HR Head to Head: Recruiting a “unicorn” employee versus cultivating your own

Charli Champagne

Charli Champagne

Manager, DEIB & TA, Human Resources | Payworks

Charli joined Payworks in 2023 after two decades working in manufacturing environments, where an early opportunity to conquer her former fear of public speaking illuminated a successful path to leadership in Learning & Development and Human Resources. She’s committed to developing and nurturing long-term strategies around DEIB and hiring at Payworks to ensure we’re living our collective purpose of “doing right by people” in the most positively and broadly impactful ways.
Responsable de la DÉIA et de l’AT- Ressources humaines | Payworks

Charli a rejoint Payworks en 2023, après vingt ans passés à travailler dans le domaine de la fabrication, où elle a saisi dès le départ une occasion de dépasser sa peur de parler en public, entamant ainsi un brillant parcours qui l’a menée à des postes de direction dans les domaines de l’apprentissage et perfectionnement professionnel, ainsi que des ressources humaines. Elle est engagée dans l’élaboration et le maintien de stratégies à long terme concernant la DÉIA et le recrutement au sein de Payworks, afin de garantir que notre objectif commun de « bien traiter les gens » nous profite à tous et toutes de la façon la plus positive et étendue possible.

By definition, a unicorn is a mythological and rare animal, most often appearing in tales of magic, enchantment, and glamour. In the Human Resources field, the definition of “unicorn” doesn’t stray too far from the fables: a highly-desirable candidate with a unique combination of skills and experience who we consider to be a rare find to fill a role within our organization. In other words, they’re a person who checks all the boxes… and then some.

In talent acquisition, we don’t necessarily set out to find unicorn employees – but we’re always excited when we do. It’s also possible to create your own unicorns: to provide training and opportunities so that current employees gain a unique combination of experience and knowledge to help further themselves in their careers.

So how do you know if you should focus your energy on recruiting a unicorn… or on cultivating specific talent within your own organization?

Should you always look for a unicorn employee?

The simple answer is no – not every role is a “unicorn role!” One of the easiest clues is how quickly and seamlessly you can fill it. If you receive a lot of qualified candidate interest in positions for which you typically recruit, you’re not actually searching for a unicorn.

On the other hand, those harder-to-fill positions – when there are special circumstances or ultra-specific needs, your organization is looking to fill a serious gap, or the role is more technical or niche – are prime opportunities to prepare for a unicorn search!

How to find a unicorn employee – internally or externally

Your search should generally begin with a look inside the organization. You don’t always have to go external to find the right person for the role, and it’s important to build and nurture the career development of your own people.

However, sometimes a role requires non-negotiable experience and skill sets not present within your existing team and outside the realm of reasonable possibility to cultivate (whether due to competing role responsibilities, staff interest, or otherwise). You may also recognize the benefits of bringing in an outside perspective and expanding the diversity of your team, as there’s significant value in new ideas and thought processes.

Cultivating your own unicorn employee

A great place to start in developing your own unicorn employee is to engage employees as strategic partners in their own career development. Part of your role as their leader is to understand their interests and passions; where they see themselves growing and how you can empower them to do just that. You can also develop and use an internal skills matrix to identify the critical skills and qualifications already present within your organization. When opportunities to build project teams or new roles arise, you can search the skills matrix and find those qualified individuals internally. You can also get strategic and use the matrix to identify skill gaps, giving you the data you need to more strategically plan professional development and training opportunities to address the top-priority emerging skills and experiences your organization requires.

Learning and development opportunities within your organization help to nurture, guide and respond to the interests and aptitudes of employees as they move along their career path. This all starts with regular check-ins with leaders and managers, as well as performance reviews. This is where conversations that otherwise might not have happened can start, because not all employees will come forward and express their career pathing interests. To foster that journey of growth, leaders can (and should!) initiate discussions about where folks see themselves in two to five years. This provides people with the opportunity to express their desire to grow, which helps leaders and those of us in HR better identify who might be an ideal internal candidate for a particular position when it opens.

Some things to look for when searching for a unicorn internally might include identifying employees who’ve expressed an interest in other departments, taken further education and engaged in professional development opportunities, and/or participated in cross-functional project teams. And if there aren’t any folks who fall into these categories, ask yourself: is it because those opportunities weren’t available to them? It’s important to offer those possibilities to your people, because you may not know what they’re capable of if they haven’t been provided with an opportunity.

Cultivating a unicorn employee from within does take time. You want employees to dig deep within their current role, while also learning, growing, and thriving. They’ll learn a lot from every role or project in which they’re involved: gaining additional experience and skills, and also developing a deeper understanding of the needs of your organization and industry at large. That way, when the time comes to fill a new role and you review that opening’s all-encompassing qualifications wish list against the qualifications of your team members, you’re more likely to find a unicorn within your own crew.

Meet with the internal hiring team to help uncover whether or not they have identified anyone internal who can fill the position. Maybe there’s a team member who’s expressed interest or a desire to move within, or someone who could step up into the role! This is where the mutual benefits of those regular conversations really shine. Providing employees with opportunity contributes to high employee retention and job satisfaction, and builds a great company culture. Growth and change is new and exciting, and we can help someone be that unicorn. How cool is that?!

Recruiting a unicorn

Whether you call it pessimism or simply realism, the truth is: when recruiting a unicorn employee, you have to start with the expectation that you may not find one. After all – they’re rare by definition! Meet with your internal hiring team and, within that all-encompassing wish list of qualifications, identify which credentials are absolute non-negotiables and which ones are more likely “nice to haves.” The accuracy of the job description will also play a major role in retention down the line – more on that below.

Be mindful and exercise caution when comparing applicants’ resumes against the job description to narrow down your candidate pool – otherwise, with some roles (especially at managerial levels), you may accidentally overlook a superstar who may not technically have the ideal years of experience or previous job titles, but will more than make up for it in other ways. Dig a little deeper into their relevant experience and passions!

Sounds challenging? Perhaps. If your organization doesn’t have a talent acquisition team or the internal resourcing available to fill that gap, you have the option of working with an outside recruitment agency to find talent.

Once you have a candidate pool, keep that qualifications wish list handy and focus on your must-have points. Phone screening is a particularly effective tool for learning a lot about a candidate – at least, when you ask the right questions. An indicator that you might have a unicorn in your midst is when the candidate themselves starts asking many questions – likely more than you’ll ask them! They’ll want to know more about your organization and your company culture. If you’re on the horn with a unicorn, expect to be put on the spot (and have some talking points ready in your arsenal!).

And if you’re on the cusp of hiring that unicorn, you need to move quickly – because you’re likely not the only employer who’s dazzled by the possibilities of what they could add to their team. After all, you want your efforts to be legendary and not a myth!

How to retain a unicorn employee

Recognizing that a unicorn employee is a rare find, you and your organization will want to retain that employee and provide them with a fulfilling career (just like the rest of your talented staff!). Much like other members of your team, they’ll want continued job satisfaction and engagement, along with continuous opportunities for growth.

Special circumstances to consider for unicorn employees in particular include that they’re highly-motivated, strong performers, and that often ties into their personal passions (after all, that’s what made them stand out in your recruitment efforts!). Have conversations surrounding what job satisfaction looks like to them and what challenges both motivate and engage them. Unicorn employees often seek a higher-than-average level of autonomy and engagement in strategic roles and initiatives – so consider what engagement looks like for that employee and look past singular strategic projects to what challenges lie next.

Employee retention, unicorn employee or not, often boils down to whether or not the job turns out to be as promised in the hiring stage. As mentioned above, the job description should have reflected what that employee is doing, helping to ensure expectations remain aligned. And as with any employee, ensure your unicorns have the supports and resources they need to do their job effectively, in addition to having opportunities to grow.

Head to head: do you recruit a unicorn employee or do you cultivate your own? The answer is that there’s no wrong answer.

It’s important to do whatever we can to build and nurture folks from within, but you don’t always have to fill a role internally – and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s a time and a place for both, and one is not more valuable than the other. Identify which path is better for the current career opportunity, find the talent to support your business, and be confident and support that team member in the way that they need.


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