Everyone Loves a Passive, but We Hire Mostly Actives

Attend any recruiting conference, or read just about any recruiting blog, and you’ll find a steady drumbeat about passive candidates: Why they’re better; How to source them; What to say to convince them to work for you, and; What you need to do to attract them and then keep them.

Active candidates are OK. But current fashion is to go find the people who don’t want your job.

Now we find that some of America’s biggest companies — collectively hiring hundreds of thousands of workers annually — hire only active job seekers, while more than two-thirds of them fill three-quarters of their jobs with actives.

These no-so-surprising revelations are in a new survey from the recruiting consultancy CareerXroads.

“There is a tendency by recruiters and hiring managers to believe that passive candidates are better,” says Gerry Crispin. But, “They’re hiring a mix that’s mostly the active candidates who come to the career site or (apply) through job boards.”

Crispin, who with his partner Mark Mehler, is a founder and principal of CareerXroads, described the survey as “interesting,” though it can’t be considered as representative of hiring practices generally. It was conducted only among the consultancy’s clients — 34 participated, many of them leading employers in their industry hiring thousands of workers annually.

Besides just getting estimates of the passive vs. active hiring the companies do, the survey asked the recruiting leaders to offer their view — and their perception of what hiring managers believe — about the qualities of both types of candidates.

For instance, 24 percent of responding recruiting leaders believe active candidates are more likely than passives to “perform the job.” By the same percentage, they say they think hiring managers feel the same way. But at the other end of that scale, they say they believe 47.1 percent of hiring managers think actives don’t perform as well as passives. 38.2 percent of the leaders report believing that themselves.

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Actives do better when it comes to the currency and relevancy of their skills and abilities. By a significant majority, recruiters say they believe (73.5 percent), and they think hiring managers also (79.2 percent) are neutral to strongly positive on the statement that as compared to passives, actives have relevant and current skills.

Even though no broad, industry conclusions can be drawn from the survey, Crispin said its purpose is provoke discussion. Both the perceptions part of the survey and another part about how recruiters are engaging passives and actives are grist for conversation about recruiting strategies and practices.

“There are elements here that I think are kind of interesting,” says Crispin. “Our perceptions may not have anything to do with the actual performance of the people we hire.”

The survey does serve as a reminder that “we have biases and we need to operate against them … There”s a huge gray area embedded in the passive-versus-active discussion. These are perceptions we have that recruiters need to consider. What’s valid here?”

He adds, “It’s knowledge, skills, and experience that predicts future performance, not the status of employment.”

John Zappe is the editor of TLNT.com and a contributing editor of ERE.net. John was a newspaper reporter and editor until his geek gene lead him to launch his first website in 1994. He developed and managed online newspaper employment sites and sold advertising services to recruiters and employers. Before joining ERE Media in 2006, John was a senior consultant and analyst with Advanced Interactive Media and previously was Vice President of Digital Media for the Los Angeles Newspaper Group.

Besides writing for ERE, John consults with staffing firms and employment agencies, providing content and managing their social media programs. He also works with organizations and businesses to assist with audience development and marketing. In his spare time  he can be found hiking in the California mountains or competing in canine agility and obedience competitions.

You can contact him here.


15 Comments on “Everyone Loves a Passive, but We Hire Mostly Actives

  1. I was in the car business in college and one of the things that stuck with me was the philosophy of one of the largest, most successful car dealers. He thought that all buyers were alike- that the fact that one happened to be on the market at a given moment was just statistical noise that otherwise had no rhyme or reason- except for one big difference. It turns out that if your neighbor got a new car, there was a non-trivial correlation to you getting a new car within 12 months.

    That may speak to working the networks of people who recently changed jobs 😉

  2. Active profile will work mostly on Contract Placement and Companies who are working on full time positions like to hire Passive profile, since Passive profile gives an example that they worked in a company for long time and they dont jumps offers.

    Only Reason looking for Passive profiles is that they are loyal to company and worked for long duration. This will positive point for all Full time positions.



  3. Hmmm. ISTM that any link between what hiring managers say they want and the kinds of people who actually perform better in the long run in the given job they’re trying to hire for is purely coincidental. As I’ve previously mentioned, the purpose of Behavioral Recruiting is to take into account the way people are (as opposed to the way we wish they were) and use that information to create empirically-based best recruiting practices. One of the premises of BR is that we are all strongly influenced by cognitive biases of one sort or another, and instead of ignoring them, we should take those biases into account.



  4. Behavioral interviewing if you know how gives you insight but using a standard based on a good performer in a role doesn’t mean you will have a good match. The person in the role could be behaving abnormal to their usual and under great stress. You hire the same type you have another person under stress. 1 factor should always be used. Passive or Active. Hire the best you can for the role you have period. If that person is Active great they can start sooner, If that person is Passive your costs increase but you still get the best person you can at the time you are trying.

  5. @ Doug: ISTM that you are equating Behavioral Interviewing (an interviewing technique which assumes past behavior predicts future behavior) with Behavioral Recruiting (which uses the research into Behavioral Economics and Cognitive Science and applies it to recruiting). I think the premise behind Behavioral Interviewing is at best quite limited (it works well if you have someone interviewing for a clone or near-clone of their last job, but that doesn’t happen all that often…)



  6. The whole conversation about active vs passive is ludicrous! Why? Because the best person for the job is the best person for the job regardless of their status. In fact, I would go so far as to say that many “passive” candidates are mediocre just hiding in the center of the pack. I also think the source of this entire discussion and many perceptions about candidates is years of sales pitches by headhunters about how they can get the “passive” candidates.

    Say something enough and people will begin to believe it.

  7. Surveys of what Hiring Managers and Recruiters ‘think’ or ‘feel’ are getting old and tired. How about a survey of actual performance results tied to various recruiting methods; active vs passive source, heavy communication vs light, panel interviews vs one-on-one, etc? That might give usable information as to the actual superiority of one approach vs another. And when is someone going to come up with a solid, objective definition of these terms? What is an active candidate vs a passive? How ‘passive’ is someone if they’re ready to consider switching jobs after a 15 minute phone call? Why aren’t they ‘active’ if they were looking a year ago but stopped for some reason or another? Right now these terms as commonly used by most are all useless jargon with little to no applicable meaning. All they do is convey perceived quality judgment to the hiring manager. Hand them the resume of someone who is very much actively applying for a new position and tell them the candidate is passive, and the candidate immediately goes up in their estimation.

    Unfortunately, Leslie is right. It’s marketing hype, largely originating with agencies who in my experience end up ‘passively sourcing’ the same damn candidates who already directly applied as ‘actives.’ But I guess you have to apply some hype if you’re going to charge 10K (and often way more…) to accomplish what could realistically be achieved with a $100 job posting and a few hours of competent resume screening and interviews.

  8. Richard you are simply incorrect about the value chain in re: third party recruiters.

    Sure once in a while they pull a posting response into a placement without a lot of value add, but more often they are doing very critical selling, which is both laborious and requires rare skills- the dynamic that means they are reasonably well compensated for their work. The economy does not allow rank mismatches of cost and value to exist for very long in markets as wide as recruiting.

    The other word I always must use in these discussion is scale. When you are talking hundreds or thousands of similar hires, you can do all kinds of prediction and make all kinds of effective tweaks to processes.

    When you are talking one or three or five hires, then you have essentially emergent situations which cannot be predicted or modeled with any reliability: each is a one-off business deal.

    In the latter case, great recruiters understand the groups involved and help make a fit to the group- which is really THE most direct driver of motivation and results in many cases. Its not the the right person for the job- its the right person for the people that often matter most….

    In the former case, you can make plenty of statistical inferences and get reliable (but not individually) results…

  9. Martin, out of all the recruiting agencies I have worked with in the last five years, which according to a recent count of contracts we have on record include well over twenty firms from big well known names to regional/local businesses, all but one did nothing but send me people whose resumes I had already seen via an active posting. And the one agency who walked the walk on passive recruiting still didn’t produce better results in terms of performance an tenure. So exactly what use are agencies if you have to comb through so many of them and potentially pay multiple 20% or more fees to test them out, especially when you can easily duplicate that function internally for a lot less money for the same or better results?

    I do not regard ‘selling’ as a skill critical to recruiting, in fact I find it the major problem with agency recruiters. They’re so busy selling the hiring manager on the candidate, and the candidate on the company and position, that they gloss over, miss, or even hide glaring mismatches and shortcomings that both the candidate and the hiring manager need to know to make a good decision. I don’t doubt there are agencies out there who can deliver, I have yet to work with any of them. I’m aware of one example and that’s the guy who preceded me in my current position, and he worked for my current company exclusively in what amounted to a prolonged corporate recruiter role. He had no other clients, he lived in the office, interacted daily with the HMs and others, and for those reasons alone he had a good enough grasp on the company and its culture and key stake holders to make good matches. I have yet to see a single agency replicate that ability.

    I have seen agencies provide immediate viable pipelines of candidates, which can be necessary and useful when you need ultra quick turnaround or for some reason your own efforts aren’t working. I have also seen them have great success making placements in larger companies where it’s easier for people to disappear into the crowd and where average performance garners an average review and delivers average results, which for most average companies with average corporate cultures, is good enough.

    Nor do I blame agencies that do just post and pray. They do it for a reason; it works for most part, and delivers the highest ROI, especially relative to the outrageous fees they charge. It’s a money machine if you do it even half competently, which would also explain the large amount of chaff for the wheat which exists in the field. And the large amount of selling that goes on while they should be matching.

    If you’ve got recommendations for reliable firms in the NY area I’m more than open to hearing about them and keeping them on deck for when the need arises here.

  10. @Richard. Been there. Done that.
    Agencies HATE me because I can and have built better, more efficient internal recruiting teams/programs at a fifth the cost of outsourcing. Between the quality/control/brand issues and the huge advantage of owning all the work product (hundreds and thousands of contacts you can go mine forever) there are a lot of reasons why the trend is to actually insource recruiting.

  11. Richard 20 is a small sample. My frame of reference is rather larger: in the thousands of firms.

    It’s also rather smaller: my own company. The top talent at our firm came via professional recruiter. I personally know a large number of very successful recruiters, and they are all superior business people who would never push a bad hire to make a deal- although of course they are only human, and like any consultant, it’s the principals who must have the final say.

    Again, it’s often about scale- without bounding the discussion in dollars and numbers, its just noise…

  12. Martin,

    I appreciate the feedback and don’t doubt there’s wheat for the chaff, I just haven’t seen it myself yet.

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