Handling the Problems with Passive Candidates and Hiring Managers

There are more name-generating tools becoming available everyday. My favorites include Jobster, SearchExpo, Broadlook, ZoomInfo, AIRS Oxygen, and LinkedIn. These and the other networking tools should be checked out and used. But there’s more to recruiting and hiring passive candidates than generating a list of names. Success with these tools depends on how well you convert these cold names into hot candidates. Here are some other factors that need to be considered when hiring passive candidates:

  1. The quality of the list. You can’t waste your time calling passive candidates unless they’ve been pre-qualified first. To the degree possible, restrict your calls to A-level people. A-level people know other A-levels, so even if the initial person is not a fit for your job opening, they know other people who are. Then only call “A” people who are potential candidates themselves or who personally know people who are A-level candidates. When you use any of the name-generating or referral tools, select companies that have a reputation for hiring top people and make sure you look carefully at their titles to minimize non-productive calls.
  2. The skills of the recruiter. You need strong recruiters to make the calls to the hot list of cold candidates. Recruiters need to be able to get 80% or more of the people called to call them back. They then need to get 80% or more of these to agree to discuss the job. If they’re not interested or not qualified, get them to give you additional names of A-level candidates. This is how you create a self-sustaining pool of strong candidates. How to accomplish this was discussed in a recent article. (Here’s an additional self-evaluation test you can take to see where you stand on these advanced recruiter skills.)
  3. The hiring manager. If a hiring manager is weak or unwilling to put in the extra effort it takes to hire passive candidates, everything becomes wasted effort. Top people want to work for someone who is strong and capable. Everyone believes the old cliche that managers hire in their own image. The truth is that top candidates accept jobs from managers in their own image as well. The stronger the manager, the more likely you are to hire strong people. (Some ideas on how to deal with weak or uncooperative managers are presented later in this article.)
  4. The company culture. The company must modify most of its hiring processes to meet the unique needs of top passive candidates. Few now do. Some of these changes include: how job descriptions are written, the application process, how offers are negotiated and presented, and how much time hiring managers and executives devote to the hiring process. Since top people won’t make a move unless the job itself offers real stretch in combination with long-term growth, existing job descriptions must be completely rewritten. Top people spend more time evaluating the job, the company, the strategy, the hiring manager, and the management team. If this information is hard to find or non-existent, the best will opt-out at a high rate. Negotiating offers doesn’t mean that salaries must be enormous, but the negotiating process can’t be inflexible or end with an informal, take-it-or-leave-it offer letter. The company culture must accommodate the needs of top people and respect their unique way of evaluating new career opportunities.
  5. Available resources. Unless you have an over-supply of top passive candidates knocking down your door, you need more trained recruiters spending more time finding and working with passive candidates. Few companies recognize the investment it takes to find and hire more passive candidates.
  6. The comp and benefit package. While you don’t need to be in the top 10% on the comp side to hire top passive candidates, you do need to be competitive. The top-third is about right ó if you can offer real job stretch in combination with long-term growth. If the job is 10% to 15% bigger than the person’s current job, salary increases can be around 5% to 10%. This can be reinforced if the company is growing at least five percent per year and if it can be demonstrated that the job is part of an important company initiative. Too many top passive candidates need to be wooed by the prospect of big comp increases. To me, this is misguided. Offering a better job with a better company is how you demonstrate real career value.
  7. It takes longer. You can’t hire top people quickly. For one thing, they take longer to find. For another, they take longer to decide. The only way you can hire top passive candidates reasonably quickly is to start looking before you need them. This is why workforce planning is so important. If you have at least 120 days before you need the position filled, you can set up a very strong passive-candidate sourcing program. If you only have 30 or 60 days to fill these spots, you need to hire an outside recruiting firm that has already developed a pre-qualified network.
  8. Technology. Most tracking systems are designed to handle the requirements associated with high-volume, active candidates and are ill-suited to handle passive candidates. Many companies are now investing in different systems to manage passive candidates. Some of the issues that need to be considered include getting people quickly into the system, sending resumes directly to recruiters, being able to handle the “no resume” problem, having a different status for people just exploring rather than declaring they’re candidates, being able to apply to generic or category-type jobs, and providing additional information online to meet the unique decision-making needs of passive candidates. This later issue is very important, since the best people always consult with their friends and advisors before considering a move and need additional supporting information.

When reviewing the list above, two key points should stand out: 1) there is much more to hiring passive candidates than a just a good list of names, and 2) hiring managers have a far bigger impact than most people realize. Here are a few more important issues to consider on the hiring manager front:

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  • Hiring managers must be prepared to spend more time wooing a potential hot passive. This doesn’t mean overselling, but it does mean explaining the challenges and opportunities of the job so that the candidate will consider investing time in a thorough interviewing process. One way to do this is to get the hiring manager to meet candidates in informal exploratory sessions. During these get-togethers, both parties need to exchange information in a peer-like manner.
  • Top people want to work for other top people. If the hiring manager is deemed weak, it is unlikely that the candidate will be impressed enough to move forward. In this case, it’s best that the hiring manager’s superior act as the prime interviewer, presenting the case as to why the job offers a true career opportunity.
  • Often the hiring manager can modify the job to offer more stretch without giving a bigger title. This can include special one-time important projects, or assigning the person to an important task force.
  • The hiring manager must be seen as mentor, coach, and leader. Hiring managers can point to other people they have developed as evidence of their strong staff development skills.
  • Hiring managers must understand the job and clarify expectations. That’s why a performance profile is so important in combination with a thorough and professional interview. Hiring managers who sell too soon or talk more than listen are branded as weak and ineffectual. Having high standards for new hires is a great way to demonstrate that the job is worth having. This is one of the best recruiting tips of all: make top passive candidates earn the job. It’s much more valuable this way.

A strong recruiter and a strong hiring manager working in tandem can hire top people, even if a company doesn’t have its act completely together. It takes teamwork, professionalism, and a commitment to hire the best. This is how you take a cold list of hot candidates and turn it into a consistent stream of great hires.

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).


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