How to Recruit Passive Candidates

We’re now working on a major survey with LinkedIn on determining the percent of its 70mm+ network that is active, passive, or somewhere in between. Recent data from the Recruiting Leadership Council (CLC RecruitingBuilding Talent Pipelines Survey) indicates that for a broad sample of the U.S. workforce, 15-20% are very active and around 20% passive, with the remaining 60% showing a mix of passive and active behaviors. Our internal research would indicate that higher-quality and more senior-level prospects are more passive than the population at large. Regardless, this means that a significantly larger percent of the workforce is passive rather than active. This is a critical and overlooked point when developing new recruiting and sourcing processes.

For example, while most companies want to focus on hiring more passive candidates, they continue to use processes that are based on how active candidates look for new jobs and how they decide to accept one over another. As technology improves (LinkedIn, ZoomInfo, Proactive Employee Referral Programs) it’s becoming much easier to identify passive candidates, but identifying names is not the same as attracting them, and much much different than hiring them. With the goal of hiring top performing passive candidates, here are some process changes you might want to consider implementing.

12 Things You Need to Do to Recruit and Hire More High Quality Passive Candidates

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  1. Don’t take “no” for an answer. True passive candidates don’t want to talk to you. They’ll do anything they can to get rid of you. Don’t take it personally. Persist. You’re job is to get the candidate to see your job as a potential great career move.
  2. Be SWK (someone worth knowing). Top quality passive candidates will not talk to a recruiter who is not handling important jobs, isn’t well connected, and isn’t working closely with the hiring manager.
  3. Be an SME (subject matter expert). The best passive candidates expect the recruiter to know the job, the company, the industry, the competition, the market, and the compensation issues.
  4. Quickly determine the quality of candidate. Not all passive candidates are high quality people. There are plenty of not-so-great people who are not looking. Recruiters need to separate the best from those who aren’t, within 5-10 minutes.
  5. Find out the person’s job-hunting status. A passive candidate is someone who isn’t looking for a job, so ask right away to find out. If the person is looking, ask for how long and if they are getting serious about anything.
  6. Create an instant career. You must obtain some background info from the candidate before you describe your opening. This is a critical step and missed by most recruiters. During this five-minute period look for areas where your job offers growth and stretch. This is how you excite a person to get interested in what you have to offer.
  7. Ask for permission. Start your conversation by asking if the person is open to discuss a potential career opportunity. Be vague about the job and get some background about the person before you tell too much about your job. Present the “instant career” and ask the candidate if he/she would like to proceed and learn more.
  8. Eliminate the apply button, sell the discussion, not the job. Recruiters have a tendency to move too fast. This will turn off those who aren’t looking. That’s why it’s important to sell the next step in the process — an opportunity to learn more about the job — rather than then the end game (a job, with a specific title, in a specific location, at a specific comp range). As part of this, add a discussion about the job as the first step in your formal process to ensure you automatically detour the apply button.
  9. Quality of company. It’s much easier to recruit top quality passive candidates if the company is also top quality. If not, you’d better be able to quickly make the case that your company is well-poised to do something special and your opening is a critical aspect of this.
  10. Quickly determine quality of candidate’s current job. If you don’t have a great company brand, you’ll need to quickly establish that your opening in comparison to what the candidate is currently doing is why your job is worth considering. This is part of Step 5: create an instant career in the first five minutes of the discussion.
  11. Hiring manager involvement is essential. Top people want to work for other top people. If your hiring managers are not willing to be 100% committed and involved, your company has no chance of hiring any passive candidates, even average ones.
  12. Get referrals of other top quality passive candidates. Calling passive candidates who haven’t been referred to you is very time-consuming. For one thing, you don’t know if the person is any good and the person is less likely to call you back. Getting referrals from other top passive candidates is the real secret to passive candidate recruiting. Not only will they call you back, but you already know they’re worth calling.

Hiring high quality passive candidates makes great business sense. However, getting their names is the easy part. If you’re serious about hiring the best passive candidates, you’ll need to change the measures of success from speed to hire to quality of hire. That’s the only way you can afford to implement what’s described here. If you don’t want to make this shift from speed to quality, you’re better off spending your time in the active candidate market and hope for good luck. (Email me if you’d like to discuss a new approach to search based on leveraging your existing process to optimize passive candidate recruiting. This is part of a beta project using LinkedIn’s Talent Advantage suite of services.)

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).


18 Comments on “How to Recruit Passive Candidates

  1. “…..15-20% are very active and around 20% passive, with the remaining 60% showing a mix of passive and active behaviors….”

    Can anyone define these labels a little more? If we just accept “60%” of all people show a “mix” of both – what does that mean? To me it really means there is no reason to put candidates in either bin. Treat them the same.

    I see no need to classify anyone as either active or passive. Most of us move back and forth depending on the day, the week, the boss’s mood, the endless construction on the way to the office, the cute girl that just joined your department, the mood you’re in after watching the news – but as candidates should be treated the very same way.

    The 12 Steps in your article are great. Why change any of that depending on what you “suspect” in advance of the connection?

  2. Jerry – here’s why the classification is essential – passive candidates don’t look for work, apply, or decide whether to accept one job over another the same way active candidates do. Be segmenting the market this way you can align your sourcing tactics and processes to obtain the most value for the resources applied. One size doesn’t fit all. Consider a Kia vs. BMW. Basic marketing 101 – don’t use Wal-Mart advertising for Tiffany customers and vice-versa. It seems so obvious to me, but maybe I’m wrong.

  3. For me I’m just left with something that – for me -is a fundamental. Given the right opportunity and circumstance (location, promotion, work, etc.) anyone will make a change.

    With that fundamental in mind – it really only a matter of timing.

    Perhaps what bugs me about the labeling here is this contrived “premium” placed on those who are not now actively looking for a job. It doesn’t make them any more desirable to me that they haven’t interviewed lately. No points are added to their qualification based on how I found them or when we last spoke.

    Assuming one might be a “BMW” rather than a “Kia” is a mistake. Make the presentation, establish whether they are interested in staying in touch and keep track of them for the future if needed.

    I try not to over think this stuff.

    Thanks Lou. I enjoy your insight.

  4. Jerry – good marketers aim their marketing and selling to their target audience, not to everyone. It’s too costly. While you might find an Obagi customer in a Target store, it makes no sense to look for people in the wrong places. Of course, there are some fine people who are actively pursuing jobs, but it takes a lot of work to sort through those who are unqualified. Look for the best people where the best people hang out. Your odds of finding them are a heck of a lot better. I don’t know about you, but as a recruiter, I don’t have time to talk with people who are unqualified and keep track of them. Following that idea alone, can increase your productivity by 50-100%.

  5. I tend to agree Jerry. Here is my question for Lou.
    I am getting an interesting pushback from clients when i present a recruited candidate who was not actively interviewing or looking. When i go in i tell the client that this is a recruited candidate for this job, candidate is not actively looking. Over half the time now they are coming back with questions like:

    “Why is he/she interested in looking at a new position if they are not actively looking for a new position?”

    Me: We identiied the candidate as someone who has the skill set you want, a track record of success, talked to them about your company, asked them to review the web site and research you. After doing that their interest level that this would be a good career move for them generated an interest to talk to you if you like what you see.

    Client: “But, why would they think this would be a better spot, what do they not like where they are?” “There must be some concern about their present company or job or they would not look at something new.”

    Me: No discontent. Their current company is stable, as are the people above them. Somebody would have to move, quit or die for them to take on more responsibility or increase comp. Your position would afford that opportunity.

    Client: “There must be more to it than that, people are not changing jobs right now unless there is something wrong”.

    And on and on it goes with different dialogs unless we can tell them that John’s mother in law lives there, is in bad health so his wife wants to be closer to mama

    In short a lot of clients seem to believe that there is no such thing as a recruited, passive candidate and keep pushing for reasons that they want to change.

    How does one address that, i have not seen much of this in the past.

  6. Sandra, I suspect you didn’t properly present your candidate as someone who is looking for a career move. Each of the client remarks could have been handled from this perspective. Since 78% of the people (USA/Gallup) are unsatisfied it’s easy to make the case that you presented the job as a great opportunity and that’s the only reason the person is open to chat. In fact, that’s why you must use Step 8 as part of your presentation to your client. This is critical. If you miss this step, the client will think something is fishy. All of the 12 steps are essential. Skipping anyone will result in some problem. When you look at the causal factors involved in a problem situation, you normally discover the root cause is not what you initial thought.

    I’ve personally been involved in over 1500 passive candidate recruiting situations, and while I’ve encountered the situation you’ve described, it’s normally that the recruiter pushed too hard, rather than suggesting you might have a person who’s extremely talented, but needs some convincing the job is a career move. Try this type of take-away and see what happens. Recruiting top people isn’t transactional, so if you act transactional you’ll get the response you got.

  7. Thanks Lou.

    Just haven’t run into this until the last year.

    Last time i tried the take away i was informed that they didn’t have time to convince somebody to be interested.

    But it normally is all in the presentation

  8. Sandra – I suspect this was a contingent search and your client didn’t want to pay a fee, so it was an excuse not to see your person, not related to whether the candidate was passive or active.

  9. Nope, retained. We filled the position. They pushed back on candidates that we indicated might need to be sold on making a move as they were passive candidates. They wanted candidates who were interested in making a move, serious about it and didn’t want to play games with tire kickers (as they referred to Passive candidates who needed convincing.)

  10. Sandra – a point – if they wanted to hire an active candidate, why didn’t you just say that, and not use your candidate as an example describing how to hire passive candidates. I’m confused.

  11. I reponded to your suggestion to use the take away by saying that the last time i tried that approach i was told that they didn’t have time to convince someone to come to work for them.

    Had i known that they thought passive candidates were tire kickers i would not have gone that route.

    Honestly i think there is a lot of confusion as to what is and is not a passive candidate, or why anyone cares as long as the candidate is a good fit. My response in the first place was to agree with Jerry that labeling candidates does not seem to be necessary. A difference of opinon as to hiring passive candidates being any different or better than active and the various shades of gray as to candidate active/passive status.

    Sorry to have confused you with my response to your suggestion.

  12. I agree that all candidates are active – for the right price. But as the discussion above adresses, te question is how do you find and market opportunities to these “classes”?

    My firm is building a Private Talent Warehouse, similar to Linked In, but much smaller and more targeted to our niche. The problem is that even “active” candiates get work (contract or perm) and their status changes to passive at that time. Then, when they are available again (if ever) we change them back to “active”. The problem is keeping up with a large community. My point is that the status of an individual changes from active to passive constantly througout their career history, so getting a one time snapshot is hard to do anything with.

  13. Lou,

    As always you hit some of the most important points or requirements in passive candidate sourcing.

    As a passive-candidate-only Sourcer in the upper management/ C-level arena, I find presenting a “sizzle” (short)statement about the position early-on to peak their interest, really helps to narrow your search.

    It is so critical to have a compelling reason why the company needs this new person and include it in the “Sizzle” coupled with what he/she may gain from the opportunity ie. equity in a growing company, launching a US based business, or just an opportunity to move-up when they are stuck at their current level with no upward mobility etc.) They WILL call you back if they have any interest. And you assess their level of interest and motivators once engaged in dialog.

    Of course, presenting this “sizzle” to the appropriate persons in the first place is critical! This is such an important piece of the process–having a good pool to choose from. And if you don’t generate interest, ALWAYS ask for a referral. This has led to placements for my clients several times!

    Lou has touched on these requirements through his various articles. I use them everyday for each search assignment I conduct for my clients. They work!

    Let me know if you need quality sourcing at a reasonable rate. I guarantee results!

    Judy Kerns
    Executive Sourcing Group
    …recruiting only top-notch passive talent!

  14. These are all great points, and #11 resonates with me the most. A recruiter can only do so much, then it is up to the hiring manager. I think it’s important to note that getting hiring managers on-board involves coaching them to understand the nuances of working with passive candidates. One of the barriers I face often with hiring mangers and passive candidates is getting them to see beyond the resume. A truly passive candidate likely hasn’t updated their resume for some time, and may feel dissuaded from pursuing an opportunity if they are asked to do the work up front.

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