Does Your Company’s Passive Talent Acquisition Strategy Need a Chiropractor?

Of late I’ve been making the contention that the strategies and tactics used to recruit active candidates is fundamentally different than the ones used for passive candidates. Until this foundational difference is resolved, companies will never be able to hire enough top talent to meet their needs, unless they have a big employer brand to hide their process inefficiencies.

Employer brands, however, have limited shelf lives in maturing markets. As an example, just compare Google today and its continuing series of product blunders to the Microsoft of 10-15 years ago. When a company’s business strategy changes due to changing market conditions, its talent acquisition strategies must immediately follow suit.

Quickly, here’s what I believe are at the root cause of most companies’ hiring challenges:

  1. The company’s talent acquisition and development strategy is out of alignment with its business strategy and operating plans.
  2. Lack of understanding of how the actual customer, in this case the passive candidate, decides to engage with a company and eventually accept an offer. Since there is a disproportionate percentage of top people in the passive pool, this is a critical shortcoming.
  3. The workflow and recruiting methods to find and hire passive candidates is fundamentally different than for active candidates. Unfortunately, most companies try to mishmash the two together, and wonder why neither one works too well.
  4. Overreliance on a big employer brand that hides process inefficiencies and narrows the selection criteria based on past hires rather than current and future business conditions.
  5. The decision-making process to hire or not hire someone is flawed, and does not fully address the fundamental reasons why top people underperform. Typically these involve style problems with the hiring manager, lack of clarification around total job needs including available resources, and a superficial assessment of cultural and environmental fit.

Aligning Talent Acquisition Strategies, Plans, and Processes

Addressing the lack-of-alignment problem starts by examining each factor involved in the process. Start with these core components to see how well-aligned your company is. As you read through the descriptions, you’ll quickly see how lack of alignment on any of these factors creates inefficiency, lost opportunity, and problems with attracting, hiring, and retaining the best. One example will highlight problems causes by lack of alignment: a passive-candidate program to target world-class design innovators will fall short if the compensation is based on group averages instead of best in class. I’m sure you’ll see similar problems at your company as you read the list.

Business Strategy. The long-term business plan combined with current operating plans needs to drive every aspect of a company’s talent acquisition program. When the business strategy changes, everything else has to change in domino-like fashion, including the talent acquisition strategy. Since talent acquisition is so critical, if it doesn’t flex quickly with changes in a company’s business strategy, it becomes the tail wagging the dog.

Talent Acquisition Strategy. This needs to support the business strategy with emphasis on ensuring that the best people are put into critical roles. A quality-of-hire target for each job category should further refine this, with specific targets for all managerial, professional, staff, and rank-in-file positions. If you’re a recruiter and don’t know this for your assignments, either you’re not working the hot jobs, or your recruiting department is out of sync with the business it’s supporting.

Workforce Planning. A workforce plan allows a company to develop internal mobility and succession planning programs, and from this, determine external needs by class of jobs. Different sourcing programs are then developed depending on candidate demand vs. local supply, and whether candidates are active or passive. A workforce plan is the first step involved in turning a talent acquisition strategy into a operating plan, so if you don’t have one, you’re missing an important connecting link.

Sourcing Strategy by Job Category. A passive candidate sourcing program is far different than one designed for active candidates. Active is generally higher volume and based on a “find-and-apply” model. A passive candidate program is more targeted, including focused messages, and a multi-step “career discovery and matching process” before the candidate agrees to be a candidate.

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Active and Passive Candidate Recruiting Workflow. This is a huge tipping point, and even if the planning and strategy development is appropriate, it often falls apart at the execution level. The key is to have at least two different workflow branches. The passive candidate branch would focus more on the prospect’s needs, involve a formal means to “bridge the gap” at first contact to ensure candidates never opt-out without full information, include pre-interview exploratory conversations with the hiring manager, and a career-based closing and negotiating process.

Of course, there are still a bunch of other HR/recruiting issues that need to be included as part of this talent acquisition program, but these are the big ones (here’s a link to the full list). Doing the up-front talent strategy and planning and then executing against this plan is why doing this right is important. Surprisingly, many companies react to changes in hiring needs rather than plan for them. This is equivalent to putting the cart before the horse, doing the doing before the thinking, or firing before aiming.

While most companies complain they can’t find enough top talent, the root cause is more likely a lack of alignment with the company’s business strategy and talent acquisition programs. If you don’t have enough recruiters, if hiring managers aren’t held accountable, if compensation determines who gets hired, if your ATS establishes your workflow, or if some corporate lawyer says you have to write a boring ad, you are experiencing the problem first hand. Collectively all of these practices and processes are built upon a surplus-of-candidates mentality. The idea behind this approach is to attract as many unqualified people as you can, and hope that a good person falls through the cracks.

Alternatively, you could build your talent programs on a scarcity-of-talent model. In this approach, the needs of the best people determine the workflow, not a DBA. To get a sense of a talent-centric approach, consider how some of your recent best hires made it through the maze. As you review what happened, don’t be surprised that someone “modified” your company’s basic processes to meet the person’s needs. Commonsense would then suggest that you make the talent-centric approach the default rather than the exception. This is a great way to start aligning your talent acquisition programs to meet your company’s business strategy.

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).


18 Comments on “Does Your Company’s Passive Talent Acquisition Strategy Need a Chiropractor?

  1. Absolutely right Lou! As you, and many others, have said before, we need to run our recruiting departments as a business. Whether active or passive, to attract the best candidates, we need to have a strategic plan that is our business plan. Not simply a reactive recruiting plan. Organizations must have a strategic plan aligned with the needs of the business to actually support the core culture and goals of the business. Thanks!

  2. Thanks, Lou. Well said. I think most companies are not prepared or usually even able to make the effort to create a proactive recruiting strategy. If they did, they’d also need to realize that to GET the best people, they need to BE the best company (in something besides marketing hype). Getting most hiring companies to effectively commit to a proactive hiring strategy and going after realistically-hirable candidates is something I don’t expect anytime soon. (BTW, as a [perhaps-unintended] consequence, it would put a large chunk of contingency recruiters out of business- as a good portion of contingency relies on the lack of careful planning and realistic self-appraisal on the part of hiring managers and their companies.)



  3. Makes me think of the quote by Edward Deming. “The system always gives you 100% of what the system is designed to give you.”

  4. Your article hits many ‘hot buttons’ Lou. First, as you stated, if a firm wants ‘A’ level talent bringing innovation and leadership skills near the top end, then they have to have an appropriate compensation structure with a variety of performance based incentives, on top of higher than average pay ranges. Companies that demand the top tier in talent also must realize that those players are almost always gainfully employed, and doing very little in the way of reviewing outside opportunities, or responding to internet job boards, recruiting department blurbs, etc. In order to land the real big league players in any field, it still boils down to having a direct ‘one on one’ approach, whether coming from an internal executive recruiter, or a very skilled retainer search firm. The process of moving an already highly rewarded top talent from one ‘playing field’ to another always involves personal discussions, enlightenment, understanding the prospect in great depth, and being able to clearly articulate a challenging, attractive opportunity that will motivate the targeted candidate to WANT to make the move. From the first step to the final process, it all takes lots of time, expertise, communication, and interpersonal skill to pull off with regular success. In the end, there are few, if any shortcuts for the firm that looks for the real ‘top tier’ in talent.

  5. Lou – I agree wholeheartedly with the premise (when boiling it all down it seems so obvious doesn’t it?) of taking a talent centric approach to attract passive career consumers. You left out the real difficulty companies will have in achieving this.

    Passive career consumers are those that currently are employed, in your industry and at your direct competitors. If you are going to try to develop a dialog with them – its going to be tough going regardless of your strategy. The main reason (among many) is that workers at your competitors are going to be unwilling to begin a dialog for fear of it getting back to their current employer.

    Anonymity is the key to driving these conversations and moving the needle toward crafting a business relationship for future career progression with a passive career consumer. Unfortunately, the mainstream tools that exist like Linkedin and Facebook where these convos can start are not built for this level of confidentiality (sure, there is some, but not enough when a career is on the line) and without an intermediary passives will shy away when dealing directly with the company itself. As more and more companies look for ways to plant their flag in the 75% of the workforce that are passive career consumers, new solutions need to be driven to accommodate companies that are fed up with the current model of paying huge Agency fees for a single hire from the passive market…

  6. Perhaps Lou mentioned this but one distinct flaw is that most companies do not know that you must ‘sell’ the passive candidate on the advantages of changing jobs. Particularly after the long recession when most people would never move unless forced to, most passive candidates need a strong reason to move. Employers need to provide better training or increased responsibilities or other perks.

  7. @ Bill: thanks for mentioning useful tools. Speaking of which, has anybody heard of a tool (mentioned by Glen Cathey) which provides resume search aggregation very efficiently for ~$1,000/yr?


  8. Hey Bill
    Thanks for sharing – great way to add candidates for your open searches…although I am sure your staff plugs in their passive contacts into the TopTier program – the language seems geared to the active job seeker (add your resume, have access to our exclusive searches, confidentiality assured…).

    True passive job seekers – from my experience – rarely sign up for such a thing…without staff pulling them in…with that said, very cool idea and I am sure it is a terrific success…(Full Disclosure: we do a similar thing with a sister company….)

  9. I’m not sure the current CW is all that strong.

    I’m not sure there even is a material disproportionate percentage of top people in the passive pool- between top people out of work for reasons beyond their control, and marginal people holding jobs, (discounting the hoplessly unqualified), I don’t see why that shares would be vastly different, unless you subscribe to the idea that it’s always an employee’s fault when they are out of a job or want to leave a job.

    As to the prospects of Google, Microsoft, Apple….what appears true today can change anytime, on many levels- I would not hold my breath that Apple will keep riding high or that Microsoft and Google wont utterly dominate information management for years to come….

  10. Martin – its not a question of the percentage of quality workers in passive or active job seeking talent pools…its the sheer numbers…14% active job seekers v. 86% non active job seekers in the U.S. Workforce (BLS).

    Continue sending ads and using non recruiting professional referrals (ie – employee referrals) as the bulk of your sourcing strategy and you will guarantee yourself a hefty Agency recruiter budget to access the passive talent pool…its just that simple.

  11. Lou – well said and you’re absolutely right. I’ve long been frustrated by the absence of strategic thinking when applied to talent/recruiting models…or perhaps of the “corporate willingness” to really think about people as assets. How about a fullly developed “Supply Chain” model for talent? I believe many critical vacanies and “perceived” talent shortages can be eliminated by shifting to a new paradigm, as you’ve described.

  12. @Ro: You are right on target. Your comment and many others here are just some of the reasons I left my practice after 16 yrs to build a new paradigm around talent and executive alignment.

  13. Hmmm. Does anybody have stats on what percentage of active candidates are currently employed and what percentage are unemployed?Also, are we defining only those candidates as active who post on boards? What about a candidate that sends in a resume to a number of companies, but doesn’t have their resume on a board? They’re active for some companies, but passive for others….

    Here’s my crude definition of a passive candidate:
    They’re passive if and only if it takes more than 5-10 minutes to get their direct contact info or indicate they’re not interested, i.e., if they aren’t trying hard to hide or indicating that they shouldn’t be contacted about jobs, then they’re ACTIVE…

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