Don’t Waste Your Time Recruiting Passive Candidates

Every executive and hiring manager worth his or her salt will tell you hiring top talent is the most important thing they need to do. Unfortunately when it comes to putting their money on the table, most often all you’ll see is pocket change.

Somewhere in the bowels of the company’s mission statement is some form of the platitude “hiring top talent is a major company objective.” But in the field where the battle is played out, a different picture emerges. Hiring top talent, especially those who aren’t looking for a job, is not about posting a boring job description on some site, getting people to apply, and then conducting a series of behavioral interviews. It’s about finding and convincing these top people that your position offers the best career move among competing opportunities. While many recruiters and individual hiring managers can pull this off one assignment at a time, only those companies with a compelling employer brand have mastered the art at scale.

Another positive U.S. Department of Labor hiring report with 244,000 new jobs created in April 2011 brings seven months of significant job gains. A few more months like this and there will be a real need for companies to accelerate their passive-candidate recruiting. LinkedIn’s historic IPO roller coaster of a run provides credence to the interest in tools available to help make this shift. LinkedIn can be an invaluable tool in the right hands. In the wrong ones, however, it’s just an expensive company directory. Worse, once everyone has the same directory it will be even less valuable without a companywide ability to recruit and hire passive candidates.

Except in isolated instances, I’m going to contend that based on how companies now recruit passive candidates, most of their efforts will be wasted. In large part, this is attributed to the lack of alignment with strategy and tactics. Simply put, you can’t hire top passive candidates who aren’t looking, using processes designed to hire active candidates who are looking.

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Rather than get into all of the nitty-gritty details of this, the following are some of the bigger issues you need to consider to make sure your company is ready and able to hire passive candidates in any sizeable quantity. If you can’t answer unequivocally yes to the following questions, don’t waste your time recruiting passive candidates. Instead, spend it figuring how to get ready.

  1. Money talks. Are the funds and resources available to match the level of importance assigned to hiring top talent? If you don’t have enough money in the budget to spend on higher salaries, more recruiters, and better resources, you’ll come up short more times than not.
  2. Hold hiring managers accountable for quality of hire and timeliness. Are the hiring managers at your company held fully accountable for the timeliness and quality of their hiring decisions? This means the topic is part of every staff meeting and part of their performance reviews. If hiring managers are not held responsible for their hiring efforts, and do not consider it a priority, don’t waste your time recruiting passive candidates. You’ll just be disappointed at all of the good passive talent you didn’t hire.
  3. Make sure hiring managers are able to recruit and hire top talent. Are your hiring managers able to both accurately interview and recruit top talent? Not only must hiring managers be held responsible for hiring top talent, they also must be able to do it properly. Recruiting passive candidates — especially the goods ones who are in high demand –requires managers who understand how to position their jobs as career moves and then demonstrate that they have mentored their best people into better jobs. Without this ability and validation, hiring top passive candidates will depend on the company’s reputation and/or the hiring manager’s manager.
  4. Make sure everyone on the hiring team knows what they’re looking for before you start looking. Before the sourcing process begins, do you get everyone to agree to the real job needs and performance objectives? (Here’s an article on how to do this.) If not, how can you possibly accurately assess competency? Worse, top passive candidates always ask recruiters to tell them about the job before they decide to even seriously engage with a company. If the people they then interview with don’t describe something similar, they’ll disengage very quickly.
  5. Offer career moves, not lateral transfers. Are you still posting traditional job descriptions highlighting skills and experiences where passive candidates can see them? If so, stop, at least if you want to hire passive candidates. (Here’s how and why.) The best passive candidates are not looking for lateral transfers. LinkedIn is filled with great people who are looking for career moves, so if you want to attract them you must advertise career moves. As part of these career-oriented messages, describe the employee value proposition, what the person will learn, do, and could become if successful, and how their skills will be used on the job.
  6. Conduct a professional, two-way interview and assessment process. Do you still conduct 30-minute interviews; are any managers unprepared; do you ask silly or inappropriate questions; and do managers still expect candidates to be overly eager? These all run counter to the requirements for hiring passive candidates. The best passive candidates expect the interview process to be professional, well-organized, and those involved, knowledgeable and fully-prepared. They prefer tough questions that dig into performance, team skills, and job-related critical thinking ability. They’ll quickly disengage if managers ask meaningless questions, don’t understand the job, get mixed signals about real job needs, are left waiting, or a rushed through a series of wasted interviews where they’re judged on presentation skills and cleverness rather than their accomplishments. They expect, in turn, to be able to ask tough questions about available resources and upside opportunities, if successful.
  7. Don’t sell, recruit. Do your hiring managers really understand how to attract, assess, and recruit star candidates who have multiple opportunities? Hyperbole and platitudes work when selling snake oil to the naïve, but not to top performers who aren’t looking. In this case hiring managers have to describe real job needs, conduct an in-depth performance-based assessment, and clearly demonstrate that their opening offers stretch, growth, and upside opportunity. Recruiting passive candidates requires them to see your opening as the best among competing career moves. In the process, money will take a back seat and they’ll begin to sell you.
  8. Provide recruiters the time and training to recruit. Can your recruiters recruit and, if so, do they have the time to do it right? Both are prerequisites to hiring more passive candidates. LinkedIn is a great resource, but without skilled recruiters who can attract, screen, recruit, and close top talent based on career opportunities, not compensation increases, it’s nothing more than a job board for the professional market. Don’t bother hiring top-notch recruiters or send them through passive candidate recruiter training either, if they’re not given the time needed to spend contacting and networking with passive candidates.

Finding 100 million passive candidates on LinkedIn is not the same as hiring them. To hire them in any quantity you need committed and capable hiring managers and recruiters who are trusted partners with their hiring manager clients and have the skills and time to recruit. All of this must be on top of a hiring process that’s designed to meet the needs of top people who aren’t looking. If you don’t have these core pillars driving your hiring efforts, don’t waste your time recruiting passive candidates.

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).


17 Comments on “Don’t Waste Your Time Recruiting Passive Candidates

  1. This is so accurate. Thanks for the post Lou. Passive Candidates need to be sought out, not just mined! Recruiting tools are very useful, but not the end all be all when looking for top talent. We are seeing an increase in companies actually asking for organization charts around the professionals they are seeking. Why? Titles vary from company to company, organization charts tell the story about what the person is doing inside the organization, helps clients understand the competitive landscape but it ensures the entire talent universe is being exploited. Will some of the people be on linkedin and found in other recruiting tools such as SGA ExecutiveTracker, could be, but not all. Passive candidate recruiting requires recruiters to go after talent, not just sit back and wait to have them come to you. Not everyone company’s recruiting strategy employs the ‘active part of recuiting”, but as time goes on it will be part of the strategy more and more. Lou thanks again! As a passionate recruiter my strategy is to go get them before the competition does.

  2. Great writing Lou- I love “simply put, you can’t hire top passive candidates who aren’t looking, using processes designed to hire active candidates who are looking”

    The challenge is that in so many cases (by statistical fact), the money is not materially better, nor does the role automatically offer stretch, growth, and upside opportunity (except to stellar performers, which is almost always true for them wherever they go).

    Given a huge wad of cash and clean sheet of paper for career development and succession planning, things do get a lot easier 😉

    I’m a big believer in entertainment as a key human value. People have to be having some kind of fun. Laughs are no joke. The tone of the work itself can be changed by game aspects and group dynamics- but you cant easily fake fun and you can’t force it either (that’s why New Year’s Eve can be a minefield).

    Your best times sneak up on you, and feelings of a job well done, when shared with people who you like and who can appreciate it, are very powerful motivators and rewards.

    Generals thru history, when faced with long-odds for whatever reason, have punched above their weight by fostering the elan and esprit de corps that develops when people are having a good time and winning (or at least not losing).

    If you want to recruit passive candidates, they better have a good time along the way. You just know that Lou keeps his candidates amused and engaged the entire time he works with them. Aren’t the best recruiters really in show-business?

    Don’t people often make big changes in their lives from sheer boredom ?

  3. This could very well be a short primer on how to recruit, period. I think it’s kind of cynical to imply that recruiting active job seekers is akin to “selling snake oil to the naïve.” That said, I’ve found that a huge percentage of staffing and recruiting firms don’t even measure their own performance. They’ve never asked “Can your recruiters recruit and, if so, do they have the time to do it right?” That seems to be a great question no matter who you’re recruiting.

  4. There is only one ingredient in this article: 100% common-sense!

    My only concern is the concept of passive automatically being perceived better than active talent. Unfortunately, some people are taking that too literally and therefore missing some of the best people, who for various reasons throughout their careers find themselves in active mode. In many cases, on either side of the equation, that situation is not necessarily a reflection of their talent or ability to contribute.

    KB @TalentTalks

  5. Lou, you make some very insightful and important points and I agree with all of them. It takes a true partnership to make the recruitment process run smoothly. A good corporate recruiter should be tapping into the hiring manager and the internal hiring team for employee referrals, names of organizations and groups that they might belong to and target companies where they’d like to see an ideal candidate come from. By involving the hiring team, the sourcing process is inclusive where everyone is contributing.

    Matching keywords from a job description to a LinkedIn profile is easy, but attracting top-end talent to any organization takes effort and skill. It’s equally important to understand the internal groups you support, the culture of your company and the technologies, products or services that you market. Social media has given us easy access to names and titles of potential candidates, which makes it imperative to screen candidates thoroughly and to fully understand the role that they will be filling. In my opinion, recruiting takes business acumen and a true passion for the organization that you are supporting. And of course, you have to have fun doing it!

  6. Nice article. I like to see the top leaders support this mindset. Too often, hiring managers will embrace the actively seeking candidate since they don’t have to work as hard to attract/close them. They might see the passive candidate as overly confident and not motivated, which can turn them off. It’s not easy and the hiring team must be in lock step in order for this process to flow smoothly. As you also mentioned, you can go through all of this, get to the offer stage only to lose them because of money. As recruiters, we need to contantly coach and head off these inevitable pitfalls. If the top leaders want to take the organization forward I believe hiring a combination of passive/active candidates is critical.

  7. Thanks, Lou. I suggest that when a hiring manager says s/he wants the 5% best candidates, you ask him/her what top 5% of things (salary, benefits, opportunity, QOL, rapid promotions, stability, whatever) we can offer those candidates. The answer will probably be (though they won’t admit it): “we offer the top 5% in marketing hype”.
    Common sense dictates that your company probably isn’t all that special, neither is your opportunity, so go after the people you can reasonably get. There are a lot of very solid 6-20% people you can get who’d do the job fine, and would be grateful and loyal, too.


  8. Keith – tremendous rebuttal to the “I want a top 5% person” – this would be an article by itself. I will incorporate it into our training and give you full attribution!


  9. Thanks again, Lou. (Occasionally, I say something useful!)It’s usually good for a company to try and “stretch” for a bit beyond what it might “reasonably” expect to get, but the “stretching” needs to be realistic. Unfortunately, most people don’t like to be told that they can’t have something they want that they can’t afford….



  10. Keith and Lou – This is what I and many others call “Champagne taste and beer money”. It’s nice when you can do whatever it takes to hire the top 5% period (not just the top 5% of what’s out there), but in my career those places are few and far between. If you do secure them, then the retention challenge begins. As the say, it really does “take a village” to do it right.

  11. Great post Lou, completely agree with your comments about passive candidates and using processes designed to hire active candidates. I’m currently writing an article for our clients and I think this ties in really well with what my thoughts are too.

  12. I completely agree with Lou & Keith. It’s especially frustrating when companies inquire into staffing solutions for sales people and tell us they’re looking for only the most aggressive “hunters” with superior job history, proven territortories and a stacked rolodex, only to want to pay them some minimal base, plus commission, so that they can “Prove” themselves. Why in the world would a successful sales person, who’s worked hard to get their territories to pay them and is making good money, start all over again with an unproven company, for less money, regardless of how wonderful the product is.

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