Why companies should abandon the Purple Squirrel Syndrome

Besides loss of precious time and resources, the Purple Squirrel Syndrome can result in organisations losing out on competent candidates, but the malady can be fixed

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The ‘purple squirrel’ in the recruitment and staffing world is the perfect candidate who ticks ALL the right boxes. Such purple squirrels have the right educational background; display the precise skill set, come with the exact amount of experience, and possess all the desired qualifications needed to fit a role. Just as the mythical purple squirrel, such candidates are rare to come across, and therefore, regarded as the Holy Grail in the talent-acquisition space.

A pertinent question needs to be answered here. ‘Is the pursuit of the purple squirrel – the Purple Squirrel Syndrome – worth the time and money? Does a high level of selectivity based on inflated expectations constitute a prudent recruitment practice?

Multiple losses

Speaking at length on the unceasing search the Purple Squirrel Syndrome may set off, Manish Sinha, SVP and CHRO, Mahindra and Mahindra Automotive Business says that looking for the right candidate without a precise timeline is not desirable.

“The deadline for filling a vacancy would not be met if the Purple Squirrel Syndrome were to persist,” he stresses. “Even capable candidates who are suitable for the role may leave, or cease to be available when the actual offer is rolled out. Moreover, ‘best’ is a relative term,” he adds.

“Organisations should focus on identifying the right person with the requisite competencies for a particular role, at a given point of time”

Chandrasekhar Mukherjee, CHRO, Bhilosa Industries

According to Sinha, such a practice should be shunned unless there is an extremely specialised role demanding particular skills. “If there is a general managerial role, the suitability should be gauged from the specific viewpoint of leadership skills,” he states.

Additionally, Sinha points out the ripple effects of the Purple Squirrel Syndrome. “Individually who have been internally promoted or given charge of another role or project, cannot move on or assume their new responsibilities unless the vacancies created by their exit are filled,” he explains citing an example of how the tendency could stall such a process, causing an interminable delay.

Seema Singh, former CHRO & CFO, India Post Payments Bank, also calls attention to how companies suffer as a result of the Purple Squirrel Syndrome. “Organisations that remain fixated on the ‘perfect’ hire end up losing reasonably competent candidates because of the perception built around the right candidate,” she notes.

“If I am on the interview panel, I will never begin with an unrealistic perception in my head”

Seema Singh, former CHRO & CFO, India Post Payments Bank

Seek within

Sinha offers a cogent solution to help overcome the Purple Squirrel Syndrome. “Organisations should raise their appetite for punting on internal talent,” he counsels, adding that an internal, high-potential talent can be groomed and trained to meet specific role requirements.

“Companies could identify internal candidates who display abilities such as strategic thinking, market knowledge and leadership skills,” he advises, elaborating how an employee who has already demonstrated competency and can do the job with a bit of training should be considered instead of the elusive purple squirrel.

Moreover, Sinha points out, there may be situations in which candidates create an aura about themselves at the interview, allowing them to be mistaken for the purple squirrel. “There are several occasions when multiple rounds of interviews and even psychometric tests result in a bad hire, triggering unfavourable consequences for the organisation,” he opines, alluding to the futility of an overly fastidious approach to talent acquisition.

Singh echoes this belief. “Occasionally, mistakes happen despite doing everything right. I’d say an interview is sometimes not an adequate test of a candidate’s true abilities and competencies”.

No pre-conceived ideas

Singh primarily attributes the Purple Squirrel Syndrome to building a perception before a candidate is interviewed. “If I am on the interview panel, I will never begin with an unrealistic perception in my head,” she says, emphasising that an interview should never begin with a pre-decided idea or mental picture in the head. Moreover, she recommends the formation of a diverse interview panel to overcome some interviewers’ tendency to be needlessly selective. “Also, the horizons of the interview panellists must be widened,” she adds.

“People should show flexibility in deciding the ‘right’ person. They should not be rigid or have a singular focus on finding the purple squirrel,” she further suggests.

“The deadline for filling a vacancy would not be met if the Purple Squirrel Syndrome were to persist”

Manish Sinha, SVP and CHRO, Mahindra and Mahindra Automotive Business

It starts with the job description

The importance of an apt job description (JD) cannot be overstated. A job description that asks for leadership and managerial traits for the salary of a fresh-graduate is a classic example of an ad seeking a purple squirrel.

Dwelling on the critical importance of framing a correct, outcome-based JD, Chandrashekhar Mukherjee, CHRO, Bhilosa Industries, opines that a mismatch occurs when the role requirements are not outlined properly. “Different people with different skills are required at different levels of an organisation; ‘horses for courses’ as they say. Individuals who are institution-builders are different from those who are deal makers, or are only good at meeting targets,” he says. “So, organisations should focus on identifying the right person with the requisite competencies for a particular role, at a given point of time”.

Today, an overwhelming majority of JDs are far too specific, detailing a list of criteria that few job seekers can fulfil. Expressing disapproval of such descriptions, Mukherjee stresses the need for organisations to be ‘broadly specific’ and to take into account functional and behavioural competencies. “For instance, a candidate’s basic skills, personality traits and mind-set — not just industry or sector-specific skills — are important,” he emphasises.

Mukherjee endorses scientific methods of hiring to minimise the Purple Squirrel Syndrome. He cites the example of competency-based interviewing, or the STAR (situation, task, action, result) interview technique. “Moreover, candidates must be asked open-ended questions. The most effective technique is to try and elicit answers that the candidate knows, not what they may not know. Likewise, psychometric tests should be used – but not as a rejection tool,” he explains, emphasising the correct application of scientific methods of hiring.

“Of course, there is nothing like a purple squirrel; there is nothing like a 100 per cent fit. Organisations should choose the best — one with the maximum competencies — among the candidates. The person who fits the role at that point of time then becomes the purple squirrel,” concludes Mukherjee, stating an oxymoronic truth.

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