In recruitment, a purple squirrel is someone who has the right education, set of experience and range of qualifications to fit a job’s requirements.

Sounds pretty perfect, so why doesn’t it work?

The most qualified workers are less engaged

In ‘The State of the Global Workplace’, Gallup reports:

“In the US and Canada, engagement rates trend downward slightly with employees’ higher levels of educational attainment […] In both countries, college-educated workers are less likely than those with a high school education only to strongly agree with the statement, ‘at work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day’.”

This begs the question: why is someone who is recruited for their specific skills or qualifications not able to do what they do best?

Perhaps because there is a disconnect between what those individuals want to do with their expertise, and what the company wants to use them for.

Consider a specialist in a particular area. They might enjoy being at the forefront of their field, learning about new methods and attending training courses and conferences in their field. Once recruited, they may be confined to working to a more limited remit, which is not as fulfilling.

During his extensive research into teams, Dr. Meredith Belbin defined ‘eligibility’ and ‘suitability’.

  • Eligibility includes everything that can be covered by a CV or at interview – skills and qualifications, relevant experience, references and performance at interview.
  • Suitability is less tangible. It includes aptitude for the role, versatility (a ‘can do’ attitude) and behavioural (Team Role) fit with the job in question.  


Fig. 1 The eligibility-suitability matrix

Clearly, certain jobs require specific qualifications, but there still needs to be room for growth. And often, for those who are eligible but not suitable, there is little challenge and disengagement quickly follows.

Suitable, but barely eligible – the ‘surprise fit’

People can train to learn new skills, so long as there is sufficient interest, aptitude and motivation. Dr Belbin discovered that those most likely to stick with the job were those whose behavioural styles were appropriate to the job, but who had not necessarily mastered all the technicalities. Performing ‘in role’ (as far as Team Roles were concerned) provided a confidence boost, whilst identifying training needs – and crucially, providing the necessary training – allowed individuals to grow in the role.

If you can’t change the person, change the person

We all have ‘manageable’ Team Roles – behaviours we can cultivate to help us fulfil a particular role. However, substantial changes in Team Role behaviour are rare. And according to Dr Belbin’s findings, an unsuitable candidate never provides the ideal fit between person and job, regardless of how good that person may look on paper.

If someone isn’t performing in a given job, it’s worth asking whether they might be better suited to a different functional role within the organisation.

Bob Penney, CEO of Mercatius Ltd uses Belbin extensively for recruitment. He observes that, when it comes to the eligibility-suitability matrix, ‘When someone reaches the top right-hand corner, you either make the square bigger, or move them to a new square’.

Belbin Reports are designed to facilitate and inform decision-making in recruitment, as part of a rich and full process. Whilst they do not provide a definitive ‘yes’ or ‘no’ (of course, each organisation’s recruitment process is far too complex and nuanced for that), they offer an additional source of information, as well as guidance and advice on how to ask the right questions to establish Team Role fit.

Next steps

Contact us today to find out how Belbin can help you move towards a more impartial, strengths-based recruitment strategy.


Our thanks to Bob Penney for his contribution to this article.


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