Great Recruiters Correctly Classify Their Prospects

One of the most important lessons to be learned in sales (and thus, also recruiting) is that you have to fully understand your target prospects if you expect to close the sale. Most recruiters and recruiting managers fail to adequately understand or correctly “classify” their recruiting targets. As a result, they cut their recruiting success rates by as much as 30%.

Classifying prospects might seem like a boring topic on the surface, but let me assure you that the correct classification and understanding of what it takes to assess prospects and to land recruiting targets is a prime differentiator between great and average corporate recruiters.

Most corporate recruiters assume that there are only two categories of candidates: the “active” job seeker and the so-called “passive” job seeker. Most assume that active candidates are always the easiest to land. This is an overgeneralization because it’s quite possible for an applicant to be actively looking for a job and still be very picky about accepting an offer.

It’s also an error to label this second grouping “passive” candidates; I prefer “currently employed” to describe them. Because they’re currently employed (and thus, perhaps top performers) they are often the most desirable prospects to pursue. They are by no stretch of the imagination “passive” individuals, and the fact they might not be actively looking for a job doesn’t mean they will be hard to identify, approach, or even sell.

Classify According to Motives

Develop a formal process for grouping prospects based on their reasons for looking or not looking for a job. The premise here is that you are currently missing out on some prime prospects. You are also wasting resources on some candidates because you have failed to identify and then classify these individuals based on their motives for looking/not looking for a job.

Begin your classification process by separating all prospects into two basic groups: the currently employed and those who are not currently employed.

Targeting Currently Employed Individuals

They are a whopping 90% to 95% of the workforce, so it only makes sense to start here. As a group, they are highly desirable because their “currently employed” status generally means that their skills are up to date and that their current company thinks they are keepers.

It’s a mistake to automatically avoid or minimize your recruiting focus on currently employed individuals because they are currently employed. Don’t assume that currently employed individuals will never leave their current firm, because statistics show that within their lifetime, most of them will change jobs and some will change jobs numerous times.

There are great variations on how to approach “active lookers” who are currently employed and “non-lookers” who are currently employed.

Active Lookers Who Are Currently Employed

This is someone who goes out of their way to post their resume on job boards, someone who responds to job announcement ads, attends job fairs, or applies for a position through your corporate jobs webpage.

Be careful with this group of individuals, because even though they have “actively” placed their resume in the system, it doesn’t automatically mean they’re serious about accepting a job (remember, they already have one). As a result, if you don’t accurately assess their motives for looking, you will waste a lot of time and resources.

Currently employed “active lookers” generally fit into these four groups:

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  • Intending to leave. Employed but actively seeking new employment.
  • Trollers. These individuals resumes can be found in the job market but their intent is not actually to leave, but instead, to see what’s available. They use the job search process to learn what’s out there and to help determine whether they want to stay at their current organization. They may be trolling because they are bored or because they want to self assess their “hireability” should they someday make the decision to leave. Be careful of these individuals because they have a high dropout rate.
  • Whipsawers. These “false lookers” are seeking out a better offer primarily to “whipsaw” their current boss into giving them a raise or promotion. Your time might be wasted if they have little intention of leaving their current organization.
  • The squeamish. These employed “active lookers” fully intend to be serious about a new job, but they drop out of the process quickly when interview scheduling becomes difficult, you begin to treat them harshly, or they think their current boss will find out.

Non-Lookers Who Are Currently Employed

These individuals are currently employed but are not actively placing their resumes on job boards nor will they respond to newspaper job openings. Most can be convinced to become a candidate if, and only if, they are approached in the right manner.

These non-lookers fall into four categories: those who need to be asked; those who require a relationship; those who are generally happy with their job until something “shocking” happens that causes them to rethink their position; and those who have no intention of leaving unless they are literally forced out.

  • Non-lookers who need to be asked. This group is the “hidden gold” in recruiting. These individuals aren’t currently looking for a new job, not because they don’t want one or wouldn’t accept one, but merely because they are reluctant to actively seek employment on their own. Instead, they must be asked. We all know these individuals. This group is the most “misunderstood” but most easily convinced group of employed individuals. To capture this group, develop a process for proactively approaching these individuals through employer referrals, at professional meetings, and/or online.
  • Non-lookers who require a relationship. This subgroup of those who need to be asked may initially reject you because of their lack of trust, their extreme loyalty, or a fear of failure (many successful individuals have this extreme fear of or even a hatred of being rejected during the job search process). To turn these “require a relationship” individuals into candidates, they need to be approached by someone they know and trust. You must pre-identify these individual prospects and build a relationship long before you actually need to hire them. The relationship is best built by one of your employees in a similar position (generally as part of the employee referral program). However, a few recruiters trained in “personal courting” are able to build the relationship to the point where the individual will respond positively when they are eventually asked. Some recruiting managers assume these individuals are not worth the effort, but most top performers, game changers, and innovators fall into this “require a relationship” category.
  • Non-lookers until the right day. This large group of prospects are currently employed and are invariably well-treated. They are generally happy with their job until something “shocking” happens that causes them to rethink their position (i.e., their long-time friend and boss abruptly quits; they were passed over for a promotion; a major layoff is rumored; a new CEO takes over; the budget is cut dramatically; or the company’s stock drops drastically, among other stress-inducing issues). Approaching them about a job opportunity will get you an immediate rejection each and every day?until the “right day” comes along. Suddenly on that day, they might be extremely interested. If you want to successfully recruit these individuals, work with your current employees in their field so that they will notify you when they hear that the targeted individual’s situation has dramatically changed.
  • Non-lookers who are not leaving. This large group of currently employed individuals have no intention of leaving their current firm (even on the “right day”) unless they are literally forced out. Even approaching these individuals probably won’t work because they’ve decided to stay because they are fiercely loyal to their firm or team; have found that it’s just too expensive to leave because of their market exceeding high rate of pay; they are too close to retirement; they are comfortable and have no interest in having to adapt to a new corporate culture; or they are not interested in leaving because family or location factors keep them from leaving the region. Another reason they might stay put is because they work for an “employer of choice.” These individuals stay because of the “wow!” opportunities and a great employment brand at their current firm (like Google, IBM, or GE). These individuals would only consider opportunities at a handful of firms with an equivalent employment brand.

Classify Currently Employed Individuals by Performance Level

There is great variation in performance by currently employed workers. Once you have completed the initial classification of currently employed individuals, you should also rate or classify your prospects by their estimated performance level, which might include:

  • Top performers, game changers, and innovators. The most desirable candidate group with the highest business impact, these workers make up only 10% of the current workforce. However, identifying them is relatively easy, because their performance levels and their innovations invariably means that they will be well-known by almost everyone within their company. Convincing them to apply for a new job is relatively difficult because they are probably treated well at their current job. Approaching and asking your own top-performing employees to contact them is the best approach
  • Average performers. These individuals make up a majority of the workforce and are good solid hires.
  • Bottom performers. These individuals make up 5% to 10% of the workforce and are likely to disrupt your organization if you make the mistake of hiring them. Unfortunately, because they may be on notice by their current organization, their desire for job security will invariably cause them to be actively looking for a job. This means that they will make up a disproportionate percentage of the applicants who “actively” respond to your job postings. Be wary of desperate applicants who will tolerate poor treatment during hiring.

Targeting Unemployed Non-Lookers

At any point in time, there are between 5% and 10% of the workforce who are classified by the government as unemployed. I won’t go into any detail on how to recruit unemployed individuals who are actively looking because these individuals will find you.

However, there are two groups of individuals you should target. While technically unemployed, they are not actively seeking a new job. This often-missed classification of unemployed “non-lookers” includes current students and individuals who have been outside the workforce for a period of time.

  • Student non-lookers. Students are generally individuals with little or no work experience, so they deserve a separate classification. Whether they are in high school or are enrolled in college, they are prime targets for entry-level hourly positions or entry-level professional positions. Most students and especially soon-to-be college grads should properly be classified as “active lookers” because they realize that their educational career is coming to an end and their expectation is to get a job. However, there is a significant subgroup of students who are more accurately classified as non-lookers. High-school students might not be actively seeking a job upon graduation because they intend to enter the military or to continue their education in college. Some college students are not actively seeking positions for a variety of reasons, including plans to enter graduate school (likely top students). Other college students are too busy completing their schoolwork or they already have job prospects because they have internships and mentors. These individuals will not attend job fairs or even go through their career placement center. As a result, these prospects are harder to identify. To recruit these “non-looking” student prospects with multiple options, classify them as individuals who “have to be asked” and “sold” that your job is a better opportunity than their other options.
  • Currently out of the workforce non-lookers. These experienced individuals have left the corporate workforce for personal reasons, are retirees, or serve as consultants. These individuals are not “active lookers” because they are probably relatively happy with their current situation because they voluntarily chose it. They might intend on returning to the workforce at some point, but not now, unless they are approached and asked. Because of their experience, these individuals are highly desirable. To succeed, develop a process to identify them and convince them that your current corporate job opportunity is superior to their current non-working lifestyle. Although recruiting these individuals requires some effort, no one else is recruiting them and you might be the only bidder who ultimately convinces them to apply.

Final Thoughts

If you’ve ever been an executive recruiter or have spent time with one, you already realize that correctly classifying prospects based on their motives is a common practice. You would have also learned that approaching the “have to be asked” candidates is one of their essential elements to success.

In direct contrast, I’m continually puzzled as to why most corporate recruiting managers and the consultants who help them fail to design a standard process that correctly classifies and categorizes prospects to maximize recruiting success rates. The time has come to realize what a misnomer the term “passive candidate” really is.

In my experience, individuals in today’s more scientific era of recruiting still fail to systematically classify prospects at all. Those who classify prospects into the two over-simplified categories of “active and passive” are just silly.

Like it or not, recruiting, like sales, is a complex profession that requires in-depth thinking and prospect classification in order to achieve greatness.

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



6 Comments on “Great Recruiters Correctly Classify Their Prospects

  1. I digress here: One thing I admire tremendously about the Recruiting Profession is the integration and thought-leadership that emerges on a daily basis. I asked myself the other day, after hearing from a ‘leading marketing consultant’ that (and I quote) ‘salespeople are the walking-dead’ – why sales and marketing cannot work in the harmonious and integrated way the Recruiters do with Sourcers and Operations people (who do job fairs, advertising, etc). I have never heard a Recruiter say sourcers are the walking dead or marketing people say recruiters are the walking dead. I think we ‘revenue generators’ can learn a great deal from Recruiting.

    This article illustrates nicely how to segment a market and professionally ‘go after it’. If you follow patterns or understand your prospects motivations, you will get higher quality business. So true.

    I only wish it were so well and clearly defined in the sales/marketing profession!

  2. I just can’t agree that ‘Those who classify prospects into the two over-simplified categories of ‘active and passive’ are just silly’ any more! Although I’ve been silly for such a long time. It’s neber been too late:-)

  3. Nicely put. Recruiters actually have to learn to draw people out, listen to what they have to say, figure out where that candidate belongs on a timeline (when they might want to make a move)and whether they’re viable. That where research starts morphing into more valuable intelligence . . . the use of which is long overdue in recruiting. It’s the stop, look, and listen approach to recruiting . . .far better than the hair-on-fire approach, which necessitates stop, drop, and roll. Always enjoy your contributions.

  4. I’m interested for any ideas on how to deal with prospects who may fall into the squeamish category. Are they worth pursuing to work out what the barriers may be and if they can be overcome or do you just put in the ‘time waster’s category and avoid them in future.

  5. This article is on the money–so much so, in fact, that when I read the various categories it actually reminded me of episodes in my career. For example, I started in this industry when there were no PCs (shocking, I know) and at the international retained firm where I worked our clients counted on us to identify and recruit stars, and we had to be disciplined in our search efforts as well as both analytical and detailed in our assessments. In contrast, I also had a corporate executive staffing role where senior line management was a group of great but rather regular folks who would have frustrated stars, so my charter there was to identify solid performers but make them feel better than B+ about the opportunity. This evaluating, sorting and filtering process is part of what is missing from the de-evolution of recruiting as represented by peeling backgrounds off job boards and firing them around digitally with no value-added when they match job specs. Thank you, John, for the reminder!

  6. When I started in recruting many years ago there was no such thing as active or passive candidates. We just looked on everybody as candidates…period. Everybody was active. It all depended on your approach and sales skills. This still hold true today I imagine.

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