Purple Squirrels and Unicorns Need Only Apply

I have a very witty and smart client who keeps me updated on his job search with subject lines such as “Unicorns” and “Purple Squirrel sighting.” I chuckled at both because I knew, without even opening the emails, what they were about. Unicorns and purple squirrels are what many job seekers feel like they are competing against – the out-of-this-world, unrealistic “required” qualifications that aren’t always stated in a job posting or even remotely connected to the actual work. Like the mythical and elusive unicorn, the unicorn job candidate is someone’s version of the ideal profile, skills and experience – ideal on paper, but probably doesn’t exist in the real world.

Consider the example of Kate, who interviewed for a job where she was told she was overqualified. She countered this with very specific ways in which she would be a great match for the role, as well as articulating why the level of responsibility was a better fit for her than a higher-level position.

Kate was one of three candidates who made it to the final interview round. When she finally heard back, about a week later, she was told that they went with another candidate who was “more qualified” than her. Are you confused by what the employer was actually seeking? Kate was too – and who knows what really happened behind the scenes and why someone else was offered the job.

Confusion starts with the job description. I think the confusion candidates feel often starts with the “Qualifications” section of a job posting, which is usually below the “Responsibilities” section. One of the first things you’ll notice are the variable terms: “qualifications,” “required qualifications,” “preferred qualifications,” “experience required,” “skills,” “talents” or even “nice-to-have skills/experience.” I group these under KSAs – knowledge, skills and abilities, but I see plenty of job descriptions that are actually a vague list of soft skills or qualities such as:

– Good written and oral communication skills.

– Entrepreneurial spirit with persistence to overcome obstacles with a positive approach

– Ability to work independently

And so on, a list of interchangeable and undifferentiating traits. ). In reality, candidates are going to be screened on more technical/specific experience skills such as these:

– 4 years of material design experience

– BSc or MSc in Textiles, Textile Design or Textile Management

– Experience marketing to affluent, C-level buyers in a high-end, considered-purchase segment

Job seeker frustration arises when they meet most of the technical job qualifications, yet there is a “unicorn” in the midst – a preferred skill/experience that is so elusive NO ONE is going to meet it. For instance, a marketing manager role listed “pilot license” as a preferred qualification.

Or, in my client’s own words, his experience with unicorns:

“Everyone wants to hire a unicorn. They don’t exist!!! Guy on the phone this morning was very good and liked my background. Lots of alignment and matching on the motivators and personality. Problem was, he wanted everything I had to offer PLUS three other specific areas of experience: Graphic design, art/creative direction and website development (not design but coding). So frustrating, he wants a unicorn. They don’t exist.

The good news. The tide is slowly changing. As the job market continues to improve, smart employers are having to adjust their expectations to compete for talent. More employers are trying to hire the “right fit” rather than wasting time chasing an elusive unicorn.

Job seekers are taking back some power and are looking for opportunities that speak to their unique values and help them grow their skills. Instead of solely applying to jobs online and getting screened by Applicant Tracking Systems, candidates are spending their valuable time researching companies, conducting informational interviews, and targeting jobs with select employers. And if they land an interview, they’re asking more questions to determine whether it’s the right fit for them. Employers, take note: You’re not the only ones looking for a unicorn anymore.


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