Friday, October 9, 2015

Where are all the Purple Squirrels?

Human Resource managers have been looking for the perfect job candidate, and finding none.

[* Originally posted at LinkedIn as The Quest for the Purple Squirrel on July 2015 by David Hunt, PE]

A month or so ago I had a conversation with a recruiter who had posted a contract position on LinkedIn. It sounded intriguing so we talked. They described the position, and the company’s business. They also added that the company was in crisis mode, and that they really needed someone who could jump in with minimal ramp-up time. The clear implication was that things were behind, very behind, and they needed a take-charge person with the complete desired skill set.

I asked, “Is this <company so-and-so>?” They confirmed that it was; and they asked me if I had already submitted an application. At first, I had said “yes” and that I had already applied to the company directly.

Then I dropped a bombshell. I had said that, based on the job description, I had already interviewed for that very job over 18 months ago. Think about that. No company brings a person into an interview not believing that, based on the resume, they might work out for the company. No company would waste so much of its employees’ time. Yet, apparently, in a year and a half of interviewing multiple people, they couldn’t find one person who fit the bill.

It reminds me of this snippet from a postscript from another essay of mine about a different company:

A while ago I interviewed for a job in one of my target industries. That company had the position open for over 18 months, interviewed over 30 people on site, and closed the position without hiring anyone because they couldn’t find “the right candidate.”

The question then is: "Why?" — or perhaps, a series of "whys" — to dig down to the root causes of why hiring managers are obsessed with the Purple Squirrel, and won’t consider anyone but that perfect fit. Why is there an obsession with the “perfect fit”?

Suzanne Lucas, the Evil HR Lady, wrote a key observation in There’s Not a Talent Shortage. You Just Stink at Hiring:

"No matter how good the candidate before them is, hiring managers are utterly convinced that there is someone better out there, so they don’t make the hiring decision ... Companies need to realize that the perfect candidate doesn't exist. You need to find the best candidate, and keep in mind that that particular candidate may lack one or two skills that you'd like him or her to have. Remember, you didn't always know how to do whatever it is that you do either."

Echoing Lucas, from The Stigma of Long-term Unemployment and Yet Another Round of Ageism:

"When employers think about filling a position, they have a picture in their mind of what that person looks like and what they can do. This picture that employers have in mind simply doesn’t exist."

Clearly hiring managers have a vision, and they are convinced that a fantasy date is out there somewhere. They will not settle for less than perfection, as highlighted in this DeVry University survey result:

"Sixty-seven percent of hiring managers don’t feel like they have to settle for a candidate without the perfect qualifications for the job."

Why do hiring managers believe the Purple Squirrel exists? In the post: One in Three Employees Are a Mistake (written by a recruiting firm), it makes the claim that hiring anything less than the Purple Squirrel is leaving money on the table:

"Recent research by online recruitment marketplace, Hiring Hub, has found that nine out of ten businesses are making compromises when hiring, with one in three candidates described as less than ideal for the role."

The company mentioned then claims they can help locate that Purple Squirrel. The net effect of this (and similar ad pitches) is that hiring managers keep hearing that they can hold out; in the words of one senior person I know, “I want what I want, and will wait until I get what I want.”

After all, with the labor force participation rate in the 60s and up to 94+ million people under- or unemployed, why wouldn’t they believe that there's a bi-lingual brain surgeon out there willing to work for $10 an hour?

There are also no counter-balancing forces for hiring managers — to prevent them from extending their "wait to infinity". Neither do accounting practices formalize the costs of not filling a position to be weighed against the costs of hiring.

Why aren’t hiring managers seeing lots of resumes? ATS portals (applicant tracking system software) are infamous for blocking even qualified candidates from being seen by a human. Consider this statistic:

"Some sources quote that as many as 75% of applicants are eliminated by ATS systems as soon as they submit their resume — despite being qualified for the job!"

Peter Cappelli, a Wharton School professor did in an interview in which he made this astonishing statement:

"One employer told me that 25,000 people had applied for a reasonably standard engineering job in their company, and that the hiring systems indicated that none met the requirements."

And a recruiter anonymously told me that a company they knew did a test: they formulated what they (as insiders) considered to be an ideal and perfect resume. But that resume didn't get through their own ATS filter. Similarly, in an essay of mine on ATS portals, I noted another datum:

"One person [in class] said that his company has a slew of open requisitions, with internal people encouraged to apply through the ATS portal. Of the people who were already employed at the company, and from my understanding many of whom were already involved to some degree in the project requiring the ramping-up, none were passed through the ATS.)

ATS portals are, it seems, one of a company’s worst enemies in finding people.

Why is there this enormous list of must-have requirements? Several recruiters have termed the list of requirements put out by companies as “wish lists”. As many have observed, companies are running lean; so lean in fact that, the workers are forced to be "crazy busy". Job descriptions, once separate for different positions, are now amalgam jobs. From the essay cited above:

"He is asking for a combination of savvy sales and account management, a highly skilled programmer, and customer service/helpdesk support. Many people would describe these as contrasting skills, if not conflicting or even contradictory skill sets. In my opinion, the expectations are unreasonable.

Such amalgam jobs are created by squeezing positions together to, by definition, create unique-to-each-company requirements. Another driver of these wish lists is the non-trivial event of when a seasoned employee departs. It is axiomatic that a long-term veteran of a position has developed custom skills over time in that position. Thus, in creating those wish lists, hiring managers unrealistically seek a drop-in replacement for that departed person, not merely a successor.

Why not hire someone with an 80% fit?

There are enormous benefits to hiring from outside the industry, and rigorous research confirms this. Nor are the dangers of intellectual inbreeding to be ignored. Additionally, someone hired into a position where they have a chance to grow has greater longevity and interest than someone hired to do precisely the same thing they did before. Despite these benefits, it would not be overstating things to repeat that hiring managers “want what they want, and will wait to get what they want”.

Why are hiring managers so reluctant to pull the hiring trigger?

From an article I read, Interviewing for a job? It takes almost twice as long now, a key point:

"Employers are more aware of the costs of making a bad hire. Many are also hiring for jobs that require a high degree of independence and creativity, especially as more routine positions are automated through computers or technology. That's prompting employers to add screens, such as skills tests, to check the interviewees' ability to engage in complicated tasks.

There’s no question that hiring requires more than just a personality fit and an eagerness to perform. There are many technical skills necessary, and it’s understandable that competencies be examined. But testing can be a way to dodge responsibility?

"Another problem with using personality tests is disempowerment. When there’s a test to fall back on, managers inevitably step back from responsibility and surrender to the test, instead of asking the tougher questions. Like “the claw” in Toy Story, the test [rather than the person] decides who will stay and who will go."

Such tests, useful as advisors to decision makers, are instead becoming the decision-maker in toto.

But back to the bolded sentence about the cost of a DA DUH DAAAAH bad hire: Anyone who follows my blog knows that I read a lot of job-search related articles, many of which I compile into aggregates to aid fellow job seekers. Weekly I see articles about the cost of a bad hire. Multiple articles per week; see Google and Bing. Not only does a bad hire adversely affect a company monetarily, it cannot not adversely impact the career of the hiring manager. Aha!

On top of this impact on the hiring manager, neither will a hiring manager’s manager, even though possessed of greater perspective, instruct a hiring manager to expand their search more broadly to hire outside the wish list, lest the responsibility for that bad hire be buck-passed to them.

Forming a Theory. Walk with me through this in light of the "whys" I’ve asked: A hiring manager knows they need a person; they’ve got more work than people to do it. But a bad hire will affect them personally and specifically, while the pain of not filling a position is distributed over their underlings and across the company. Understanding that the ATS portal will pass resumes through only based on their criteria, they formulate fantasy-date-level qualification requirements that will likely result in nobody being given to them to interview. No interviews mean, no need to make a decision, therefore no risk of a bad hire. Or even if some candidates do appear, whether through ATS gaming or networking referrals, the hiring manager need only declare the person “not a fit” — and, again, no hire, no risk to their own career. Instead, by deliberately making decisions that systematically eliminate every possible candidate from being hired, the finger is pointed at the candidate pool as a “shortage of candidates”.

Thus, I put forth for discussion/evaluation the conjecture that the single biggest single roadblock to companies filling positions is the understandable risk-aversion of hiring managers to making decisions with consequences that could negatively impact their career. Even though decisions in the face of incomplete and sometimes contradictory evidence is one of the core responsibilities of leaders. Even though their protection of themselves negatively impacts the company’s retention of its present workers, it also negatively affects the quantity and quality of work being done, and negatively impacts customers — and thus negatively affects the corporation as a whole.

Thus, in their obsessive quest for the White Whale, Pink Elephant or a Purple Squirrel as a way to protect themselves, hiring mangers obsess about what cannot be captured to the detriment of their department and employer.

* Related Post: Debunking the STEM Crisis Myth


  1. Thanks for reblogging my essay!

    1. Thank you, it was a great article. I was also rejected by software. It's very frustrating when you can't pass the first barrier past the initial application for an interview because you may have answered a question in some way that rejects you, and you never see the results to see where your failings were.