Passive Candidates are NOT the Holy Grail of Recruiting

So let me get this straight. If a candidate is passively looking for a job on Monday, and then loses their job on Tuesday (or gets a new boss they can’t stand), they are a less-desirable candidate overnight just because they are now actively looking for a job? I don’t think so!

By definition, a candidate is someone who has applied to or been sourced by a recruiter and submitted to a job opening. The labels passive and active only refer to the degree of urgency a candidate has in finding a job. Being employed does not automatically make someone a passive candidate. Many employed people are actively looking for a job. So why do some recruiters think passive candidates are better than active candidates in spite of any other criteria?

Numerous studies have been done that measure what percentage of the workforce at any given time is actively or passively looking for a job. A more useful study would be to find some way to measure if passive candidates are truly better than active candidates. There are pluses and minuses to both active and passive candidates, so “better” is really a relative term and depends heavily on the specific situation. What would you even measure to determine “better” that would apply to everyone all the time?

There are so many things that can go wrong in the hiring process that it doesn’t make sense to be overly focused on one thing when evaluating a potential candidate. Instead of being so enamored by the (I believe false) allure of submitting a passive candidate, and viewing active candidates as inferior, a balanced comparison can put passive candidates into a realistic perspective.

With active candidates, they often have multiple interviews in progress at the same time and can go off the market quickly. Passive candidates on the other hand tend to stay on the market longer, which is a big plus when you are working with a hiring manager with a very long hiring process.

Also with active candidates you will frequently have to deal with multiple competing offers. Passive candidates usually have less activity at any given time so there is less competition from other offers. Both active and passive candidates are likely to be counter-offered by their employer.

One big plus about active candidates is that they make themselves easier to be found by recruiters and are more likely to respond when contacted by a recruiter. They will post their resume on job boards, beef up their LinkedIn profile, and will apply to multiple job openings online. Because passive candidates are only casually considering other jobs, they often won’t post their resume or log in to their LinkedIn account — let alone try and make their profile more appealing to recruiters. Mostly they will selectively apply for jobs online and wait for recruiters to approach them with opportunities. Depending on how passive they really are, they will not even bother to respond with a “thanks but no thanks” when contacted by a recruiter.

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And don’t underestimate the importance of the fact that active candidates are almost always able to start a new position with a two-week notice, less if they are unemployed, and not as likely to say they need to give a month or more of notice to leave their current job. Employers like to hire people who can start quickly, and that is especially true for contract positions.

The main advantage though to working with active candidates is that they have already made the decision to find another job and so a recruiter’s job becomes more about convincing them to consider a particular opportunity and less about motivating them to make a change in the first place. Passive candidates are generally extremely picky and are not as easily convinced the job you contacted them about is better than what they already have or have already rejected.

We all want to submit the best candidates we can find. But surely being active or passive is not the most important quality about a candidate. I think being motivated by something other than money should top the list. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make more money, but if that is the only motivating factor someone gives me for changing jobs, I will pass. It rarely ends well for anyone when money is all someone cares about in their next job. I’d rather work with someone who has solid reasons for changing jobs that can’t be alleviated by a bigger paycheck.

Remember: There is nothing inherently inferior about an active candidate. They might just be the best person for the job.

Charlene Long is a corporate recruiter with RPO and agency experience who specializes in IT and engineering positions. She lives in Dallas, Texas, and has over 20 years of technical recruiting experience. Previously she was an analytical chemist for environmental labs in Florida and Texas and then for Texas Instruments in Dallas for four years.


5 Comments on “Passive Candidates are NOT the Holy Grail of Recruiting

  1. Congrats, you’ve read my comments going back years.

    The reason ‘passive’ candidates have been marketed as better is because ‘passive’ really means ‘not in your database, but in mine,’ from the receuiter’s point of view. Recruiters troll the job boards for resumes constantly, and often for similar types of candidates. Someone posts their resume on careerbuilder for a month, gets a new job, and takes it down. What they don’t know is their resume also found its way into many recruiter’s internal databases. An employer’s access to careerbuilder will not get them access to that candidate anymore, but the recruiter might.

    More often than not, this is the ‘network’ recruiters hype up when they’re selling their wares. There is absolutely zero evidence passive candidates are better in any way than active candidates. But there is a strong case to be made that recruiters need to label such candidates and differentiate them as special in some way to convince people to pay a 20% fee for what amounts to a simple Boolean search.

  2. Charlene: Thanks for this great article and the previous ones too. Would you be open to discuss “live” your articles and share your expertise as a technical recruiter with your readers? It’s easy to do with
    As the creator of the site, I may be biased, but I really think that a one hour conversation with your readers would bring a lot to you and them.

  3. There are ONLY candidates. There is no “qualifier” in front of them. They will either consider a position you have or they won’t. If they are a candidate for a job they are ACTIVE and if they won’t consider it then they are not a candidate for that job. All “candidates” are active by definition, they are considering making a change – where you found their information is irrelevant. In 39 years of recruiting (on both sides of the desk) everyone is a candidate at one time or another, and it really depends on if you have a good opportunity that fits what they need (or think they need).

  4. e all want to submit the best candidates we can find. But surely being active or passive is not the most important quality about a candidate. I think being motivated by something other than money should top the list. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make more money, but if that is the only motivating factor someone gives

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