Human Resources News & Insights

Stop hunting for purple squirrels and start recruiting the best candidates

It seems everyone wants a purple squirrel these days  the candidate with precisely the right education, experience and qualifications to mirror the job description perfectly. It’s time to stop this insanity, writes Joe Weinlick, of the online career network Beyond.com. He offers up a more effective way to recruit

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The sales team at Beyond loves to lament “purple squirrel syndrome,” in which employers test us by asking for assistance in finding candidates for jobs they aren’t able to fill.

For instance:

Wanted: Java developer with ten years of experience developing healthcare apps in an agile environment. Must be able to speak Russian. Good communications and interpersonal skills a must. Master’s degree strongly preferred. Hang gliding experience a plus.

The “skills gap” continues to make headlines, and in a recent survey we conducted, 75% of recruiters said that the biggest hiring challenge was too many unqualified candidates. Sitting at the gateway, matching job descriptions with the resumes of job seekers, we see the challenge differently.

Put bluntly, the vast majority of job descriptions are not very good. They read like an accounting requisition, and are typically a far-too-specific list of criteria that few job seekers can meet. And, on the candidate end, most resumes are too general. They are designed for any job, rather than tailored to a specific position.

The result is frustration all around. Employers can’t find enough qualified candidates. And talented professionals can’t find jobs.

We need to stop the insanity. The job description has become a checklist of criteria that a candidate must pass in order to be considered. In the survey noted above, 40% of HR professionals said they will only share the resumes of candidates that have all the technical skills for the job. The exceptional candidate lacking in a few key areas — even if these are easily learned — will often lose out to a mediocre candidate with more check marks by their name.

There is a better way

Here is a simple solution. Rather than trying to hire for a laundry list of every desired skill, experience, and trait, why not identify the one or two things that the company needs most?

For a personal example, imagine that you have a leaking sink in your house and need to hire a plumber. A typical job description might have these requirements:

Plumber needed. Must have eight years of experience in the maintenance, troubleshooting, testing, installation, and repair of pumps, pipes, fittings, and fixtures, including both cut, threaded, and welded pipes, as well as familiarization with local, regional, and national plumbing, heating, and cooling codes and regulations. Good level of personal hygiene and professional demeanor and attire are required. Must be able to demonstrate effective verbal, presentation, and listening skills as well as operate computerized accounting, spreadsheet, and database programs at a highly proficient level.

The above criteria were pulled from actual job descriptions!

Now, if we had a bad leak, we might try:

Plumber needed. Must be great at fixing leaky sinks! If you have experience uncovering why a sink is leaking and can quickly fix it, you’re hired.

The first description is great. I think we would all like a plumber who communicates well, can quickly put together an estimate, wears a belt, and knows the law. It may not, however, attract the person who is the best at what we need most — fixing our leaky sink.

Let’s apply this same logic to our java developer. Say that we have a product that is due to launch in four weeks, and we need a developer to crunch code because we are behind schedule.

Wanted: Java developer who is wicked talented at writing efficient code. Must be able to work in a fast-paced environment without a lot of supervision.

The job description can go on to list other desired or required criteria. But start with the one thing you really need.

This will accomplish two things:

  1. It will allow a job seeker to quickly understand what you are looking for. The best candidate might be deterred by the laundry list — but, if he or she fulfills your primary need, the person may be motivated to read on and apply.
  2. It provides a better filter to judge responses. Give less importance to the laundry list and first evaluate whether a candidate’s response and resume demonstrate that he or she can help with the primary need.

Focusing on a primary need requires changing the process. Internally, we’ve all been taught to make sure that job descriptions are comprehensive. We focus more on making sure nothing is missing than on identifying the most important criteria to succeed.

My suggestion is to ask the hiring manager a few specific questions, such as:

  • What is the single most important contribution that this person can make to the team?
  • What do you expect this person to accomplish in the first three months and the first year?
  • If this individual excelled at only one thing, what should it be?
  • What criteria would you be willing to compromise on if you found a candidate who excelled at that one thing?

Asking these questions will change the dialogue, and help HR better understand the hiring manager and their needs, creating a tighter bond between departments. The result? A renewed focus on finding great talent that can have a real impact — because, as we all know, purple squirrels don’t really exist.

Joe Weinlick is the vice president of marketing for Beyond.com, an online career network focused on helping people grow and succeed professionally. He can be contacted at joew@beyond.com.  

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