Passive Candidates — Valuable, Yes, but They’re Not Passive Nor Are They Candidates

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 2.02.01 PMWhy calling them “passive candidates” or “passive job seekers” is misleading

Using the term “passive candidate” is just wrong for so many reasons. First, these recruiting targets haven’t applied for anything, so they can’t be classified as candidates (the correct name for those who have not applied is prospects). Calling them “passive job seekers” is equally inaccurate because they are not in fact currently seeking a job. And finally, they can’t accurately be called “passive” because they are definitely not passive individuals. In fact they are frequently bold and aggressive individuals while on the job.

The only thing that these prospects are passive about is looking for a new job. First, they are disinterested because they already have a job. In addition, because they are also top performers, they are likely to have a good manager and to be treated well, which means they have no business reason to look for a new job outside their current firm.

Once you understand the proper name to call them, you still have a major problem because “not-looking top prospects” can simply never be reached through normal recruiting channels (because almost all of these approaches are designed for prospects who are “actively” looking for a job). There are four key realizations that recruiting leaders must accept if they expect to have any real chance to land these highly desirable “not-looking top prospects.” The realizations include:

Realization #1 — “Not-looking top prospects” are the most valuable hires by far

Top prospects by definition are also top performers. These top prospects fall in the top 10 percent of all employees at a firm on their performance scale. In addition, they are classified as “top prospects” because they are also innovators, leaders, rapid learners, or they also possess “future skills” (which are skills that will be desperately needed within 12 to 18 months). But they have another added value, which is because they work at a competitor, when you hire them, your firm will get significantly better while simultaneously your competitor will become weaker. They are also likely to bring with them current best practices and ideas from your product competitors. And finally, these top prospects will add more value because they are so well-known that they will act as “a talent magnet.” Their hiring which will cause three to five other valuable employees to follow them to your firm.

Realization #2 — The very best professionals are already employed

It’s not politically correct to say this but that doesn’t make it less true: the very best performers in any industry or function are almost always currently employed at another company. If you need an example, consider professional football. What are the odds of a coach finding a single top-performing exceptional player who isn’t already signed up with some NFL team during mid-season? Can you even imagine a top performer like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, or Aaron Rogers not being on a team during mid-season, if they weren’t hurt or retired? Of course there are always some good players and employees who are unemployed, but the percentage of top performers in that unemployed group is low and it is even smaller during low unemployment times.

Remember that a focus on recruiting not-looking prospects will not in any way limit your ability to get unemployed people. This is because most unemployed people, including top performers, are extremely active jobseekers who will find you anyway through your job postings and other active recruiting approaches.

Realization #3 — Be careful, 20 percent of the employed are “not-looking” for the wrong reasons

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We’ve established that the best recruiting targets are likely to be currently employed. However, by definition, only around 10 percent of all employed people can be classified as top performers (i.e. the top 10 percent). That means that the remaining 90 percent of employees are not top performers. Be careful, because among that remaining group of employees are the 20 percent of a firm’s employees at the bottom of the performance scale. These “bottom 20 percent” are also likely to be not-looking for another job. They also fall under the “not-looking” category because they either don’t have the drive or initiative to look for another job outside the firm, or their performance is so low, that after trying numerous times, they have simply given up and stopped searching for a job.

Don’t fall into the trap of trying to recruit any prospect who is not looking, because some may actually be passive for the wrong reasons. But instead limit your recruiting to the top-performing employed prospects who are not-looking because their high-value results in them being treated well. I called these prime recruiting targets “not-looking top prospects.”

Realization #4 — Don’t worry about recruiting above average to average employed people; they will find you

Don’t worry if you want to recruit the employees who fall between the 90 percent and the 20 percent performance level. This above average to average group is probably not treated exceptionally well (because of their okay performance) and they are not targeted by the best recruiters. So when they decide to look for another job, they fall into the category of active jobseekers who will find you if you simply post an open job.

How Do You Know if a Top-performing Prospect Is Not Looking?

If you are unsure whether someone who you have in your target prospect list is not looking, don’t fret. Not-looking top prospects have several job-search-related factors in common:

  • No updated resume or profile — a top not-looking prospect will literally never have an updated resume immediately available. And no recruiter call will convince them to work on it (in order to apply) because they view it as a time-consuming and an unpleasant task. For the same reason, they may have outdated or incomplete social media profiles and on LinkedIn their profile may purposely be minimalized because they have been approached or hassled by so many recruiters.
  • They don’t return recruiter calls — even if the best recruiter calls or contacts them, they say “no thanks” almost immediately. Or, if a message is left, they never return the call. They’re not interested in talking to recruiters mostly because as top performers they get so many unsolicited recruiter calls. But they may also be reluctant to talk to recruiters because being treated so well makes them loyal to their manager and talking to an aggressive recruiter seems to be a disloyal act.
  • They won’t even glance at job postings — not-looking top prospects will literally never look at job postings, job boards, recruitment advertising, or corporate career pages. They won’t look at these obvious recruiting messages partially because they are not looking for a job. But they also won’t look because almost all top performers got their last job through a referral from a top-performing colleague, and if they ever do decide to go external, they fully expect to get their next job through another referral. Taken together this means that they may actually be appalled by ordinary recruiting approaches, much like a vegan would be appalled when they are offered a big juicy steak.
  • If you ask them about the current work situation, they will not be unhappy — if one of your employees runs into a “not-looking top prospect” and asks them about their work situation, the response will be either neutral or positive. They will have no major gripes because their current boss knows their value, and as a result, they are treated well. That means they will have to know and admire your firm before any conversation about recruiting them can even begin.
  • The best college grads may also be classified as not-looking — my research has revealed that up to 20 percent of undergrads at top schools are also not looking. They are not immediately seeking a job either because they aspire to go to grad school or they plan to start their own business. Yes, even though most college grads can be classified as “super-active jobseekers,” you’ll never find these not-looking stars through the campus career center or as a result of a job posting on a college job board.

Final Thoughts

By using the wrong terminology, you can cause hiring managers and recruiters to misunderstand what must be done in order to successfully identify and recruit what should be referred to as “not-looking top prospects.” But once the terminology is corrected, everyone should realize the value of these top prospects, and how to determine the best approach to source them. Next week on 2/16/15, I will publish a second related article on covering those sources entitled: “The Best Sources For Identifying ‘Passives’ …  or How to Find ‘Not-Looking Top Prospects.’”

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



15 Comments on “Passive Candidates — Valuable, Yes, but They’re Not Passive Nor Are They Candidates

  1. “In addition, because they are also top performers, they are likely to have a good manager and to be treated well, which means they have no business reason to look for a new job outside their current firm.” That is total rubbish. It is the ones who are doing very well that headhunters are looking for. If they are ambitious and no matter their circumstances there is every chance that they will be interested in a “step up”. the skill of headhunting is to see the potential of an individual. This is different from the “recruiter” who only has the capacity to move candidates into “like for like” positions. If someone is going to move to do much the same then that person will be unhappy where he/she is or “actively” looking for a job for some other reason.

  2. If there’s one thing recruiters need to stop doing, it’s assuming that because someone isn’t looking that they must be a top performer. There are endless factors which would make a person a good or bad match for any existing opening, the fact that they are not currently looking to leave their current position has never, in any way, shape, or form, been proven to be one of those factors. Perhaps a better article to write would be: How to Tally the Costs of Vacancies Caused by Ignoring Thousands of Qualified Candidates Because They Are ‘Active’.

  3. Some nits:

    Database clusters use the terms passive/active to reflect roles- yet neither computer has any emotions or outlook. Passive simply means not in use at a given time- so the term makes semantic sense.

    Next, there are plenty of GREAT people seeking jobs. They may have family or spouse relocating, they may have a factory or office closing, or they may have a bad manager. Like any stereotype, blind reliance will produce improper results from time to time.

    Finally, the guy who won the Super Bowl for New England was a “who dat” nobody, right up until his fabulous play. Sports analogies often fall down in HR settings – this is one for sure. Nobody does more with undrafted free agents than Blll Belechick- which is a recruiting problem itself. He will beat you with his players, and if you swapped, he would beat you with your players, and all the recruiting in the world would not change that.

    Passive v. Active are two different situations, and recruiters need the tools to handle both with skill and speed. There are no hard and fast rules that good results can only come from one or the other….

  4. I think a new paradigm is emerging in the passive vs. active debate:

    While I don’t agree with all aspects of this article, it does raise some good points — for example: “Be as active in finding the right place to work as great founders [or a company] are in finding you.” Why leave the decision making of the next great opportunity up to someone else? As the article points out, “the best jobs might be the most difficult to find.”

    Finding the right job requires a two way street. Being proactive can be a better strategy, especially if you do find yourself looking for some reason. Something as important as your career should not be left up to chance.

  5. I was looking forward to reading this, but was left wholly disappointed. Supposed thought leaders, in my opinion, have more responsibility in ensuring that their output, which no doubt becomes self evident truth on utterance, actually holds some similarity to reality or else this output becomes part of the recruiter lexicon. This distinction between passive/active (and now “not looking top prospects”, jeez) is utter bunkum. Its origins are in the world of sales led third party recruitment, where the passive candidate was seen as a greater investment of time, as they were not listening to the weasel words of other recruiters, and therefore the agent could (another hated phrase coming up) exercise greater “candidate control”. Let’s stop this right now – it’s quite frankly wrong, and should be consigned to the dustbin of history

          1. Logic is only so good as the premises fed into it. The whole underlying assumption of this article is that ‘passive’ equals ‘better.’ There has never been a shred of evidence presented to prove that is the case, just never ending claims with sources like ‘everyone knows,’ usually coming from third party ‘sales’ recruiter types whose livelihood depends on companies ignoring people who actually want to work for them, or in other word, ‘active’ candidates. Logan and Ken are, in my experience, correct.

    1. Ken, extremely well put. I have had recruiters call me and ask, “if you have such a good job, why are you looking?” Because I want to better myself you knucklehead. That is how I got my current position — and the position before that. Today’s recruiters represent all that is wrong with the job seeking process. I have pasted below a piece that I posted previously (I apologize for the formatting problem):

      Today’s recruiters absolutely stink. I am writing this with
      my fingers on a phone standing in line, so please excuse any errors. I went to Catholic school & I still know what a gerund and a diphthong are. These
      folks have neither the experience nor the skills to judge my grammar and
      punctuation. No, my problem is my age and incompetent people known as
      recruiters. I have recently begun looking for another job as I am moving to
      Florida, California or Texas. I am 56 and I have a high level position in KC,
      MO with a large, financial services company. My home is for sale and I am
      moving from the state of Missouri. I am the Director / Manager of a division
      that I started 7 years ago from scratch. We now have 12 employees under me and
      we had revenue of $24 million in our division in 2014. I have an extensive
      history of success and I have been to law school and I earned have 8
      “certifications”- over the last 10 years. My point is that I am no
      rookie, have a great amount of experience in sales, management, and 5 other
      areas. I went to law school and I am a Registered Paralegal®. I bring a lot
      to the table & have numerous awards and I am a published author.

      What I have experienced over the last year with “recruiters” has been an ugly,
      incompetent, frustrating experience. Whether it is “inside” recruiters – or
      “outside, retained” recruiters, I have been very, very unimpressed. The
      ignorance, youth, stupidity, lack of preparation and total malaise of the folks
      I have interviewed with has been mind boggling. For reasons that I cannot
      fathom, most of these companies will have the interview process begin with low
      level, flunkies. Instead of interviewing with a peer or the direct manager,
      they have a young person perform the initial interview. A young person that has
      not ever read my resume nor looked at the 3 hyperlinks that I send them in
      preparation for the interview. A person who doesn’t know how to diagram a
      sentence or a paragraph on the chalkboard in front of a nun. I have taken the
      advice of professional resume writers and also have a web site that showcases
      my “brand” and capabilities. All of the advice that I have read on The Ladders
      & LinkedIN — I have done it all. Fortunately, I do have a job in KC and if
      I can’t get another in those states I mentioned, I will just stay put. I feel
      sorry for the millions of folks that are age 40 and above who are unemployed or
      underemployed. To be subject to the semi literate vicissitudes of these so
      called “recruiters” must be very frustrating. It is like a nuclear physicist
      interviewing with a 4th grader. Below is just one, very typical, experience
      that I have encountered

      Recently, I had a 10:00am appointment with a “retained” recruiter at a large,
      national, agency. I was somewhat surprised that the young woman was actually
      willing to meet with me face to face. In preparation for our appointment, she
      asked me to send her information on myself so that she “may better know me”
      – when I arrived for my appointment. In addition to my resume, I included 3
      hyperlinks in my email. One is a link to an article (with my photo) that I had
      published on Yahoo Finance. This is an excellent chance to learn about my
      excellent writing capabilities and it showcases my knowledge of financial
      services / insurance & marketing.

      The second link was an article about me and my career (with a nice photo). It
      succinctly describes my career transition (7 years ago) and talks about my
      previous 18 years with a large legal publishing company.

      The 3rd link was to my, LinkedIn profile which lists degrees, accomplishments,
      awards, certificates, licenses etc. If one were to spend ten minutes on those
      links, they would know all about me and what I bring to the table. I also
      included links to 5 jobs that were recently posted that I think would be
      perfect for me. I wanted to give her an idea of the kind of work that I am
      looking for.

      When I arrived at the interview, the 26 year old girl began asking me some very
      basic questions. I asked, “Did you take the time to read the email (which she
      had requested) that I sent with the résumé, links, information, etc?” She
      replied, “No, I never waste my time reading anything that a candidate sends to
      me. I have had candidates not show up for interviews and I decided long ago
      that I would not waste my time reviewing anything a candidate sends me — until
      after they visit with me.” Though I did not show it, I was livid, disappointed
      & disgusted with her total lack of professionalism. Had she spent 10
      minutes reading what I had sent her, we could have spent the hour long
      interview discussing more substantive issues; items that would have allowed her
      to place me in a position.

      Once again I was less than impressed. BTW, she knew absolutely nothing about
      the industry for which I was interviewing.

      Because of today’s online method of applying for jobs, 99% of all of my
      submittals never reach a human that can actually read it. Sometimes, within 60
      seconds of submitting an (online) application, I will receive a rejection
      letter. The computer calculates my age and, being over 40, I get rejection
      emails within a minute. If only my resume could get to the head of Google…

      I know that recruiters reading
      this will react violently, but I suggest they go to this web site and read
      100’s of horror stories that professionals have experienced vis a vis these so
      called recruiters:

  6. The NFL analogy isn’t about recruiting A players or first round draft picks any more. A whopping 47% of the players on both of the Super Bowl teams this year were free agents. Unemployed until signed before the season. Unemployed after the season until signed again. New England’s star rookie that intercepted the pass for the win was one. That was his FIRST career interception. Seattle’s star receiver in the game was one – and he had like zero touchdown receptions prior. Even Tom Brady was a 6th round draft pick warming the bench as a back up that NO ONE expected to perform at this level, but was ready when the NE starting QB at the time (Bledsoe) got hurt in 2001.

    The NFL analogy is now one of talent management, talent development, and team productivity. Recruiting in the NFL, and winning, isn’t all about stars and top draft picks anymore.

    Professional sports is where “free agent nation” was inspired, isn’t it? That analogy works here, too.

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