How to Hire Passive Candidates, Part 3: Sourcing Strategies

Here’s a basic principle you’ll need to follow if you want to hire more passive candidates: Offer careers, not jobs. But more on this in a moment. For our purposes, the definition of a passive candidate is someone employed and not actively looking for another job. However, some passive candidates are more passive than others. This can be represented by a target with three concentric circles. The whole target represents the pool of passive candidates, with each ring representing a different degree of passivity. As you’ll discover, the sourcing approach you’ll use to hire these passive candidates is dependent on what motivates each group to look for new career opportunities. The Outer Ring The outer ring, the one near the surface, represents candidates on the margin. These are people who are fully employed but not totally satisfied with their work for a variety of reasons. Maybe they’re underpaid, overworked, or under-appreciated. Maybe the job, or the boss, or the team just doesn’t fit somehow. Maybe their progress is slower than expected. On an especially bad day, these people on the margin might look for another job, and they will use two primary techniques: jobs boards and employee referral programs. There are some very talented people in this group. Most of the time, they work hard and persevere despite less-then-ideal job circumstances. This is the first group to target when designing a sourcing plan to attract more passive candidates. You’ll be able to find some great people quickly and at very low cost. I estimate this group at about 10% to 15% of the total U.S. workforce. This is comparable in size to the active candidate pool, but since they look infrequently, their numbers at any one time are a small fraction of the true active candidates. The Middle Circle The middle circle represents semi-passive candidates. These people are fully-employed and are not even considering looking for other positions. They actually like their work, are quite satisfied with the comp program, their boss, team and company. They even feel they are on a good career path. However, they’d be open to evaluating an opportunity if it was significantly better than what they’re doing now. To attract these people, you first need to get their names, then contact them in some personal and professional way. This is usually via the phone. This can be done by a recruiter, a hiring manager, or maybe even a former co-worker (who happens to be one of your employees). Success depends on who you call and what you say. Calling random names is a waste of time. This is inefficient, costly, and in many cases counterproductive. Sourcing plans need to be based on some type of pre-qualification effort in combination with an aggressive and pre-scripted networking campaign. This is a huge group. I estimate the size of this pool at about 40-50% of the total workforce. This is based on our extensive field research in calling people to determine if they’re open to explore new career opportunities. The Core The center circle, or core of the target pool of passive candidates, represents the true passive candidates. These are people who thoroughly enjoy their work, have no intention of leaving under any circumstances, and have some type of golden handcuffs or an unusual reason for staying. While they can sometimes be induced to leave, the cost and effort involved is not worth the result, except in extreme cases. This group, however, can be useful for networking, so knowing who they are is important in building a sourcing plan for hiring more passive candidates. Equally important, they might not always remain a true passive candidates. Circumstances change (e.g., company buyout, project completion), and they might be available at some time in the future. I estimate that this group represents about 25% to 30% of the total work force. Planning Your Sourcing Strategy When setting up a sourcing strategy to hire passive candidates, consideration needs to be given to the differences among these three groups. The goal of any sourcing program should be the highest quality candidate at the lowest cost in the shortest period of time. In general, the more passive a candidate is, the more effort is required to find and hire that person. So, assuming there are top performers in each group, then the lowest cost, quickest option would be to emphasize those passive, on-the-margin candidates in the outer ring. If this isn’t effective, you’d need to target semi-passive candidates in the middle circle. As a last resort, the true passive candidates ó those in the center circle ó would need to sourced. Before beginning the sourcing of passive candidates, it’s important to understand how and why these people evaluate new opportunities, how they apply, and how they decide to accept an offer if one is made. Knowing this allows a company to design its workflow and hiring process to better match its needs. First and foremost, recognize that top passive candidates are passive for a reason. In general, it’s because they like what they’re doing. So to get them to consider a new opportunity, you need to offer them as a minimum a better job, not just another job. For the more passive candidates, even this won’t do: you’ll need to offer a career opportunity, not just a better job. So to start hiring more passive candidates, first review your job descriptions. Are these just jobs or are they better jobs? If they focus on skills, experience, academics and industry requirements, with a plea for highly-motivated self-starters who get along with everyone, then these are not even jobs at all: they are people descriptions. They certainly aren’t designed to appeal to any type of passive candidate. If you add some responsibilities into the mix, at least you’re moving towards a job description. This is probably okay ó if you have a great company brand and are only targeting active candidates disguised as passive candidates. However, this won’t be good enough if you want to hire true passive candidates in any quantity. In this case, you’ll have to make a wholesale conversion to “better job” descriptions. A “better job” job description describes a better job. This includes the challenges involved, some of the big projects the person will likely work on, how these will impact the company, what the person will learn, and how the person will grow. Bottom line: you need to describe the benefits to the person considering the job as an inducement to apply. Passive candidates need reasons to apply. They won’t, unless you give them some. Most job descriptions are written to discourage active candidates from applying, not to induce passive candidates to apply. So if you want to hire more passive candidates, start by rewriting your job descriptions. Without this foundation, you won’t have much luck hiring top passive people ó unless you have a great employer brand. But this is only a start. While you’ll be able to attract passive candidates on the margin, even better jobs won’t help much with semi-passive candidates. These people already have a better job, so you need to offer them a better career opportunity. The difference between a better job and a better career is one of time. This is comparable to the difference between tactics and strategy. A better job lasts a year or so. A better career needs to offer a number of jobs over a three to five year time horizon, coupled with a faster growth rate. To pull this off, you need to tie a better job directly to the company’s vision and strategy. This way, the person considering it can see significant value in making the switch. Combined with this is the quality of the hiring manager. Top people want to work for other top people. Top people are thrilled when a hiring manager suggests to a potential new employee that they will be pushed as fast as they are capable of in handling bigger opportunities. It’s even better when the manager can point to others who have experienced this type of faster growth. You won’t be able to get all of this into your “better career” job descriptions, but you can certainly mention how some of the projects relate to the company strategy or a major new initiative. Top people always discuss new career opportunities with their friends, family, and advisors. Their focus is on considering long- and short-term issues in balance. Even if two jobs are similar, top passive candidates will be open to explore a situation that offers faster growth. Few companies formally take this into account when writing job descriptions or putting together collateral material. Yet this information is vital not only for the candidate, but also for the person’s advisory team. Knowing why candidates are passive candidates is the first step in designing sourcing programs to attract more of them. Unfortunately, too many companies ignore the fundamentals. If you can’t offer a better job or a better career, you’ll have little luck hiring top passive candidates.

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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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