Lou’s Rules for Recruiting Passive Candidates

A recent survey we conducted with LinkedIn clearly indicated the 83% of their fully employed members classified themselves as passive candidates. It seems to me that if you’re not an expert at recruiting this 83%, you’re missing the 800-pound gorilla.

To help here, I’m in the process of consolidating and summarizing all of the articles, webcasts, and recordings I’ve prepared in the past few years on passive candidate recruiting into some type of eBook format. Some of the stuff actually works, so this could be a pretty good handbook on how to use Performance-based Hiring to find, recruit, assess, and hire passive candidates. To get started I figured I’d put the Table of Contents together with a short description. This is shown below.

You might find it useful as you compare this to your company’s approach to passive candidate recruiting.

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Lou’s Rules for Finding, Recruiting, and Hiring Passive Candidates

  1. Review your hiring process workflow. The process used to find, recruit, assess, and hire passive candidates is fundamentally different than the one used for active candidates. Make sure you’re using the right one.
  2. Engage your hiring manager. If your hiring manager is not totally committed to hiring outstanding people, don’t bother with recruiting passive candidates. You won’t hire any, so don’t waste your energy. Post an ad instead, and hope for the best.
  3. Convert jobs into career opportunities. There is not one top passive candidate on the planet who is interested in a lateral transfer, so stop using job descriptions that list skills, duties, responsibilities, and competencies for recruiting or advertising purposes. Instead, define the big challenges of the job and the impact the person can make. We call these performance profiles.
  4. Only use compelling ads and emails. Passive candidates will always check out the job posting once they decide to find out more. That’s why the job posting itself must address the career-oriented mentality of the passive candidate. Here’s an example of a position we recently posted on LinkedIn that meets all of the requisite standards. Notice how skills are presented.
  5. Develop a workforce plan for all critical positions. It’s difficult enough to find, recruit, and hire passive candidates. It’s worse if you don’t have enough time to do it right. You should know today whom you need to hire over the next 3-6 months for every critical position in your company.
  6. Prepare a sequenced sourcing plan. Before you begin looking, you need a plan outlining all of the likely sourcing channels sequenced to maximize quality of hire in the shortest time to fill and at the lowest cost. Start with a supply vs. demand analysis by geography in combination with a compensation analysis for top performers.
  7. Create an ideal candidate persona. Define your target prospect from all perspectives including demographics, 360° connections, career and personal needs, decision criteria, job-hunting status, and the most likely companies to source from. If you don’t know who you’re looking for, you’ll waste a lot of time in all the wrong places.
  8. PERP your ERP and create a VTC. Get your employees to proactively connect (the P in PERP) with all of the best people they’ve ever worked with in the past. Then when you start asking for employee referrals (the ERP) for a specific position you’ll already have the best lined up. Collectively, this network represents a Virtual Talent Community (VTC).
  9. Only call people who are qualified and who will call you back. Getting pre-qualified referrals is the key to passive candidate recruiting. Getting someone credible, like a co-worker, to tell you about a great person with whom they’ve worked in the past is like gold. For one thing, they’ll call you back. For another, you already know they are perfectly qualified.
  10. Network, network, network following the 80/20 rule. Great recruiters don’t see LinkedIn simply as a list of 140mm+ people. To them it’s a one-degree connection to every top person in the world. That’s why getting 2-3 pre-qualified people on every call is essential. Then spend 80% of your time only calling these pre-qualified referrals, and get 2-3 more people on each of these subsequent calls.
  11. Bridge the gap on first contact. Whenever you call a passive prospect the person will always ask about “Day 1” criteria (salary, location, title, company) to see if it’s worth discussing. Yet when the person accepts an offer the “Year 1 and Beyond” criteria (career growth, team, cultural fit, total rewards, work/life balance, team) trounces the Day 1 stuff. Bridging this gap in the first five minutes is the key to successful passive candidate recruiting.
  12. Maintain applicant control from first contact until the start date. You need to ensure full disclosure, but too often passive prospects opt-out too early for all the wrong reasons. Candidates need to see your job as a true career opportunity, and one that they have to fight to get. You achieve this through applicant control: staying the buyer, not the seller.
  13. Formalize the final candidate decision-making process at the beginning. After you bridge the gap on first contact, the prospect must recognize that the process you suggest he/she uses to compare and select opportunities should be based on three sets of criteria: Day 1, Year 1, and Beyond. We’ll walk you through the form we use in our training, if you’re interested.
  14. Don’t take “No” for an answer. Persistence is the hallmark of the passive candidate recruiter. No matter what you do, the best candidates will always have concerns and objections. The key: uncover the concern, validate it, and then address it. Sometimes you’ll lose for the right reasons. Losing for the wrong reasons is a shame.
  15. Close on career opportunity, not compensation. Use the assessment to look for differences between what you need accomplished in comparison to what the person has achieved. The gap represents the career growth opportunity for the person. As long as this gap is big enough, compensation will become secondary.
  16. It’s not over until it’s over. Don’t stop recruiting just because the candidate has accepted your offer. The person will get a counteroffer or an offer from someone who just discovered your great passive candidate is looking. Get the hiring manager and the hiring team involved during this time between the acceptance and start date. Idea: review the performance profile and get the person to start planning out the big projects.

From beginning to end, the process for finding, recruiting, and hiring passive candidates is fundamentally different from the one used for active candidates. If hiring great people is important to your company’s success, the process used to recruit passive candidates should become your company’s default method, not the exception. Imagine the difference this would make.

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).


8 Comments on “Lou’s Rules for Recruiting Passive Candidates

  1. Thanks again, Lou and Happy New Year. I think one of the first things a recruiter should discuss with their hiring managers prior to going after passive candidates is what kind of passive (or active) candidate is reasonable to go after, based on what you have to offer. “You may want the best, but can’t even afford the rest,” and “To hire the best you’ve got to have the best.”

    I think we may need to come up with at least three types of passive candidates:
    1) Passive but unhappy- they haven’t become active yet. Lucky timing on your part!
    2) Passive but content/pretty satisfied- they’re “tire kickers”.
    3) Passive but happy- these are often the ones discussed as desirable passive candidates. You need an exceptional offer and/or an exceptional recruiter to get these.



  2. @ Morgan: I’d be very interested in that information, too.
    I think that like many other terms: “passive” covers a wide area (and a multitude of sins).


    Keith “Wide and Sinful” Halperin

  3. the statistics are in a white paper you can get from LinkedIn – click on the 83% figure cited in the article and when you see the blog post you’ll see another link to the whitepaper we did last year. This was big and full of stats. We updated the research again a few months ago (both samples >> 4000 fully-employed and professional members from LinkedIn working at big companies). The chart on the blog post describes what each pool is looking for – just about everyone is open to look for the right opportunity, but the less active they are the slower they’ll go.

  4. Lou – great article. As a recruiter, from my experience passive candidates are always the best ones. Of course you’re not going to pursue some Joe Schmo who has is resume up on Monster, Careerbuilder, Indeed and is willing to fill ANY and ALL positions. In addition, usually when candidates say no, it means maybe, or yes! I was a passive candidate myself and my recruiter definitely could have moved on but pursed me until I gave him a chance, and now I’m happily employed at a much better organization!

  5. @ Lou: That makes sense- most potential candidates have their prices. The question: is the recruiter (in time, effort) and company ($$, benies, expenses, etc.) willing to pay it? As I mentioned elsewhere, I define the “War for Talent” as: “The futile attempt companies make to hire *people they can’t afford.”

    @ Katy: You may have unintentionally voiced the prejudice against hiring anybody unemployed, because if they’re unemployed they shouldn’t be passive.


    *who wouldn’t want to work for them anyway

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