Have you ever seen a purple squirrel in your back yard? Probably not.

Gray ones are commonplace, but the purple variety is rare. (However, it actually exists in nature, say the experts.)

So-called purple squirrels are equally rare in the workplace.

What IS a purple squirrel?

In professional HR circles, a purple squirrel is the perfect candidate for the job. This person brings the ideal qualifications and experience to the position. He or she is the obvious choice for the opening—the search is over!

However, it can be so difficult to find this flawless candidate that a second meaning to the term has evolved. A purple squirrel has also come to mean the unobtainable. Just as a purple squirrel is almost impossible to find in the forest, the perfect job candidate is so unlikely to occur in real life that he is almost a fantasy.

How to find your purple squirrel

Be thoughtful in writing the job description you are filling. Carefully sort out which qualifications are absolutely necessary and which are merely nice to have.

Specific certifications may be non-negotiable. On the other hand, capability in certain software may be only needed once a year or to back up another employee when he is on vacation. Therefore, when the skill is called upon, the individual may be rusty from not using it. Instead of including this in the job description, perhaps a coworker or an outside consultant can be assigned the work for the rare occasion that help is needed.

Be open to people who don’t fit the classic description but have equivalent qualifications. Liberal arts degrees are rarely purple-squirrel requirements, but this type of education can develop valued abilities in reasoning, analysis, communications and creativity. When coupled with must-have qualifications, this may describe someone who will learn quickly, bring enthusiasm and passion to the job, and prove to be a valuable addition to the team. And frankly, some degree specifics don’t matter—many anthropology grads write just as well as an English major.

Considering close-but-no-cigar candidates adds complexity to candidate screening. However, it can screen in a larger pool that includes applicants who can do the job well after orientation and training and will make a long-term contribution to your firm.

Continually search for the people you want. If you have a frequent need for a certain type of candidate, look for them on an ongoing basis. If you find one but do not have a current opening, you may want to figure out how to bring them on board now so you will be prepared as needs arise. Even if you are not hiring, ask your staff to notify you of talent they meet through networking and professional activities.  Attend such events yourself to meet potential candidates and develop relationships with them. Hiring is much easier if you are part of a talent community.

Help your staff become more purple. Develop your employees. Identify internal candidates for training opportunities and promotions. You can readily assess their strengths and their soft attributes, such as motivation and ability to work well with others. Not only will you develop an internal talent pool for promotion, but promoting from within raises employee morale.

Consider the use of personality assessment tools. Add scientific rigor to your outside recruiting and employee development. As you work with assessment professionals to determine the personality traits of successful employees in the position under consideration, you will have greater insight into personnel decisions. Investing in the career development of employees with greater aptitude pays off.

Create a corporate reputation as an employer of choice. To attract purple squirrels—or even the fluffiest gray ones—you want your company to be recognized as a fine place to work. Treat applicants with respect since those who do not come to the top of the resume pile at this time might develop into highly desirable hires in the future. Help them aspire to joining your team when they become more qualified.

It’s not impossible to hire the purple squirrel but it may be a challenge. Don’t wait until you have a hiring emergency. The key to success is to develop an ongoing program that attracts such talent. Why not start now?

Watch “How to Develop a Team” to gain some insight into creating a team that will inspire growth with your employees.

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I have freelanced and consulted since 1992 while also holding full-time corporate marketing positions during some of that period. Freelance writer specializing in the insurance industry. Marketing communications, market research reports and competitive intelligence for insurance, asset management and general business.
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