Candidates Are Not Passive, Although Recruiters May Be!

We all seem fascinated with the term “Passive Candidate.” It has become every recruiter’s favorite topic for the last four years. They are highly sought after, but rarely seen (sort of like Bigfoot, only with a resume and combed fur). This single element of the candidate pool has achieved more press than Elvis sightings, and to me is as common as the alien abductions reported in supermarket tabloids (not that I would ever buy a tabloid!). I was discussing tactics, tools, and processes to measure the effectiveness of the pursuit of this elusive prey with an old friend, when it hit me?Bang!?that the expression “Passive Candidate” is an oxymoron. I looked at my friend and exclaimed, “Hey, there is no such thing as a Passive Candidate!” He looked at me like I had just shouted, “Hey, water is wet!” and said, “You just figuring that out slick?” You see, in our galaxy, the “Recruiting Zone,” there are only four elements: Leads, Prospects, Resources, and Candidates. That is the sum total. Combined, that represents the entire population of Planet Earth and the surrounding asteroids. So, who put the “Passive” in Candidate? We did, and we were wrong! Many years ago, when I was “in training” to be an agency recruiter (when resumes were still written on stone tablets and recruiters actually recruited), my mentor and trainer had a favorite expression about candidates: “A lead is a candidate I have not gotten around to calling yet!” He was certainly as arrogant as the day was long, and he wore a lot of plaid, but that was OK. He was a recruiter, which is like being a salesperson, only better. In addition, he made six digits when a 30K salary was an aggressive mid-career goal. (Don’t laugh?it was not all that long ago.) The very word “Candidate” defeats the notion of “Passive.” Mr. Webster tells us that a candidate is “…one who offers himself or herself for office, membership, or honor. From the Latin, candidatus (clothed in white, the toga, symbol of office in ancient Rome.)” In other words, deciding to be a candidate is a conscious act, it is not a passive one. You cannot walk up to a person and declare them a candidate, even if you modify it as a “passive” version of an active category. So I guess the next question is, like all urban myths, from what dark corner did this one spring up? (Of even greater importance, “#1, so what! #2, who cares?”) As in most of my tirades, the answer is simple, “It’s important because confusing the two is costing you money or closed requisitions!” The Internet has given recruiters unprecedented access to resumes. It would be an easy assumption that recruiting has become a routine task. Set up a search on a large database of resumes, hit enter, refill your coffee cup, pick a few good candidates resumes, set up the interviews, make an offer, pick up milk on the way home for dinner. (Oh yeah, and don’t forget to pick up the new Jaguar!) However, the illusion of a plethora of resumes was and is just that, an illusion. Because despite all the advantages the Internet has given us in access, there is still no miracle cure to the old recruiting game. The resumes still have to be obtained, read, routed, screened, and interviewed. The candidate still has to be recruited. (Hence the name, “Recruiter”.) If you consider a Prospect a Candidate, and use the term “passive” to try and explain your lack of positive control in the recruiting process, I am afraid it is you and not the candidate who is passive. You were probably talking to a Lead or a Prospect and got confused. However, since you had the resume, you assumed they had to be a candidate! Right? Wrong! Maybe we need to first establish the definitions of the basic population of the sales professional’s and recruiter’s universe:

  • LEAD. A person whose contact information is known to you, or a resource, who may or may not be of potential value to you as either a candidate or a resource. There is no established contact and no certain value.
  • RESOURCE. A person who you have developed information about beyond the level of a “Lead” and who is willing to share other names and useful recruiting information, but may not yet be a Prospect. Alternatively, they may be either a Prospect or a Candidate. However, a Resource may also be just that, and never anything more.
  • PROSPECT. A person who has shown an inclination towards submitting or allowing you to submit their resume on their behalf. The relationship has matured. However, to date they have not given you their release, even though they may have allowed you to access their resume or reveal useful and marketable information about themselves.
  • CANDIDATE. A person who has both a value to the marketplace and who is willing to allow you route their resume as a company representative, or to be their “broker” (i.e. headhunter). However, this does not guarantee exclusivity. Nevertheless, it does mean there is a potential sale in your future.

What has confused us and created the “Myth of the Passive Candidate” is the difference between “having access” to someone’s resume or contact information, and “owning their resume” or having been consciously given their contact information. I can go online now and develop a list of well over 1,000 potential leads, resources, or prospects, but none of them start out as “Passive Candidates,” they have yet to ask “to be chosen.” I can go to a trade show and call everyone in the room a “passive candidate,” when in fact they are a room full of people going to a trade show. Without contact information, they are not even leads. (I can call a skunk a kitty cat, but it is still a skunk and the result still stinks!) Once, 90% of all the effort expended in recruiting involved the simple act of getting a candidate to mail their resume to you. Whether you were a company representative or a third party, getting the resume mailed to you was the “big score.” (That is right, an envelope, a stamp and mailbox-type letter.) You usually started with little more information than a name, the company they worked for, and a vague description of what they did. However, when you received a resume, it was an indication of established trust. The Prospect had decided “to be chosen.” Today, thanks to the Internet, you start-off with contact information, resume, professional associations, past employment submissions, and favorite color. The Internet has made acquiring the resume rather easy, so we all go after the same resumes?the easy ones. Then we get frustrated and angry that “every candidate has 12 recruiters.” Therefore, in an effort to convince ourselves it is the market, or a new breed of candidate, we misread the situation as “problem candidates” and decide we need to seek the better “candidates,” the “Passive Candidates.” Well, you never had “candidates” in either case, passive or otherwise, you had poorly developed Leads or Prospects that you treated like candidates. Worse, it is entirely possible that your “Passive Candidate” is one interview away from being another recruiter’s down payment on a KZ-1000. Why? Because they knew a “Lead” when they saw one and worked it into a “Candidate.” Meanwhile you fumbled around with semantics instead of identifying what you were dealing with and at what stage were you trying to sell. To insure there are no misunderstanding:

  • I think the Internet is a great place to source leads.
  • I think the best way to find great prospects is at trade shows, organizational mailing lists or WEB sites, newsgroups, and professional bulletin boards.
  • I think that it is better to seek a prospect that is hard to find, but therefore less likely to already be over-committed in their career search.

I am not discouraging the use of creative sourcing and recruiting. All the above are ways to develop Leads, Resources, and Prospects. Calling any of the proceeding a Candidate, however, does not make it so, it only means you are mislabeling, and therefore mishandling, your “potential candidates” by prematurely assuming a close and intimate vendor-product relationship. (That’s right, our candidates are our “products”?but more on that later.) What I am trying to do is discourage the use of “newspeak,” such as “Passive Candidate,” when referring to what is in actuality a possible lead, resource, or prospect. By so doing, you the recruiter mislabel the situation or relationship and consequently may poorly develop the situation. You search the Web seeking candidates, develop 100 names, and then get despondent when none of your “candidates” wanted to interview. Well, they were leads, not candidates. Recruiting is that sophisticated skill that transforms Leads, Resources, and Prospects into Candidates. Then, Candidates are changed, ultimately, into income. However, as in any journey, you have to know where you are, to get where you want to go. If you start lost, you will probably stay lost. The old adage is you only get one chance to make a first impression. When you misread your relationship in recruiting with your potential Leads, Resources, Prospects, or Candidates, you lose sales.

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  • If I do not know you and you walk up to me as if we are old friends, I doubt the first contact will be to your liking.
  • If you call me all excited about the possibility of interviewing for a new job because you saw my resume on “the Web” but I have never talked to you, I may not want to allow you to change my life, not just yet.
  • If you go for the close before I have even decided if you are a person I would want representing my background, I may remain your lifelong Lead, but never your Candidate.

Familiarity and aggressiveness that may have been appreciated by an established Candidate is resented by a Lead, Prospect, or Resource. Process is a series of steps that have been determined by a trial and error to represent the best way to achieve a successful conclusion to an effort. Every business endeavor has a process. In sales we:

  • Source and develop Leads
  • Farm and develop Resources
  • Establish and develop Prospects
  • Represent “real” Candidates
  • Close requisitions

Nothing “passive” about any of the above! Actually, sounds fairly aggressive to me! I mentioned earlier that my mentor “…was a recruiter, which is like being a salesperson, only better!” By that, I meant that a recruiter is the only salesperson on the planet selling a product which has it’s own opinion and a free will. That hardly seems “passive” to me. A Buick never refused to go home with its new owner. However, a candidate can refuse a job offer, and that is not at all “passive.” That is what makes the selling in recruiting especially challenging, our product can say “no.” Therefore, we better know what we are doing, and what to call it. New times, new products, new services, new tools all call for new steps, new processes and new nomenclature. Nevertheless, in sales, as a corporate recruiter or a third party agency representative, there will never be room for the word “passive.” We cannot afford this luxury if we are to accomplish our goals. “Passive” is a “candidate” we have little time in which to invest. Or, more to the point, that candidate is not “passive,” they are just not yet a “candidate.” Do your job “recruiter” and recruit! Uncover the leads, work the resources, develop the prospects, and place the candidates. A “Passive Candidate” is, after-all, merely a lead looking for an “Active Recruiter.” Have a great day (actively) recruiting!

Ken Gaffey ( is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services ( and has been involved in the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration project since its inception. Prior to this National Security project Ken was an independent human resources and staffing consultant with an extensive career of diversified human resources and staffing experience in the high-tech, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. His past clients include Hewlett Packard, First Data Corporation, Fidelity Investments, Fleet Bank, Rational Software, Ericsson, Astra Pharmaceutical, G&D Engineering, and other national and international industry leaders. In addition to contributing articles and book reviews to publications like ERE,, AIRS, HR Today, and the International Recruiters Newsletter, Ken is a speaker at national and international conferences, training seminars, and other staffing industry events. Ken is a Boston native and has lived in the greater Boston area most of his life. Ken attended the University of South Carolina and was an officer in the United States Marine Corps.


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