Squirrels of Color, and How to Catch Them

Purple SquirrelsYou know what a purple squirrel is, right?

It’s kind of a joke--a recruiter’s term for an imaginary candidate that fits their open position perfectly. It’s an animal that might exist in reality, but probably not. This candidate is mythically good, impossibly rare, and costly to chase. Some would even say chasing them is a waste of time, that you’re better off training applicants to fit. There’s a lot out there explaining why you shouldn’t chase purple squirrels. I’ll focus on how the search for the perfect candidate affects the recruitment of people of diverse backgrounds, who we’ll be calling “squirrels of color” (SOCs).

Recruitment is an especially big problem in today’s network-driven world. SOCs of all sorts are cut-off from the hidden job market opened up by networking. Anyone can land an unskilled, low-wage, fairly meritocratic job, but networking is often among friends. Networking is often among the squirrels you know and love, most likely those who communicate similarly, value what as you do, and share your alma mater. So you should begin your recruitment by studying what values you (and your organization) have. That will affect who you attract and who you can recruit.

SOCs may have different values, which may be reflected in different communication styles, and they may be open to different kinds of discussions.

Just like with purple squirrels, approaching the search with an ideal SOC in mind may not match the reality of the candidates out there. Don’t picture a squirrel just like yourself but with a color change, but don’t let the differences distract you from the similarities.

Almost everyone thinks tolerance is a top-three value. At least that is what the World Values Survey says, linked above.

With all that in mind, how do you catch those SOCs?

Do Market Research!

Keeping in mind that the individual variation within groups is always larger than the differences between groups, you can ask questions like who’s out there? Why are they not here? How are they different and how are they similar? What do we what from diversity? As we’ve seen above, research can prepare you for the differences and allow you to see where those differences will help and where they will hurt.

Know Your Network!

If you network is full of one genus or one species, investigate why. If it isn’t, tap the SOCs you know. Don’t ask them to speak for their colorations, but do ask if they have access to different networks. Ask what those networks look like, how they differ. For example, LOCUS is a network created for the care and feeding of SOCs, and Pollen is a network that finds diversity and builds connections.

Adapt and React!

Once you know what they’re like and who they know, the final step is to get to know these individuals so that you move from the abstract idea of ‘a SOC’ to actual particular individuals.

Are they hardworking but inexperienced? Are they intelligent but shy? There are many ways to deal with these characteristics; you can choose to hire based on potential rather than experience or make accommodations for the introverts in the room. A lot of the advice designed to eliminate the unrealistic standards of purple squirrel hunting applies here too, like offering training instead of expecting it or judging blindly to minimize bias.


You might add a bonus step of recognizing and celebrating. An important part of making change is to acknowledge what works so you can continue doing it. It’s also a human need to want to stop and pat yourself on the back when you’ve done well--there’s nothing wrong with that! It’s easy to see what’s wrong in the world so it can take a special effort to see the good and praise it.

(I’ve already seen a lot of these efforts implemented at YNPN-TC, so let me just add that that’s why I’m still around.)

In conclusion, you may find that the squirrels around you are giant or pygmy, striped or spotted or tricolored, fiery or flying. They might be chipmunks or prairie dogs. They might be wilder than expected or milder than expected. And the squirrels around you will definitely be flawed--you’ll have that much in common--but don’t dwell on whatever flaws are novel.

You too are a squirrel of some color or other. Your squirrels will definitely be different in ways you hadn’t expected, and you have to be willing to be okay with that.

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