Are purple squirrels and unicorns worth the chase?

Last updated:
December 15, 2020
December 20, 2021
min read
Bev Campling
Table of contents

In an ideal world, we can quickly get what we want when we want it. In a realistic world of constant change and innovation, skills shortages and an applicant-driven market, we can’t! So why do so many hiring managers still have recruiters chasing after the elusive purple squirrel and purple unicorn?  

It’s usually the result of unrealistic expectations and misinformation. The belief that the perfect candidate will hit the ground running, requiring no training or even onboarding. Often recruiters get a job with unrealistic expectations that only a rare and magical creature could fit the bill. That’s when they need to sit down with hiring managers to discuss the job description and bring some reality back to the hiring process.

What are purple squirrels and purple unicorns?

In a world of fantasy, they’re beautiful, magical creatures capable of doing anything. Everyone loves them! In the world of recruitment, though, being tasked to find purple squirrels and unicorns are a recruiter’s greatest fear and worst nightmare.

The term “purple squirrel” emerged in the recruitment sector in the early 2000s. Together with “purple unicorn” it implies finding a candidate who’s a perfect fit for a specific job. They will have all specified skills, qualifications, experience, the right attitude and they’ll fall into the salary band. Of course, they’re also readily available.

Unfortunately, reality hits every recruiter straight between the eyes when they see a purple squirrel job description in their inbox. “What is this hiring manager thinking?”

How to get hiring managers to see the light of day

Before we get to hiring managers, let’s understand why recruiters need to stop searching for purple squirrels and unicorns. Not only has the world of recruitment and the role of HR dramatically changed, but candidate expectations have also changed.

Recruiters are at the forefront of all of these changes in the hiring sector. They know how the environment and candidate mindset are shifting, so they need to get hiring managers on board. When you spot a squirrel or unicorn job requisition pop up, immediately arrange to meet with the whole hiring team.

Explain that rapidly advancing technology, economic changes, and skills shortages mean that the career ladder has been replaced by the career lattice. Candidates move easily between companies, industries, and job roles. It’s become common knowledge that in many instances we’re recruiting for jobs that don’t exist yet. Ask the hiring team if this role will have exactly the same requirements in a year or two. Highly unlikely!

Refine the essential job requirements

Many hiring managers are specialists in their field, and they don’t often venture beyond the boundaries of their expertise. Recruiters usually drive and coordinate hiring teams, so it’s their responsibility to get hiring managers more involved.

Work closely with the hiring manager and the rest of the hiring team to break the job description down into essential skills and nice-to-have skills. Remind the team of the importance of cultural fit. Just because a candidate has all the qualifications and meets the requirements, it doesn’t mean that they’ll necessarily buy into the company vision or fit into the team objectives.

A candidate with a positive attitude, who fits into the business and team environment will be far more dedicated and positive towards their job than one who doesn’t. As long as someone has not-negotiable skills and experience, they can always be trained and upskilled. Soft skills, cultural fit, and attitude, however, are far more difficult, if not impossible to instill.    

Don’t forget time to hire and time to fill

Most hiring managers are in a rush to fill an opening and will exert lots of pressure on recruiters to fill a position. If, even after discussing the previous points with the hiring manager, they still insist on specific (elusive) skills combinations, ask them how long they can afford for the job to be open.

Time to hire and time to fill are essential factors in productivity and profitability. Ask:

  • Can the job stand open for months on end as you chase after purple squirrels and purple unicorns?
  • What will the effect be on customers, other employees, and the bottom line?
  • How does the cost of chasing these elusive creatures weigh up with potential losses created by the unfilled vacancy?

Remind the hiring manager that just because, as a recruiter, you’ve been assigned the role of a purple squirrel hunter, it doesn’t mean that you’ll be successful in finding that elusive creature. Also, if you are successful, it doesn’t mean that the candidate will accept the job offer or make for a great employee.

A purple squirrel and a purple unicorn know their worth

It’s not impossible to find purple squirrels and unicorns, though. These extraordinary people do exist. It will, however, take intelligent planning and a tremendous amount of time to spot one, let alone bag them!

They’ll almost always be passive candidates who have to be approached with care and caution. If they’re interested in the role, you must woo them lovingly to get them to agree to an interview. Here too, the hiring team must be cautioned upfront that one wrong step in the process will see the candidate up and gone. Purple squirrels and purple unicorns aren’t desperate!

Synchronized collaborative hiring is essential if you manage to get a purple squirrel or unicorn in for an interview. The entire interview process must be planned upfront, interview questions must be well prepared and the team must share info and feedback in real-time. You can’t achieve this without an applicant tracking system.

Don’t expect a quick sale either

People who know their worth, and sometimes overestimate it, will come in knowing what they expect to join your organization. If you’re determined to follow purple squirrel recruitment, you’ll have to set aside plenty of time and be willing to dig deep into the company coffers.

Apart from the cost invested in the lengthy recruitment process, purple squirrels and purple unicorns don’t come cheap. And that’s not only on salary or benefits expectations. Many candidates who know they are a rare find will often make personal demands like housing and family expenses. They could also want the authority to implement changes to the working environment to suit their needs. This is not necessarily always in the best interest of the company or team they’ll be working with.

Once you’ve interviewed the candidate, don’t drag the offer process out. They won’t be willing to do a sequence of interviews and neither will they be prepared to wrangle over salary and benefits. If the hiring team decides it’s a “yes” get the hiring manager to make an offer within 24 hours. If it’s a “no”, let the candidate know right away to prevent any damage to your employer brand.

Is there an alternative to hunting elusive creatures?

Absolutely! The most important factor is for recruiters to align themselves with the intentions of hiring managers and know the company staffing needs. Discuss the challenges openly rather than either submitting to being a purple unicorn hunter or resisting the hiring manager's requirements.

Collaborative hiring is in the best interests of everyone!

For vacant jobs, understand what the core skills are for hard to fill positions in your organization and then work your way around the nice-to-haves. Identify candidates from your talent pool, direct applicants and existing employees who can potentially be upskilled. Conduct psychometric tests to see if they have the personality traits required for the role.

Learn your lesson as a recruiter and begin to plan ahead

If you’re tasked with finding one purple unicorn or squirrel, there will invariably be more. Make sure you’re one step ahead next time.

  • Keep in touch with hiring and line managers to identify junior employees who show potential.
  • Work closely with HR to track employee training and development, keeping an eye on those with hard to find skills.
  • Network on social media and with training institutions where you’ll find people with the skills your company needs.
  • Market your employer brand as an employer of choice to draw the attention of top players.
  • Get actively involved in your organization’s employee referrals program and encourage rewards for finding people with those specialized skills.
  • If you find a purple squirrel or purple unicorn by chance, don’t let them slip away even if you currently don’t have an opening.
  • Approach management to discuss how and where specialized candidates can be brought on board, even if there’s no vacancy yet.


Although the hiring manager will always have the final say on which skills are essential and which aren’t, recruiters have a vital role to play in updating them on the realities of purple squirrel recruitment.

If your organization regularly hires specific skills that are hard to find, put a plan in action to prepare upfront so that you have easy access to suitable candidates. Purple unicorns and squirrels are somewhere out there, almost always just out of reach though. It’s seldom worth the cost and effort to find them, so grow your own by developing and training potential talent.

Any new hire is a risk, but an existing employee who sees a career path for themselves within an organization is more productive and loyal. Developing and promoting from within doesn’t only improve your employer brand; it also leads to reduced churn and better customer service. In other words, it enhances your entire company’s brand image and will win brand love on all fronts.

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