Want to Negotiate a Higher Salary? Become a Unicorn

by Salary.com Staff - Original publish date: February 26, 2014

Comedian John Ramsey has a humorous bit where he complains, “I’m tired of being treated as a second class citizen because I believe in unicorns. I don’t understand why unicorns are so magical, it’s just a horse with a horn. A seahorse exists and that’s 50% fish, 50% horse! I’m just talking about something that is 99% horse, 1% cooler horse.”

In the working world (often at startups), there is some debate about whether unicorn employees exist and how much time you should spend looking for them when hiring. A unicorn employee has been described as an “A Player,” a natural leader that is highly skilled, can anchor a department, is the perfect fit for the company’s culture, takes initiative, and can take the company to a higher level through their own skills and by making those around them better. I talked about software engineers that fit this description in The Lore of the 10x Employee. They usually command the highest salaries.

Additionally, unicorn employees are often more valuable because they are highly skilled at more than one area of expertise.

For example, let’s take the field of graphic design. Say you’re a small company with a great idea and you’re ready to hire a designer to build out your website. A standard graphic designer might show you a portfolio of beautifully designed website images that look fantastic. A unicorn graphic designer will take it much further:

  • Not only did they do the visual design, but they are then able to turn that into code and build out the website itself
  • They have deep knowledge of user interaction (UI), going beyond the look and feel and delving into best practices for how users interact with everything from menus and buttons to links and colors
  • They’ve already thought several steps ahead in terms of the mobile experience, ensuring that your site will look great on phones, tablets, laptops, and large monitors
  • The content on the sites they show you isn’t filled with Lorem Ipsum placeholders, but copy that they wrote themselves… typo-free, grammatically correct, and with a friendly but persuasive voice that compels the user to take action
  • And what’s that? You have a company softball team? Turns out they were all-state in high school, can play any infield position, and hit .425 with 24 homers their senior year

For companies looking to hire unicorn employees, here is the debate:

One side says, to build the absolute best company, you need the absolute best people. Hiring anything less than top performers means you’re eventually doomed to fail.

The other side argues, there is no such thing as the perfect employee. Searching for one is a fruitless effort, and in the extended, frustrating search for the one person that can do everything, time is lost when you could be bringing in capable people that can get the work done now. Additionally, there’s no guarantee that the unicorn employee will actually deliver, and a true team is made up of a mix of leaders, specialty workers, and support staff.

From the perspective of a job-seeker, understand that the truly magical unicorn employee is going to be very rare. If there really is a designer like the one described earlier that can do all of the tasks listed, then they will be in high demand, and thus be able to negotiate their salary accordingly.

For the rest of us, you don’t need to be the best employee on the planet, you just need to be better than the other candidates that are competing for the same position as you.

For example, Computerworld recently listed 5 Hybrid IT roles that combine more than one skill:

  1. Enterprise Architects Who Get the Cloud
  2. Business Analysts With Integrated Thinking
  3. Security Professionals With Marketing Skills
  4. Database Pros to Bring Structure to the Unstructured
  5. Software Engineers That Do More then Generate Code

So while it’s great to be incredibly focused and good at your job, it’s wise to think about ancillary skills that will enhance your value and make you the logical choice when companies are making the decision between you and another candidate.

Perhaps it’s sales training, social media expertise, reporting and analytics, or learning HTML and CSS. While these skills might be picked up on the job, they can also be learned through certificate programs at your local college, online training, or as a side project.

A phrase that can help you negotiate a higher salary is, “Not only that, but…”

For example, in a previous article I explained how a candidate was able to negotiate an $11,000 increase with a single email. A museum was looking for a new manager, and was interviewing several candidates. All of them had previous experience managing a gallery.

But this particular person was able to position themselves as a bit of a unicorn, saying, “Not only will I be coming into this position with teaching, curation and gallery management skills, but with the unique ability to build a brand new program.” She got the job, and a huge raise.

While she wasn’t a true unicorn that could do a dozen different things, you could say she had the 99% to be strongly favored for the position, and the 1% additional skill to distinguish herself from the pack, land the job, and command a higher salary. Magical.