Hiring unicorns

Have you ever seen a job posting that requires so many different skills that you got an anxiety attack just reading it? I’ve inadvertently created such a unicorn job posting. Here’s what happened.

Unicorn job postings 🦄

Some IT-related job postings require many different skills and so much experience that normal human beings like you and me can’t compare. People often refer to them as “looking for a unicorn” or “unicorn job postings.”

Examples of this are job postings that demand that you only apply if you have the skill set of an entire department. Or those hilarious ones requiring 10+ years of experience in a month-old tool.

These job postings make it less likely that people apply to them. Even fantastic applicants are often scared off. This means no applicants for the company and jobless anxiety for applicants. It’s a lose-lose situation.

I inadvertently created such a unicorn job posting a while ago.

What happened?

Before I left my previous assignment, we looked for someone to replace me. As a team, we had a pretty good idea of requirements and the nice-to-haves for this person and wrote a decent job posting. It wasn’t the shortest list of requirements, but it was manageable and had a clear separation between requirements and nice-to-haves. With good hope, we sent our job posting to the department manager and waited patiently for applicants.

During this time, the job market for IT personnel in The Netherlands was quite strained. After waiting for responses for a few weeks, we started talking about the state of the IT job market and complained that the handover window was shrinking.

After waiting a few months, we still didn’t have any applicants. The time window for me to hand over to my replacement was closing fast. Not knowing what happened, I decided to look up the job posting on the public company website. Maybe we wrote a bad job posting? What I found barely resembled what we wrote as a team. I had to confirm with the department manager if I found the correct one.

When writing the job posting, we didn’t realize that the company has policies that require certain things in job postings. Our department manager had to add these things to comply with company policies. They also changed some formatting to be more consistent with other job postings. Then HR/company recruiters (not sure which) received this revised job posting, added more things, and changed the formatting again.

After multiple people changed it, the published posting included a scarily long list of requirements. The separation of requirements and nice-to-haves had disappeared. The list also included things we didn’t need as a team, but someone added them due to company policy.

The job posting got very few responses (no wonder). Due to multiple people making changes, the posting had evolved from looking for a person to looking for a unicorn.

I left without anyone to replace me.

Unreasonable expectations

During this ordeal, I wondered how much knowledge and skills you can expect from a person. The way I see it, each of us has a finite amount of brain that we can allocate in a few main ways:

  • We can become experts in one topic but know barely anything about everything else. A master of one.
  • We can become generalists but not be very knowledgeable in any one topic. A jack of all trades but a master of none.
  • We can T-shape, where we become generalists with a focus on a single topic. A jack of many trades and proficient in one.

When you broaden your knowledge, you can never go as deep as when you only focus on one topic. A generalist will never be as good at a topic as a specialist. It’s convenient to hire one person to do everything, but you have to be aware of the inherent shortcomings of such a situation.

By including many requirements in job postings, we encourage generalists to apply because they can tick every box. But these are often not the applicants we want. The specialists and T-shaped applicants will not apply to such postings because they can’t tick all the boxes and move on to the next posting. Ultimately, this is why I had to leave the team without a replacement.

Fix your job postings

If you want people to apply to your job posting:

  1. Reduce the number of requirements. A big list of requirements can scare applicants off.
  2. Clearly separate the requirements from the nice-to-haves. A big list of nice-to-haves with only a few requirements is not as scary.
  3. Remove company requirements. They add nothing or very little to your team. Otherwise, the team would have included it.

While fixing your job postings, ask yourself how many people might match the posting as written. Is it even possible for a person to adhere to all requirements? If not, you’re trying to hire a unicorn.

If you don’t know enough about which requirements you can remove or what they mean, ask the team that wrote the original requirements. It would have been great if this had happened when looking for my replacement. We might have found someone.


Job postings that demand only unicorns apply are common. In my case, it happened because multiple people changed the posting before it went live. It’s a bad situation for everyone.

When writing job postings, keep in mind that you’re trying to hire a human person. We, humans, have a finite amount of brain we can allocate, so always ask yourself if your job posting — as written — describes a person or a unicorn.