How to Recruit and Hire Passive Candidates

Recruiting active candidates is easy: you post an ad, sort through the results, make a call or two, interview, select, and send out an offer. The problem arises when quality becomes important or when you have too many requisitions to fill. Recruiting less active candidates is a little harder, but not much. First, read this article on less active candidates. These are fully employed candidates who look infrequently, generally when their jobs become frustrating. Since this group is more discriminating, you need to write more compelling ads, make sure that job descriptions emphasize opportunities over requirements, have an instant application process, and have a robust back-end processing capability that allows you to identify and call these people within 24 hours. Recruiting passive candidates is much harder. In this case, you need to have a compelling job to offer, be able to obtain pre-qualified names, and then be a strong enough recruiter to call and convince these people of the merits of your job. To get started recruiting and hiring top passive candidates, it’s important to understand the theory of recruiting. The following has never before been revealed in print, so please tread carefully as you proceed through the balance of this article. The Theory of Recruiting: The more passive a candidate, the more active you must be to attract and hire that person. The bottom line is, it takes some level of energy and effort to hire any person. The total energy involved is the sum of the energy exerted by the candidate, the company and the recruiter. If the candidate is actively looking, it takes a lot less effort on the company’s or recruiter’s part. Alternatively, if the candidate is not looking, the recruiter must then put in a tremendous amount of effort to find the person, convince the person to pursue the opportunity, and then hold the person’s hand every step of the way. Good recruiters use a variety of techniques, tools and tactics to convert a passive candidate into an active one, to minimize the amount of effort involved. Doing this as early as possible in the process is the key to recruiting success. Most of us have experienced this energy effect first hand. On one extreme, you have those very active candidates who put too much energy into pursuing a new job. This effort comes across as desperation, over preparation, too many follow-up calls, and too many resumes sent out. On the other hand, a low-energy candidate (no resume, won’t call back) is assumed to lack interest. When confronted with this type of person, most recruiters and hiring managers don’t bother pursuing the candidate — using the common excuse, “We don’t want to hire anyone not interested in our job.” Giving up now is the worst thing you can do. Recruiting passive candidates requires extra work. If you give up too soon, you’ll never hire them. Persistence must then be combined with a variety of tactics to get them interested. If successful, you’ll reach a point when the candidate shifts from a reluctant buyer to an interested seller. This is called the recruiting inflection point. The Recruiting Inflection Point: The point when the candidate has enough information to realize the job is a good career move, and shifts from a passive buying mode into an active selling position. The primary reason a passive candidate isn’t interested in your job is usually lack of information. You should only give up your pursuit of a passive candidate when the person has enough information to objectively and accurately say yes or no to the opportunity. This is referred to as the Rule of Recruiting Persistence. Rule of Recruiting Persistence: Don’t ever give up on a strong candidates until the person has enough information about the opportunity to evaluate it objectively. To get candidates the information needed to evaluate the opportunity objectively, you have to use a series of different recruiting and information-sharing approaches. The goal is to move the candidate smoothly along a path of increasing knowledge and interest. Frequently, hiring managers and recruiters go overboard too soon when they meet a hot but somewhat passive candidate. This takes the form of overselling, over-promising, and under-listening. Just like overactive candidates, overactive companies appear desperate. This is the best way to cheapen the job and turn off a great person who just wants more information, not a sales pitch. Here are a few tactics you can use to move passive candidates along this information-gathering path.

  • Get them interested. Use the first contact to establish a dialogue. “Would you be open to exploring a situation that’s clearly superior to what you’re doing today?” is an effective opening. When they say yes, don’t tell them much about the job. Instead, have them tell you a little about themselves first. Don’t go too fast, even if the match seems perfect. Provide the person with a brief high-level overview of the job and schedule an exploratory call sometime later. Be a bit vague, and mention the importance of the job to the company’s strategic direction. This approach also gives you the option of networking with the candidate if the person turns out to be not suited for the job.
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  • Shift decision-making from a short-term emphasis to a more long-term one. The basic goal of the preliminary discussions is to have the candidate consider the strategic and tactical issues about changing jobs in balance. Too often, candidates pull out early because they naturally emphasize the short-term issues over the long-term opportunities. These issues are typically related to relocation, apparent high levels of current job satisfaction, or just being too busy to consider changing. Right away you need to get their attention, and have them recognize this short- vs. long-term imbalance. Asking something like, “Are you using minor information to make a major decision?” is one way to get them to think about this problem. Of course, you must then give them enough long-term information to keep them interested.
  • Don’t rush the process. Passive candidates need time to absorb the information you provide. While you can urge the process along, you don’t want to ever come across as desperate. Ask questions and listen. If you’re talking too much having to sell the merits of the job, you’re pushing. It’s better to find out what the candidate would need to know to move to the next step in the evaluation process. As an example, try this: “If I can show you how this job can give you a chance to make a bigger impact right away, would you at least be willing to meet with the hiring manager for breakfast on an exploratory basis?”
  • Create competition. “I’m really impressed with your background. While I’ve met some other strong candidates this week, I’d like to talk with you in more depth to see if this job would provide you with a chance to excel.” A great job is always better when there’s competition for it.
  • Provide information to the advisory team. A top person, passive or active, never makes a career move alone. The person will always seek advice from family and friends. Make sure you provide the candidate with enough information to convince this personal advisory team that pursuing the opportunity is worthwhile. Initially, the website and job description are the most important forms of collateral material. Make sure the job description describes the challenges and opportunities in the job. Raise the importance of the job by tying some element to the company strategy; for example, tell the candidate they’ll be working on a new product initiative.

While there are other tactics you can use, you know you’re successful when the candidate starts asking you more questions, calls to see how the interview went, or asks about the other candidates. Watch for these clues. This is the recruiting inflection point. Now you’re ready to move the process towards closure. Treat passive candidates as potential, but reluctant, buyers. Use a professional, step-wise approach to provide them with small doses of information that keep them engaged. At some point, the information provided will be enough for them to realize that this is an opportunity worth pursuing. This recruiting inflection point sometimes takes place during the first call, and sometimes not until the offer is extended. Pushing it too fast is the worst thing you can do. This shatters the whole process. Recruiters or managers who move too fast are perceived by the candidate as desperate, slick, or pushy — tactics better suited for the used car lot. Recruiters and hiring managers must provide a career solution that balances long-term growth with short-term considerations. The key here is to recognize that passive candidates are initially judging your opportunity from a short term-perspective. So all of the typical concerns usually mentioned — don’t want to relocate, not interested, not a big enough job, not enough money — must be treated as lack of information, not a rejection. Unfortunately, too many recruiters too readily take no for an answer. Instead treat a no as just a need for more information. This is how you begin the process of recruiting passive candidates. Note: If you’d to learn more about recruiting passive candidates, you’ll want to attend our online recruiter boot camp course starting in February, 2005. This low cost, four-part online program (four two-hour modules) will provide you with all of the tools and techniques you’ll need to hire the best passive, less active and active talent available. For more information, send an email to or visit our web site

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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