How to Hire Passive Candidates

As I read the articles published every day on ERE, it’s very clear to me that as writers we live in two different worlds. One group provides advice and insight on how to hire active candidates more efficiently. The other group focuses on how to hire more top passive candidates. When looked at from this perspective, the reasons for disagreements are obvious. The tools and techniques required to hire passive candidates are far different than those required to hire active candidates. So, if you’re a recruiter who wants to hire more top passive candidates, read on. As companies target more top passive candidates, new tools or major modifications of existing tools will be required. Some of these new tools and modifications include how tracking systems are designed, the use of different sourcing channels, how application forms and processes are designed, new training for recruiters, and even how interviews are conducted. While they do so infrequently, passive candidates sometimes look on job boards and even check out opportunities on a company website, so even these will be affected. Understanding passive candidate motivation is the first step toward designing hiring processes to meet their needs. By definition, passive candidates are fully employed, but they can be further divided into three broad categories based on current job satisfaction. The hardest group to hire is made up of those who like their jobs and don’t have any intention of leaving. The second group is open to consider another job if it were significantly better. These people have to be personally contacted and persuaded to consider the new opportunity. The third group is comprised of people on the margin. Their jobs are somewhat fulfilling, but they wouldn’t mind finding something better, and on an especially bad day casually look for a job on the boards. Recruiting and hiring tools must be specifically designed to meet the needs of these different types of passive candidates. Unfortunately, companies have not taken these differences fully into account when designing their hiring processes. For example, how many companies have a different application process for active and passive candidates, or a different website for passive candidates? If you want to hire more passive candidates without paying unnecessary salary premiums or enlisting the aid of a third-party recruiter, these differences must be taken into account. I’ll be discussing these differences over the next few weeks, but in this article the importance of using different interviewing techniques will be described. Many companies overlook this when hiring passive candidates. For example, traditional behavioral and competency interviews don’t meet the needs of the more sophisticated and discriminating passive candidates. For one thing, both interviewers and top candidates find the mechanical questioning artificial and superficial. For another, candidates can game the system through training and practice. More importantly, they don’t address the need to recruit and influence top people at each step in the process. As a contingency recruiter who has worked a desk placing staff accountants and engineers, and as a retained recruiter who has placed VPs, GMs, a few CEOs, and too many directors to remember (collectively, just about all of them were passive candidates), I know that interviewing is not just about assessing competency. It must achieve a number of broader requirements, specifically:

  • Recruiting the candidate without resorting to superficial and na?ve transactional “selling” techniques.
  • Eliminating the impact of first impressions, the halo effect, and the negative effect of minimum preparation and interest (passive candidates are less prepared and less interested).
  • Piercing the veneer of candidates who are trained to give pre-planned answers to every behavioral interview question imagined.
  • Convincing outstanding people who aren’t looking to take less salary, to relocate, to take a less-than-ideal title, or to work in a challenging environment because it will make them a stronger person.
  • Merge competencies, behaviors, and skills seamlessly with performance to more accurately predict on-the-job success.

A few years ago I wrote an article on the best one-question interview of all time. This question was designed to meet the needs of passive candidates who had to be recruited while they were being assessed. This has been modified a bit and renamed the all-in-one-question interview. As you’ll soon discover, it’s all you’ll need to hire top passive candidates. For quick review, here’s the basic all-in-one question: “Please think of a major accomplishment. Now, can you tell me all about it?” Over the course of the next 15 minutes, the interviewer needs to ask enough follow-up questions to determine what the candidate actually accomplished, the specific results achieved, the challenges faced, the technical skills learned, used and applied, the team involved, and how the person grew and developed. The key to the one-question interview’s effectiveness is the follow-up fact-finding. This is where you ask about specific behaviors and competencies and how they were used to achieve success. The objective of the one-question interview is to develop a deep understanding of a candidate’s major accomplishments. By repeating the process for a number of individual, team, and job-specific accomplishments, a clear trend line can be observed that reveals growth, potential, and consistency. With little training, interviewers can accurately assess job fit. The key is to determine what motivated a candidate to excel over an extended period of time and then compare this to actual job needs. By incorporating a work history review with this questioning technique, the process is even more effective. With this modification, the interviewer needs to start the interview by conducting a comprehensive work history review. During this 15-20 minute process, the interviewer needs to obtain information about titles, promotions, responsibilities, major accomplishments, promotions and recognition, gaps in employments, and the reasons for leaving a company and accepting a job with another firm. The mechanical nature of this process naturally reduces biases and the impact of first impressions. It also reduces candidate nervousness. More importantly, this work history review provides a great framework to track the candidate’s progress over time. Rather than conducting the work history before the accomplishment questions, the process can be merged. During the work history review, just dig into the most appropriate major accomplishments. This way, the work history becomes a platform for the accomplishment questions. One additional modification allows the interviewer to incorporate a recruiting component into the basic accomplishment question. This is much better than “selling” later in the interview. This is done by subtly questioning a candidate’s depth of experience or skills in a certain important area, using the push-away technique. Here’s an example:

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Based on your resume, it seems as though you’ve only managed small groups. This team is expected to double in size over the next year, so this job could be a management stretch for you. Please tell me about your most significant management accomplishment, so that I can get a better sense of how this job might match your skills.

By challenging a candidate’s skills this way, the person better understands the growth opportunity inherent in the job without you having to “sell.” This approach increases candidate interest in the job while diminishing concerns, reduces salary expectations, and allows for a smoother and quicker negotiating process. The opposite of the push-away is the pull-towards. In this case, the interviewer needs to describe the importance of the job first, and then ask the candidate to describe a comparable accomplishment. For example: “This team will lead the launch of a major new company initiative (explain fully). Please describe a major comparable accomplishment.” The pull and push should be used throughout the interview to create job stretch. This is important since top people, especially passive candidates, won’t consider a move unless it offers at least 20-25% growth. This growth takes two forms ó compensation and job stretch. By using these types of recruiting questions, a good interviewer can describe how the job offers 15% to 20% job stretch. Compensation increase can then be limited to the 5% to 10% range. Here’s what a director of staffing at a Fortune 50 company said just last week after he tried out the all-in-one-question interview for the first time:

I conducted my first interview since attending the performance-based hiring class. I followed the instructions by the book. The system is exceptional. Not making an immediate first impression in itself can be a crash course in personal introspection, prejudices, preferences and thought patterns. The one-question interview, followed exactly as taught and laid-out, provides the best interview platform I’ve experienced. It was really enjoyable for me to grow and learn after 15 years of interviewing.

Recognize that different interviewing and recruiting techniques need to be used to hire passive candidates. The traditional behavioral and competency-based interview is one of these components that needs an overhaul. Try the all-in-one question interview as a first step. Then go out in the field and hire a few top people who aren’t actively looking.

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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