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Defining Pay for a Compensation Unicorn

At a recent client engagement, the HR department described a specific position they were having a hard time trying to fill.  The position was incredibly specific and required knowledge and a skill set that was nearly impossible to conceive. They told me that they had been trying to fill the position for almost two years. During that period, the department in need had created “better and more specific definitions.” As I probed deeper it became clear that this position was more than difficult to fill, it was impossible. They were trying to hire a unicorn. This position, like the unicorn, could only be filled in someone’s imagination. A unicorn is a beautiful, magical and entirely mythical animal. No amount of compensation could solve this problem. No amount of corporate culture, communication, philosophy and compensation instruments would entice the right applicant. The problem with the position was that it was, by design or accident, impossible to fill in the real world.

During the two years the job had been open, the “better and more specific definitions” had become a catchall compendium of the things that other people in the department could not accomplish due to a lack of time or skills. They just kept adding “requirements” to a single description because that super-person would fill all the holes in the department. Had the original position been filled quickly (itself a near impossibility), the following needs would have been attached to an entirely new role, or spread amongst the rest of the staff.

Unicorn positions are incredibly frustrating. They can even be career limiting for HR and compensation professionals. Since it is impossible to find someone that meets every requirement of a unicorn, anyone you hire will fall short of expectations. We often get caught in this rut because the requirements change slowly over a long period of time.  What was initially a difficult, but realistic, becomes an impossible to fill dream position.

As compensation professionals, we tend to see most problems as something that can be fixed with pay. We often assume that if we just sweeten the pot, the right person will come running. We raise compensation levels and work harder with recruiters. We get special approval for pay packages that stretch or break our compensation philosophy or structure. All of this effort is made in an attempt to do the undoable.

Take a moment and consider some of the high paying, difficult to fill, positions at your company. Some are legitimate senior level roles. Others can probably be filled with two or three people with lesser talents, and maybe a great manager. Take an even closer look. How many of them would be easy to fill if it weren’t for a unique and pesky set of skills required for an important short-term task? How many of those unique skills could be better filled by a qualified consultant?

Most unicorns are created by our imagination. Initially, we need a horse to do a typical task.  We then realize that sometimes we need an animal with a horn to do something on occasion.  Instead of looking for a horse and a rhinoceros, we combine everything into one crazy unicorn. A rhino might be tough to find, but there are tons of horses (no matter what the specific task is) just waiting for you to put them to work. Even the best compensation program cannot turn a mythical position into a real job. Before you consider a compensation solution for a troublesome long-term opening, take the time to find out if you are really trying to hire a unicorn when other solutions may give you everything you need.

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