How to Hire Passive Candidates, Part 2: The Basics

Passive candidates are different from active candidates ó in both how and why they look for new opportunities. If a company wants to hire more passive candidates, it must rethink every aspect of its hiring and sourcing processes. In this series of articles, I’ll describe what it takes to set up a corporate recruiting department to hire passive candidates. It starts by recognizing the differences. At its core, however, hiring more passive candidates requires that recruiters recruit. Systems, processes, and organization structure come next in building a recruiting department designed to hire more passive candidates. You’ll need to do many of these same things if you uncover an outstanding active candidate, so this is important for everyone to consider. But let’s start at the beginning. The best people need to be recruited. Even a star who somehow becomes an active candidate due to unfortunate circumstances will be quickly recognized as a hot prospect. Once this shift takes place, hot active candidates become more discriminating; they take longer to decide, seek the advice of others, and look at the quality of the job as their primary decision criteria. The quality of the hiring manager comes next in their decision tree. As these people become more discriminating, they won’t jump through unnecessary hoops or go out for every interview without a push. True passive candidates make decisions the same way, but they need more information before proceeding ó and they won’t ever apply for a job on their own. To get them into the process, they first need to be identified and then persuaded to consider the open opportunity. Getting the person’s name is usually done through some type of referral or the purchase of competitive intelligence, and the first contact is typically by phone. Bottom line: the process to hire passive candidates is fundamentally different from the one used to hire active candidates. In order to hire more top passive people, companies need to design their systems to hire top passive people. Here are some issues to consider if you want to make this worthwhile shift. The Big Issues Involved in Hiring Passive Candidates

  1. The application process. Good people will look on your career site, so make it easy for them to find jobs and apply. Technology is now available to allow candidates to upload their resumes and within seconds see the best jobs available based on a resume and zip code alone. Don’t make people “learn” how to apply. The best won’t. If there isn’t a job instantly available, have a compelling generic job pop up and suggest the person apply anyway. When one of these “career-making” jobs does become available, they’ll be the first to be notified. The back-end CRM or candidate nurturing process is critical to pulling this part off, but more on this later.
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  3. Sourcing strategy. Sourcing needs to focus on proactive networking, with special emphasis on the employee referral program. The objective is to find high quality people who aren’t looking. It takes a lot of time to call passive candidates and convince them to evaluate one of your opportunities. The amount of time involved can be cut by at least half if recruiters only call pre-qualified candidates. The best way to do this is to ask your best employees who the best people they’ve worked with in the past are. These pre-qualified people then need to be contacted, recruited, and networked with again. This takes exceptional recruiting skills. A past article of mine shows how this is done.
  4. Organization. Since not every position needs to be filled by a passive candidate, you’ll need to divide your workforce plan into sub-categories based on the importance of the job. Here are four obvious categories: game-breaker, strategic, important, and rank-and-file. Then assign your best recruiters to look for top passive candidates to fill the game-breaker and strategic positions.
  5. Recruiter skills. Top people need to be recruited, convinced, and hand-held at every step in the hiring process. Most good people pull themselves out of consideration too early, often before they have all of the facts to make a proper decision. Recruiters need to be persistent and interpret this type of “no” as a need for better information. Figuring out what’s needed and then getting it out to candidates is the essential skill of all great recruiters. A major research project by the Recruiting Roundtable indicated that good recruiting skills was one of two essential elements of hiring top people. The other was job branding.
  6. Job branding. You need good jobs to hire good people. The job must provide real stretch and a chance for the person to grow and develop faster than comparable opportunities. Make the job bigger than itself by tying it to a special project important to the company’s vision, mission, or strategy. For example: “Have enough restaurant experience to manage our hottest downtown property?” Good people are interested more in what they’ll be doing, not the level of skills needed to make the cut. Minimize the emphasis on skills and what the company needs. Instead, describe what’s in it for the candidate. Consider a special website just for passive candidates. Even if they don’t start here (although some might), top passive candidates always check out a company before getting too serious.
  7. The compensation plan. You’ll need to have an aggressive comp plan, one that’s above average to consistently top people. However, it doesn’t need to be extravagant. The growth opportunity in the job can offset part of the salary premium needed to hire the best people. Assume that the best will need at least 25% growth in a new position before accepting. This growth can be in the form of job stretch and compensation increases. If you can demonstrate a 15% to 20% job growth, the compensation increase can be modest.
  8. Pipelining and CRM. There is another way to hire more top passive candidates. You’ll need to set up programs to continually collect names of top people to fill future jobs. This could be through major company branding programs, aggressive networking with current employees, or using non-hiring channels (e.g., trade shows, product websites) to make sure the best people become aware of your opportunities in some non-traditional way. These people need to be urged to apply using the passive technique described earlier, put in a database, and then nurtured to maintain interest. This is the CRM (customer relationship management) piece. These people are then notified as specific opportunities become available. With a big enough database of top people, this becomes a just-in-time method of filling critical positions. Technology is just emerging to address this type of process, so stay tuned.
  9. Hiring managers. Without committed and highly qualified hiring managers, all of the above is wasted effort. Next to the quality of the job, top people consider the quality of the hiring manager second in importance when accepting an offer. A weaker job can even be offset by a strong hiring manager who indicates that he or she will push the person as fast and as far as possible. Weak hiring managers are one of the reasons it’s often difficult to hire top people. So you might want to evaluate your hiring managers and start eliminating this bottleneck to your company’s growth.

While many corporations have a great desire to hire more passive candidates, most recruiting departments are not organized to meet their specific needs. Hiring top passive candidates requires different recruiters, different systems, different processes, different metrics, and different managers. Though it costs more per hire, on an ROI basis there is no comparison when the impact of hiring stronger people is put into the calculation. Don’t forget that one great salesperson, one great engineer, or one great marketing person can have a million dollar impact. This is where corporate recruiting managers need to take the lead. If you’re not willing to fight for more resources to hire more passive candidates, stop complaining or waiting for some technology solution to come to your rescue. Even if it works, once everyone has it, it won’t anymore. So start fighting and start hiring more top 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).

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