible, before sending over their details, to go through their CV and to check how well their personality will mesh with your organisation’s culture.  We will only put a candidate forward for a role if we are confident that they can develop into your perfect employee.

If you're not sure...

If you are undecided about whether to hire a candidate you've interviewed right now, or to wait and see if there is a better candidate out there, why not consider offering the position as a temporary or contract assignment?  This allows you to save on overheads, gives you some coverage for the role until you hire permanently, and lets you try out candidates in a real working environment.  Based on their performance, you can then offer them the role on a permanent basis, or keep recruiting.  But bear in mind that your temporary employee may also continue to look elsewhere!

Ultimately, if you are adamant you need a candidate that fulfils every requirement, you are going to have to wait for them to appear and it is highly likely that you will have to increase your offered salary to secure them.  We believe that it is more cost-effective to concentrate on the best person you find for the job, rather than the best person out there.