Building Candidate Pipelines: The Dilemma and Some Solutions

Developing candidate pipelines (i.e. having a ready “pool” of candidates available when a position opens up) is a topic that has been talked about for years.

Of late, given the decrease in open positions, the candidate pipeline subject has resurfaced again as a hot topic among many recruitment leaders and hiring managers.

I’ve heard comments like:

“Now is the time to fill the pipeline for future hiring needs.”

“Since the recruiters have extra time, let’s have them build candidate pipelines.”

These comments are being made at companies throughout the country.

What I find most interesting is a growing frustration and disconnect between recruiters and hiring managers regarding this subject.

Additionally, while in theory recruiters with fewer requisitions should have more time to “pipeline candidates,” in most organizations, this is not happening.

Why is this the case? The frustration and lack of candidate pipeline development is a result of:

  1. Managers’ unrealistic expectations regarding candidate pipelines.
  2. Undefined, unrealistic expectations regarding the time it takes to create pipelines and develop a candidate relationship management program.

Regarding the first point, recruiters and hiring managers have different definitions for “developing candidate pipelines.”

If you ask most hiring managers what the definition is, most will say:

“A ready pool of pre-screened applicants interested in working for our organization. When an opening comes up, we call them up, bring them in for an interview and if we like them, hire them.”

My (and I think most recruiters’) definition is:

“A pipeline/network of talented professionals (active and/or passive job seekers, pre-screened or not) that you regularly communicate with regarding opportunities with your organization. A pipeline of candidates, that when an opening comes up, you can immediately contact and engage in discussions about the opportunity and/or to network.”

To maintain a pool of pre-screened, job seekers ready to join our organization with little more than a two-week notice (managers’ definition) is not achievable or realistic.

We need to educate managers of this fact and the potential difference in the definitions.

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First of all, taking into consideration that most of these so-called “ready in the wings” applicants would be active seekers, the probability that they would remain interested and available for an opportunity with your organization (before taking another) is very low.

Second, let’s assume you have 50% attrition of this pipeline on a monthly basis (i.e., 50% take another position and/or lose interest in your position/organization). The amount of time required to keep the pipeline stocked with candidates would be very inefficient and most likely be cost-prohibitive.

This concept proposed by managers would be comparable to a grocer acquiring perishable food, only to lose 50% of it before they can sell it! It’s probably not smart business!

Most recruiters (and hiring managers) underestimate the time required to develop candidate pipelines. And relatively few recruiters have calculated the amount of time it takes to identify, contact, and maintain relationships with quality professionals.

To help you quantify the time required, let’s dissect the process:

  • First you to need to find qualified applicants who meet the position specifications (and we all know quality talent is not sitting out on job boards or applying to our postings). This might include performing primary (phone-based) and Internet research to identify potential prospects.
  • You then need to verify that they are potential candidates and validate they are good at what they do (typically phone and/or referral based).
  • Once identified and validated, you need to make contact with them, engaging in discussion to understand their current situation, what would motivate them to move, etc.
  • Once you have established a connection/relationship, you need to create and maintain an ongoing relationship management campaign to stay connected with them.

Of course using your centers of influence (hiring managers, employees), and using technology (including social networking sites) can reduce the time required to build and maintain pipelines, but I haven’t found anyone who has built strong candidate pipelines (as I defined above) who doesn’t dedicate a 5-10+ hours a week to this activity (pending type of recruit, # of job categories you recruit for, etc.).

Are you (or your recruiters) spending this amount of time per week on this task? Do you have a sourcing team dedicated to this task?

So what is a solution to the candidate pipeline dilemma?

  1. Educate hiring managers regarding candidate pipelines, and make sure your definition of a candidate pipeline is the same as theirs.
  2. Educate the hiring managers regarding the process of developing candidate pipelines.
  3. Make sure the hiring managers and employees are engaged in the process: Who do they know in the market who are top performers that we should connect with? Who are the top performers at our competitors? Once we identify potential prospects, run the names by staff members to capture positive/negative intelligence about them.
  4. Do a pure time study to quantify the amount of time it takes to: a) identify applicants; b) verify skills/quality; c) maintain contact with them and build relationships
  5. Develop a data-driven strategy to develop candidate pipelines based on customer demand (time and tools required).

While these ideas outlined probably seem fairly simple and straightforward, you will be amazed at the results of implementing them.

(Editor’s note: Sometimes we see great blog posts on, and when we do, we publish them here with the permission of their authors. This post was originally on David’s blog.)

David Szary is senior vice president and general manager, recruiting services, HealthcareSource. HealthcareSource is a leading provider of talent management solutions for healthcare.


18 Comments on “Building Candidate Pipelines: The Dilemma and Some Solutions

  1. Not everyone can do this people-pleasing act. It’s one reason I suggest staffing teams consider using a team approach:

    1-2 phone sourcers (who also understand basic Internet search)
    3-5 candidate developers – those who call up, meet, greet and play facey-face w/ the potential candidates the phone sourcers dig up; until the cows come home
    1-2 closers – those who, when a position does come up, goes to the CDs and asks them their advice – who’s ready and willing and able (at the present time) to help
    An Admin (or two) that understands what everyone’s doing and can support them.

  2. Well thought out article. I believe you captured the challenges of pipelining very well. One thing we are doing is recruiting hiring manager’s to be part of the social networking communities. That partnership allows which them to appreciate the investment of time it takes to develop a pool of talent that can become candidates at some point in the future. Since our hiring managers are taking part in the group conversations, their “education” is ground level and they certainly understand what it takes to use pipelining as part of our recruiting strategy.

    I think your “pipeline attrition” comments are very insightful. One thing we have discovered if the community members are more casual or passive, then their “shelf life” is longer. Also, we use technology to replenish the pipelines in our communities. And finally, we try to keep people that take other jobs connected to our communities with content that appeals to their what a respective audience‘s behaviors, attitudes and interests. That way, those individuals can provide referrals in the short term and ultimately we can be part of their job conversations the next time around.

  3. David,

    Speaking as a practitioner of pipeline development and management…great article!

    Would love to hear your thoughts or see another post around the “mechanics” of pipeline management. Meaning, what are the tools/tactics/processes of making this happen and keeping it going.

    I’m a fanatic about companies should use a team/collaborative “CRM approach” for carrying forward ideas/strategies for things like this as there is proven success. The incorporation of marketing strategies/tactics/tools is a must for long term success.

    Death to spreadsheets!

  4. Good Post David.
    The comments are all right in line as well with my thoughts. You seem to know the concepts of this idea quite well and hope that companies are able to implement as efficiently as the process is laid out.

    I was part of a team (10 recruiters) that implemented this exact philosophy and approach into a corporate setting three years ago and it was extremely effective. I feel that if a company is too aggressive however at getting the waters muddied up then it can go the opposite direction and the pipeline can start getting a negative outlook on this approach. We experienced that first hand as well. We grew 275 people year one, 384 people year two and 84 people this year so far. Even though this makes sense, people can start spreading rumors.

    Good post…

  5. Candidate pipelining is what we do (we don’t do traditional search). We only do it at the senior level, and most clients find the following things attractive about the service:

    1) We charge for our time, not based on compensation. It can cut per-hire costs by over 75%.

    2) We use a custom technology that allows them to enter/store company positions, incumbents, internal successors and monitors when those internal successors will be “ready”. We build the pool of candidates and prospects below those in the pipeline.

    3) The system offers 100% transparency of data, and clients own it all (except the interface). They see this as return on investment.

    4) Not only does the system help them see where their risk is (based on readiness, etc.), but allows them to direct and redirect our team to and position.

    5) They get all the other benefits of the resource too, like assigning us to get competitive intelligence, compensation data, etc.

    6) As far as teams, we provide 1 full-time leverage-quality researcher and 1/2 recruiter 1/2 clerical researcher. They work on as many as 3 positions at once. If the active positions or projects goes up, so does the price.

    Our job may result in hires or even deals and partnerships, but our process is to identify stars, monitor them, introduce them to clients, and let clients build relationships at the pace they prefer and for any purpose.

    Here’s what we like:

    1) It’s so successful that most clients actually drop their senior recruitment partners in favor of our service, resulting in a very long-term relationship. However, we soften the blow by getting those recruiters involved in peripheral services like references, interviewing, etc.

    It is very successful, and the key for us is that it is focused at the top of the company where the talent pool is defined as limited (and manageable).

  6. One last thing: For those of you able to sell/perform such work, we offer the technology to you if you need it. It’s web based so you don’t need to do anything on your end regarding support, etc. You simply buy one for each client and brand it with the client logo, etc. You pay us a small monthly subscription fee and charge your clients whatever you want.

  7. This pipeline nonsense is typical of a pervasive corporate attitude toward it’s employees and potential employees. Do they think candidates are just freeze dried commodities, to put on a shelf and taken down and used as needed?

    Of course, effective recruiters will keep in touch with top performers and holders of sought after skills. And they will use those contacts to source and recruit when positions come open.

    But to assume that you can treat candidates like a barrel of oil, which flows when you turn the spigot, is dehumanizing and insulting to those people you are trying to attract. It is also ineffective. Anyone who has worked a desk in a recruiting firm can tell you that candidates are very persihable and come on and off the market frequently.

  8. Thomas, this is where I disagree: You are assuming prospective candidates are “shelved”, oil via spicket, etc. While you continue to view the hires as transactions (take off the shelf, turn on the spicket), our success comes from viewing the candidate pool as a slow dance. Here’s a real example:

    A client wanted to hire an individual for a role that was to be vacant soon. During the course of mapping the talent and talking, the most attractive candidate was unwilling to relocate and had a new job opportunity they were assessing. Under normal circumstances a recruiter would have just cut and run – on the next prospect.

    Because pipelining is not a sprint to a finish line (hire), we were able to build a relationship witht he individual, arrange for conversations (slow dance) and solidify our assessment. The client really liked the person but couldn’t get past the relo issue.

    On the back end we continued to speak with this person bi-weekly but didn’t push anything. Well, four months later the candidate was passed over for the opp he was expecting and suddenly decided a relo was okay. Since the client already had a solid relationship and assessment of the individual, they were ready to pull the trigger immediately.

    This “top talent” would not have been presented via a traditional recruitment process unless the candidate made an active effort to reach out to the recruiter. Most wouldn’t after four months.

    This is just one example of why ongoing pipelining is effective and a good alternative to SOME senior hiring executives.

  9. Robert, It sounds like you are doing it right, and maybe it is a question of semantics. I would not call that pipelining. I would call it relationship management. As a recruiter of many years experience I make it a practice of keeping in touch with excellent people, in many fields. That’s the nature of the job. What I object to is the regarding of the candidate as simply one more unit in the supply chain.

    Keep up the good work!

  10. Very true – it looks to be semantics.

    From our standpoint (and having over 26 years in senior level recruitment), the difference for us is that you maintain good, healthy relationships with candidates, but you need inventory (a search) to apply them to. Until then, the flow stops at the recruiter and you “own it”. (So, from a candidate’s standpoint, they often interpret this as “the recruiter calls me only when he needs me, not when I need him.)

    Our effort is to ensure the flow stops at the client – perhaps the biggest difference between the transaction of search and the long investment of pipelining.

    I agree, candidates are not commodities. They would have to be equally-rated in the talent pool for that to be true. The effort here is to identify the pool, identify the skills and the leadership qualities, then apply them to the client’s needs on a regular, ongoing basis over years. (In our case, we go a step further: the clients owns the entire database talent pool rather than the recruiter. we give them the keys to the database)

    I wish you well Thomas. Let’s hope things pick up for everyone.

  11. Good article David – clear and to the point. Pipelining is not a pipe dream – it can be done but as stated here as long as the expectations, your own and those of the hiring managers are set and then managed in accordance with the challenge.

    You have to meet with people and treat the whole experience as an investment in the future of your business and make sure the candidate views the experience as an investment in his or her career. Yes there will be attrition but if your message and Employee Value Proposition is compelling then interest levels will remain high, regardless of the timing and thus the pipeline stays relatively intact. We all know that the majority of recruiting is directly affected by timing. Which means that you have to keep the quality of the relationship high to ensure that “next time” works as well

    Treat it like a courtship and not a one-night stand!

  12. I think that the deal here is semantics as Thomas and Robert stated. Pipelining refers having a set pool of candidates ready to go at a moment’s notice, when it really is just relationship management. At any time, you should have a pool of people you can call on for referrals, connections, and leads, but they do not have to be a “qualified list of people who can go TODAY”, when a position opens up.

    A good recruiter is keeping lines of communication open. Another technique is making sure candidates know how to follow you and the happenings/openings in your company at all times, and that they will take the initiative to contact you as well. We’re all handling large volumes, so the two-way communication can save some “misses” along the way.


  13. I think it’s fair to point out that the main difference is whom the relationships are with. In many traditional models, the relationships are with recruiters, in an effort to have candidates “at the ready”. The model we speak of here is one where the candidates are introduced to clients regularly and THEY maintain the relationships for current and future needs. We provide the tools needed to organize this process. No firewalls.

  14. Great article! I think there is never has been any confusion in my or my clients world as to what a pipelien of candidates is defined as. It has always been the way you describe the hiring managers to see it at the beggining of your article. The definition has always been a ready list of candidates that have been at least initially screened that you know to be Qualified, Interested and Available. The trick has been to keep tabs on “available” once you determine Qualified and Interested. In this definition, if candidates become “not available”, they are taken out of the ready pipeline. Of course, they woudl stay in the database and even contacted, but only if we were out of QIAs that were actually in the pipeline. All the rest is a discussion about talent warehousing and network building. Good discussion!

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