Stop (Coddling Hiring Managers), Collaborate, and Listen

Recruiters and their HR partners have all experienced recruitment challenges on tough-to-fill roles. Some of these roles can be so difficult they’re called “purple unicorns,” and finding candidates for them can be incredibly daunting.

The challenge of the purple unicorns often begins with hiring managers acknowledging first that purple unicorns are hard to find and that managers may not be fully aware of the available talent for the skills they seek. When looked at as a whole, the combination of specific skillsets they seek would appear to require perfect candidates, while actual candidates are anything but. Factoring in relocation needs makes this situation even more problematic. Mix all of this with the need to find the right fit for the company culture, and it’s easy to understand why so many recruiters end up wanting to pull their hair out.

Like the rest of us, hiring managers are human and far from perfect. We all make mistakes and from time to time stumble into the same traps. Hiring managers are under huge pressure to hire the perfect candidate no matter the industry. None of them want to make mistakes. They have the right intention — they may just need some coaching and collaboration to find the right solution.

Working on these roles can be fun and rewarding. There is a great sense of accomplishment when they are filled. Even when extremely difficult positions are not filled, each one offers a valuable learning experience. It’s challenging for recruiters to who carry too many of these roles

This is where talent acquisition and/or HR have a real opportunity to be collaborative and act as true talent advisors. Recruiters may not be experts on the roles or technologies, but can certainly be experts on the market of available candidates. That is why educating hiring managers is so important. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Often, instead of being consultative, recruiters end up coddling them, believing the job description is perfect and the manager knows 100 percent what they want. As any parent of a three year old can tell you, coddling is exactly what is happening.

It’s not easy to be consultative. Much depends on both the hiring managers’ and the organizations’ culture, as well as the specifics of the purple unicorn positions in question. Additionally, there may even be generational factors at play when it comes to assessing candidates. The role may actually be defined correctly for that organization, and the search for the right candidate will simply take longer than expected. Managing expectations is critical during the early stages of the search. Unfortunately, we still see more positions falling into this category than there should be.

We must stop coddling hiring managers and take greater ownership in defining our roles. If we do not, we must be willing to face the consequences of longer fill times and delays in hitting important business objectives.

For technology firms such as Google, eBay, Symantec, and others, seeing purple unicorns when hiring engineers is fairly common. Sales roles also seem to be another job function known for producing them. Surely, there is a long list of purple unicorn roles that span virtually every industry imaginable.

Here’s a three-step approach to build a collaborative relationship with hiring managers and making all those purple unicorns much more manageable and hiring goals more realistic.

Review the job description and collaborate with the hiring manager

The fear of making a mistake is very high among hiring managers, especially for their mission-critical hiring. Recruiters have to understand this and find ways to collaborate, and use supporting data.

Use data to support your case

Tools like Wanted Analytics, TalentStream, and others use job postings as a measure of demand  and can provide a valuable picture of recruiting supply and demand. .

Candidate inventory tools definitely help with the development of sourcing strategies but can also support setting expectations with hiring managers, especially with purple unicorn roles.

For example, TalentStream data showed that a search for a Security Architect in Richmond, VA had a 78 percent difficulty score. This meant there were nine times more postings than available candidates with the skills required! Finding the right candidate in this case would require collaborating with hiring managers ahead of time to pre-set expectations.

Build functional expertise on your team

A recruiter may lack the knowledge of a degreed engineer, but can certainly know enough to ask the right questions. They should read blogs, interview candidates, and use other approaches to improve their knowledge of the roles.

Without a basic understanding of roles, plus business acumen, becoming a true talent advisor is much more difficult. Knowing the role and being able to speak to a company’s values as well as their products and services are critical steps to becoming more collaborative with your hiring managers.

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And, while LinkedIn training is valuable, really understanding the day-to-day realities of the role and how performance is measured will provide a big advantage when dealing with candidates and gaining credibility with everyone involved in hiring process.

Here’s an example of a condensed job description for a DevOps engineer in Silicon Valley in which there were multiple openings. These can be tough roles, and this position became a purple unicorn. A collaborative approach paved the way for success.

DevOps Engineer

ABC Tech Corp is looking for a passionate DevOps Engineer to join our Engineering Solutions teams.

Original Requirements A Collaborative Approach
Required Skills:


Ansible, Vagrant, Puppet, and Chef (Ansible mandatory)

A search on LinkedIn or other tools shows no combination of these four tools in DevOps Engineering. Work with the hiring manager to define the role more clearly. The requirements specified skills not reflected in the talent market.

Current application of scripting abilities in Python, Perl, Ant, Linux shell (all mandatory requirements)

Candidates currently working in DevOps engineering don’t apply their scripting abilities as part of their daily responsibilities. 80 percentof the candidates interviewed (over 50) — who were Sr. DevOps Engineers — had not used those scripting languages for years. Managers should know this when interviewing candidates and even during the resume review process.

Knowledge of data center management, systems management, systems monitoring, networking and security is required

When pipeline challenges come up within a desired area, expand the search, which in this case included strong DevOps engineering candidates from other industries who possess network and security backgrounds or data center knowledge from previous professional activities. This approach expanded the pipeline by 25 percent.
Preferred skills:

Experience with C (expert level)

A large number of candidates interviewed for this position were proficient with other programming languages (i.e. Java and C++). A large percentage of the candidates also had proficiency in SQL, helping expand the pool.
Experience with Ansible (at least four years) Ansible hasn’t been around for that long. Lowering the desired amount of years of experience in Ansible increased the pipeline of candidates a great deal. This change immediately improved results.

Show the hiring leaders that the candidates who were interested and qualified were not as senior as they expected. This requires the foresight to adjust one of the roles to be more mid-level than the other openings. Additionally, another location with tech-savvy candidates was found and after some encouragement, the company eventually opened an office in that location.

Consider having your team members come from technical areas prior to becoming recruiters. For example, we have a doctor and former nurses on staff to help support our medical and biotech recruiting. This type of expertise plays a major role your training and development efforts.

Shanil Kaderali is a strategic talent acquisition leader with global experience. He's managed and lead recruitment functions at companies like Cisco Systems, Symantec, WellPoint, as well as having worked for a Baker's Dozen RPO. He's Vice President - Global Talent Solutions at Pierpoint. Contact him at



8 Comments on “Stop (Coddling Hiring Managers), Collaborate, and Listen

  1. Greetings Shanil.

    I completely agree with several of the concepts you bring attention to. e.g. the data research you are suggesting to do to establish realistic expectations in the geography that the hiring manager wants to search in. IMPO, this is the number one failure of employers in that they limit their geographical considerations to local areas and miss out on highly qualified candidates whom are available in outlying areas, can be gotten at a discount, and relish the idea of working remotely.

    Employers should have a separate training program established to indoctrinate new hires into the culture and team with a deep four week min. onboarding with as much direct contact with all of the stakeholders as possible. With the discount the employer gets from the remote worker, they will easily get ROI much quicker. Add to that, advanced project and time management of each employees contributions and the result is longer term and happier employees. In addition, these remote employees should be constantly involved in their team decision making and brought in to the office every 6 months for a one week refresher AND social time with the team.

    The discussion with the hiring managers and C level MUST revolve around the best practice of hiring employees with transferable skills focused on ramping up on new technologies as opposed to square peg in a square hole hiring practices. All this does is lead to requiring higher compensation and job titles thus skewing the level of hierarchy and causing a direct relation to the current and future shortage of domain experts, and again IMPO reducing loyalty from employees who are just out to get the highest compensation possible with little appreciation for the employer who appears to have cherry picked them rather than made an investment in their potential from the start.

    As for bringing recruiters in from the domain of the candidates, I could Not disagree more. That is a short lived solution. Any recruiter worth their salt should be able to take max. 30 minutes to research and decide the best way to get candidates to respond. If not, then they are not fit to be a recruiter.

    P.S. I understand it is a “Purple Squirrel” OR a “Unicorn”. A “Purple Unicorn”, as you call it, sounds redundant…Unless you believe Unicorns are real?? But, seriously, I totally agree about the job descriptions. I also believe that %50-%80 of job Postings are Not real…i.e. They are designed to NOT be filled at all.

    1. Claudio – Thank you for your thoughtful insight and comments.

      Training programs for hiring managers are critical but likely underutilized both for hiring and retention including managing virtual employees. In silicon valley and I observe elsewhere, the belief that all positions require onsite presence to maintain the culture limits virtual and flex working work opportunities which is unfortunate. It’s not well thought out.

      I’ve had success with taking individuals from the business and training them into recruiters. These professionals gain very quick credibility with their clients however, it’s a small %. In our area, of less than 200, about 20% came from the business. Leveraging internal talent like this is good for hiring ramps as well.

      1. Despite significant improvements over the past 20 years, I agree with you on how virtual worker opportunities are under utilized and the advantages still misunderstood by the majority of corporate America.

        However, once again, I must again caution those that are trying to make recruiters out of domain focused individuals. Prospects must be screened for the transferable skills that need to be present in someone who can be successful long term as a recruiter. My question to you Shanil is how long has a recruiter you converted lasted on average? How successful have they been? What country was that in? America is near the bottom of utilizing individuals transferable skills for other careers. Most Americans find a niche and stay in it for most, if not all of their lives. Anyone who has been in the recruiting business for more than a few years will tell you that any domain focus becomes a disadvantage as the market changes…And the market is changing faster than ever before.

        As a corporate recruiter you have to worry about how your employer goes through their changes. As an individual recruiter, you have to worry about your clients changes and your personal changes as they relate to your job and career. Recruiting can be so much more ubiquitous than focusing on a domain. For most people, I would venture to say 90%+, this life would be less than fulfilling.

        e.g. look at my profile and my career history. I have changed jobs over 10 times and careers over 6 times. I am a prime example of utilizing my transferable skills to do vastly different, and in some cases, mutually exclusive careers. This prepared me to be a successful entrepreneurial recruiter, either by choice, or by necessity (I will never know). But, through the past 15+ years of soul searching, I keep coming back to it…I cherish the variety it gives me. It is not easy for me, or my family, hitting the highest highs and the lowest lows. But, it just works for me.

        Anything “quick” as you say should be seen with caution. It took me 30 years of school and career of being a both an employee and entrepreneur to develop, nurture and possibly most importantly, Accept as my own, the diverse skills that allow me to navigate an ever changing employment landscape. Of course this is my experience. I Never worked at an employment agency and did what someone told me to do. That is not my nature either.

        Shanil- If you can screen your proteges for the excitement of being in an ever changing environment that is based on helping individuals make life changing decisions, and then saddle them with working for you, or someone else, then you have the skills and understanding of a recruiter that I do not.

        For me, as much as my success has been to help others visualize, and then realize their success focusing on the domain they have chosen, I could not do that for another recruiter. Real recruiters need to connect the dots of their upbringing, education, work history, risk tolerance, and desire to genuinely help others be who they want to be, before they can objectively interact with candidates faced with life changing choices. At the risk of being over dramatic, IMHO, recruiters are born and not made. 🙂

  2. This is so rampant in the tech area. The worst are postings mashing 2 or 3 basically unrelated jobs into one, that no one could plausibly achieve in an actual career. Sadly, with recent polls showing 2/3s of hiring managers thinking they have the luxury of waiting for a fantasy candidate, this nonsense not likely to abate soon. Wonder how many are justification for guest worker visa.

    Also a perfect illustration of Peter Cappelli’s assertion that employers are the true cause of the hiring logjam, by pretending the problem is a deficient labor market, instead of unrealistic expectations.

    1. Steve – Agree. Peter Cappelli is spot on – it’s really hard to overcome this fear and pressure that hiring managers have of making this perfect hire.

      1. 35+ years ago companies managed to hire much more quickly and effectively. It was understood you grew into your role as training and ramp up occurred. Managers that dawdled like today would have been deemed incompetent. Were workers so much more qualified then than today?

        Don’t forget also uncompetitive pay. As Peter says, you can buy all the diamonds you want at prevailing prices. But don’t expect diamonds for cubic zirconia prices.

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