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The Hunt for the Purple Squirrel

Jan 03, 2019


  • EDITORIAL TEAM Talent Management Institute
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The Hunt for the Purple Squirrel

In the employer-jobseeker courtship, is there such a thing as a perfect match, aka A Purple Squirrel? Most talent managers think so but concede that finding them is a Herculean task, which is the basis for the strange term in the first place.

If recruitment was a jigsaw puzzle, purple squirrels would be the shape shifting pieces we wished would exist. A 100% score on a candidate assessment sheet is probably as improbable as humans winning an intergalactic war. For talent managers or talent acquisition specialists, even having a prospect that comes close, for all practical purposes, mandates that they be hired and retained no matter what the cost, psychedelic imagery notwithstanding.

The term “purple squirrel” has interesting, albeit unverifiable, origins. It was used by recruitment and staffing consultants by the turn of the millennium, and quickly gained ground in the HR community’s professional lexicon as something elusive, but attainable and precious above all else. Cut to the digital transformation era, and the raging war for talent gave it the much needed boost in HR jargon. The former Googler Michael Junge’s popular book with said squirrel in the title was all that was needed for it to become a common workplace term.

The term purple squirrel has come to describe a prospective employee, or a candidate for a job, who has exactly the skillset, education, intellect and experience that a job role requires, therefore not needing any training or orientation. They are immediately deployable and are capable of delivering tangible results in a short time, no matter how over-specified and exacting the job requirement is. In other words, a 100% match.

For talent managers, it’s like mining for gold, almost literally. The precious metal is most likely embedded below the topsoil and you need to pan it along with other impurities from the bedrock of the stream, identify the small grains, and mark your target territories, identifying deposits of the real thing in order to keep sourcing away to glory.


Like their literal namesake, purple squirrels aren’t exactly making a beeline to your office desk. They’re extremely rare to find, and are basically passive jobseekers who are at the bottom of the queue of applicants, if at all. If reaching them is a nightmare, converting them is pure turmoil. This is mostly because skilled, experienced and educated employees aren’t really looking to change employment as they’re adequately cared for and looked after by their current employer.

This doesn’t, however, mean that the purple squirrel hiring is impossible. Keep in mind the following when on the hunt:

  • Your employer brand will play a major role in your hunt. Social and search presence is almost par for course here. Your company will be looked up and examined very closely by your prospect, so ensure that the brand lives up to the hiring pitch.
  • Personalization is what will set you apart from other employers in your hunt. Adding a bit of good old personalized communication to your ATS and hiring process will add a lot of value in your squirrel’s mind, and keep them engaged throughout the hiring process.
  • Shorten your hiring process if you find your squirrel. A direct, one-on-one assessment with a panel of interviewers, management and business managers, coupled with background checks should do the job. As long as the prospect is genuine, capable and a good fit for the organization, keep the red tape to a bare minimum till onboarding.
  • Like any other hunt, it helps to widen your net as much as possible. Maximize the outreach of your referral programs and networking, providing greater incentives if possible, reducing your reliance on job boards and databases. You’ll find other rodents there, but not the purple squirrel you’re looking for.


Finders have to be keepers too, in this case. If the competition to hire purple squirrels sounds fierce, retaining them is no less of a challenge. Remember, qualified, capable and passive talent is probably the rarest breed out there, and keeping them engaged is as important as finding them. Here are a few key points to keep in mind:

  • Flexibility is key. With distributed and fluid workforces becoming more common with each passing day, the importance of flexibility in policies cannot be overstated. Purple squirrels are usually self-driven, dedicated outperformers, so it does help to provide them with the latitude to work in a free and relaxed workplace.
  • Communication, especially the positive reinforcement kind, is also instrumental in retaining purple squirrels. Not just with the business managers, being in touch with the talent management team, senior management and including them in viable decision making processes provides them with a greater sense of belonging to the organization, and increases their retention rates.
  • Don’t hold back on the RIPs (Reimbursements, Incentives and Perks). Pile them on. Remember, the more the better. If your budget can afford it, add to their professional credentials with long-term L&D programs. These may sound standard fare, but fall short in practice, while being highly effective strategies for retention.

Closing Notes : The origin of the term also implies an elusive, almost mythical creature. So why not create them in-house? Industry experts claim it’s far easier to develop your own purple squirrels with adequate skill development of your in-house resources. Its far more resource friendly, effective in the long term and less worrisome than hunting them from external sources. Perhaps the reason why Elon Musk famously advised against hunting for them in his tweet, saying “giving them attention only wants them to be more purple”.

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