The Truth About Unicorns: A Lesson in Setting Employee Expectations

ATR International
4 min readApr 8, 2022


Saturday, April 9th is National Unicorn Day, a time when people celebrate the mythical creature who has found a place in world culture for centuries. And why not? Hope, purity, power, freedom, healing, and happiness — the unicorn symbolizes all these concepts and more. It is a positive omen and a beloved creature.

The Staffing Industry Definition

However, in the staffing industry, the unicorn has a slightly different meaning. It represents the “perfect” candidate, a person who possesses every single attribute on a lengthy list of requirements from a hiring manager. And just like its namesake, this mythical candidate simply doesn’t exist.

While this description of a unicorn may be a bit humorous, searching for these candidates actually hurts your hiring efforts and lengthens the time your position remains open. Why?

Because while a company spends hours searching for that unicorn, work goes undone and productivity suffers. Worse still, managers miss out on potentially good candidates who are only rejected because they didn’t check every box. By the time leaders stop searching for these myths, job seekers have moved on to other opportunities. I’ve seen it happen time and time again.

A Note to Hiring Managers

When someone leaves your business, you want things to continue precisely as they were. To ensure continuity, you begin looking for someone who matches the same qualifications and experience. You may even add a few extra responsibilities because…why not?

But the truth is that your former employee didn’t join your organization as accomplished as they were when they left. They gained experience and grew into the role. Even if you are creating a new position, there is a tendency to shoot for the moon in terms of expectations. This line of thinking wastes precious time and is counterproductive. How then can you avoid being dazzled by the allure of the unicorn? I am so glad you asked.

Four Ways to Set Clear Expectations

  1. Set realistic expectations: What qualifications are truly needed to accomplish the job and which elements are merely preferences? It’s excellent if someone has a master’s degree in an IT field, but do they need it to do the job at hand? How many years of experience are actually needed? How many specific programming languages does the role require? The more you define the specifics, the more accurate your potential talent pool will be.
  2. Understand the labor market: Try to decipher how common or unique your requirements are and how much you can pay. These will influence your decisions about what is non-negotiable and what is optional. If you are in an in-demand industry or trying to fill a job with newer technology experience required, expect to pay more. The more you do your due diligence on these details, the more prepared you will be for the hiring process.
  3. Pay attention to your job descriptions: Remember, you are filling a position, not replacing a person. You should have descriptions on file which represent the true requirements of the job. The more qualifications you ask for in the description, the more likely qualified people will opt out and never apply. You can look for those extra “nice to haves,” but cast a wider net at first. You may not catch a unicorn, but you may find a diamond in the rough.
  4. Create your own unicorns: Develop your internal staff. If you want to replace people with unicorns, then train your staff from the start in the skills needed to move up in the company. Your employees already understand your culture, internal systems, industry, and the nuances of your business. If your company relies on systems or software that not everyone is familiar with, then cross training employees could really pay off. Those are unicorn type qualities that are next-to-impossible to find in the hiring process.

Setting these expectations builds a reliable framework for you and your team. We can still love and admire unicorns for the beauty of what they stand for (and trust me, unicorns made it into my podcast name, so I am a huge fan of these creatures!), but remember not to set the bar insurmountably high. You may have a crew of unicorn candidates on your staff already.

Looking for more industry advice? We’ve already written several columns with practical suggestions that can help you in your career.

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ATR International

Award Winning Minority-Owned National Staffing Provider Specializing in Contract & Contract to Direct Positions.