Reader Response to The Myth of the Passive Candidate

ERE reader feedback to my recent article, The Myth of the Passive Candidate, was astonishing; I was up answering personal emails and reviewing comments until well past midnight for several days after the article broke (I almost had to miss Desperate Housewives). I am, however, very grateful for the opportunity to have set the record straight. That’s why I write, to represent balanced and intelligent thinking on what I see in recruiting each and every day. Below is a small sampling of some of the reader comments I received. I have done all I can to keep the flavor and tone of the comments intact, but I had to do some editing for the sake of conserving space. One of the threads that seemed to run through the comments dealt with my bringing a much-needed dose of common sense to the debate. For example, a reader named JM (readers are identified by initials throughout) said:

I could not agree more with what you had to say, and I thank God there is someone out there with an ounce of common sense to set the record straight. I would appreciate the opportunity to get to know you and your organization. You are speaking my language.

LM wrote me with similar thoughts:

Thank you for stating the obvious for those of us in the corporate recruiting environment who are the “lone wolves,” doing the best we can under some difficult recruiting circumstances. I [think] that there is common sense built into this article, although many may not agree.

Lastly, JW added, “This is the best article that has appeared on this site for months! Finally someone with an ounce of common sense. Hooray.” I felt saddened that this reader believed common sense was in short supply. If anything, we owe at least that much to our readers. There is always the occasional interesting response. For example, RD wrote “I love your articles. Preach on Brother Adamsky because I’z got the religion for this recruiting thing. This stuff is great, just great! I forward them, but most of my recruiting friends read ERE anyway. Keep ’em coming.” To RD, all I can say is that I promise to keep ’em coming! Another thread of comments was on the topic of vindication, from those who recruit day after day and can’t be sold a bill of goods. These readers believed that someone finally blew up the silly myth and spoke what is an unpopular truth. DT wrote, “I congratulate Howard on bucking the trend and forwarding an idea that has great validity but will have lightning rod unpopularity in some corners.” Another reader said, “I get miffed every time I read an article about recruiting the ever-so-passive candidate in our upcoming talent ‘war’ (cringe). Finally, Howard gives us an article that makes complete sense!” In the same vein, ER said:

Thank goodness someone has finally verbalized what I’ve been stewing over for the past three months! Active candidates are not diseased rejects with no skills, and they are not always the frivolous job bunnies hopping from opportunity to opportunity that the prior articles on this subject make them out to be. Some of them are managing their career, as Howard put it.

SK wrote:

“My initial response to this article is that Howard couldn’t be more dead-on, and after reading the other reviews, my opinion hasn’t changed. Heck, I would bet your next placement fee that active candidates, not passive ones, make up the majority of corporate hiring.”

DK summed it up so well by addressing what recruiters actually accomplish every day: “Great writing Howard! I seldom read an article start to finish, but I did yours. It captured very well what we ‘under the gun’ recruiters are paid to accomplish on a daily basis.” Other comments were of a darker, angrier, and more personal tone, particularly when it came to some of the attitudes recruiters have about active job seekers. TM said, “I’ve also been an active job seeker twice in the last 25 years. I have clients, references, and friends (sometimes all three in the same person) from both of the companies that hired me ‘off the street.’ So I couldn’t have been that big a disappointment.” MW wrote, “According to way too many of you, I was an incredibly desirable candidate last week, but now that I’ve posted to a job board, I’m a total loser, not even worth considering. Do you not realize how silly this is?” On the same point, R said, “Howard, thanks for the enlightenment. I have been wondering myself for sometime whether I was a loser because I was an active seeker. I was feeling like I must be nothing more than a ‘C’ player. What a sad thing for a person to think.” CC shared some thoughts about accountability:

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I can’t tell you how happy and validated I felt while reading your article on passive candidates. Thank you for going there…it has been my experience that recruiters (in many cases) take on way too much. Where is the accountability? Hiring managers and executive team members aren’t planning ahead, and then the recruiter is held accountable for finding the right person under such crazy time constraints. Then they hear about passive candidates and look to us to deliver them.

Finally, SB had this to say about the reality of recruiting: “I could not have begun to survive in my 20+ years of recruiting using a ‘passive candidate’ template! The fact is, I doubt if most hiring authorities know or care about ‘passive candidates.’ But not every response to the article was positive. AF said, “Are you just writing for the sake of writing, or just to stir thing up? I typically have enjoyed your writing, but this one seems like a temporary departure.” SK said, “Don’t believe a word of [this article] if you ever want a customer in a competitive, knowledge-based industry to take you seriously. Passive candidates aren’t a fad, they are a fact of life in the 21st century.” LA had this to say: “You can stick your head in the sand and pretend this market doesn’t exist or doesn’t need to, but you’ll be missing a great chance to hire some great people.” In the same vein, AH wrote:

To hire active candidates is to hire the best that come along. To hire passive candidates is to hire the best. What do you want for your company? This is the only comment I will address, and I respectfully disagree with you. The concept is cute, the sales pitch glib, and the reality oversimplified. You fill a position, and sooner or later I can find a better candidate. So can you. The concept of best is elusive. You hire the best candidate you can find to do the job, not the best candidate on earth.

Others who commented were simply glad to put an end to the belief that everyone else is doing it, and if you’re not, you’re missing the boat. CB wrote, “I just saw your article on ERE. What a fresh outlook on such an overexposed topic! I am so glad that someone finally went against this mindset. If passive candidates were the only ones worth hiring, no downsized person would ever get a job again.” Finally, we were offered a philosophical perspective from SK, who said, “Brilliant opinion piece; it says it all, and quite well too. It brings to mind, the Chinese proverb: ‘What matter the color of the cat, as long as it catches mice.'” Thanks SK. I wish I had said that. This will probably be my last article on passive candidates unless some of our thought leaders go off the deep end again. I’ve said what I needed to say and I certainly have bigger fish to fry. I am, however, grateful that most recruiters, based upon the responses received at least, have made their position clear to the tune of about seven to one in support of the article’s content. Recruiters need to use all different vehicles for sourcing, and more importantly, recruiters should realize that passive candidates are not necessarily better than active candidates. I dedicate this article to the real recruiting leaders; those of you in the trenches doing the day-to-day recruiting who are enlightened enough to know what it takes to get the job done. You have my respect and admiration.

Howard Adamsky has been recruiting since 1985 and is still alive to talk about it. A consultant, writer, public speaker, and educator, he works with organizations to support their efforts to build great companies and coaches others on how to do the same. He has over 20 years' experience in identifying, developing, and implementing effective solutions for organizations struggling to recruit and retain top talent. An internationally published author, he is a regular contributor to ERE Media, a member of the Human Capital Institute's Small and Mid-Sized business panel, a Certified Internet Recruiter, and rides one of the largest production motorcycles ever built. His book, Hiring and Retaining Top IT Professionals/The Guide for Savvy Hiring Managers and Job Hunters Alike (Osborne McGraw-Hill) is in local bookstores and available online. He is also working on his second book, The 25 New Rules for Today's Recruiting Professional. See if you are so inclined for the occasional tweet. Email him at


7 Comments on “Reader Response to The Myth of the Passive Candidate

  1. Howard,in quick response to your comments on the following.

    I said:
    ‘To hire active candidates is to hire the best that come along. To hire passive candidates is to hire the best. What do you want for your company?’

    and you responded with:
    ‘This is the only comment I will address, and I respectfully disagree with you. The concept is cute, the sales pitch glib, and the reality oversimplified. You fill a position, and sooner or later I can find a better candidate. So can you. The concept of best is elusive. You hire the best candidate you can find to do the job, not the best candidate on earth.’

    This statement is not cute or glib. It is just simply a fact and the point of which seems to have been missed.

    The whole point is that by working only with Active Candidates you are not working with the best candidates ‘you can find’ to do the job. You are working with the best candidates that ‘find you’ to do the job. In other words you can only hire the best that come along, rather than the best that is out there. There is a huge and simple difference.

    Clearly it was oversimplified.

    Of course there will always be the arguement that the best person might apply for the position and I agree this could happen. But the odds of it happening are probably 100/1 and no search company would be in business for very long if they relied on that method to run their business.

    If a Company wants a new CEO, they would not rely on the best candidate that hopefully finds them. They would engage a Headhunter to find them the best candidate for that position.

    I cannot help but say that the supportive response you got for your article was mainly from Corporate Recruiters or TPRs that do not use search….or do not like to. The reasons for this are clear.

    Search is a tough process to do. Not everyone can do it and more fail at it than succeed. It is music to their ears to read your article because it supports their reluctance to have to do it and it’s an easy bandwagon to jump on.

    I also suspect that a lot of TPRs stayed away from this one because as Steven Kempton said ‘ No TPR can read this and take it seriously.’

  2. I too am tired of hearing about Passive candidates. The problem is Active/Passive is a poor way to define candidate activity. Active candidates are assumed to be those who are looking, while passive candidates are those you have to go find.

    The correct definition would focus on the likelihood of someone accepting a job offer, not whether they are ‘actively looking.’

    Everyone is actively looking if you offer them a million dollars and 50 weeks of vacation. Everyone is passive when you offer $2 and no chance of advancment. Active/Passive is a continuum based on the likeliness of them accepting a job offer. too make it worse, Active/Passive is often defined as Employed/Unemployed or We have Their Resume/We don’t have their resume.

    To complicate the issue, when building out recruiting strategies based on Active/Passive candidates, there is no way to know if a candidate is active or passive until you’ve talked to them.

    Here’s A Solution. ‘Active’ and ‘Passive ‘should be changed to Discriminate and Indiscriminate Candidates.

    Discriminate Candidates:

    1) Will accept a job for the right opportunity.

    2) Look for a recruiting process that treats them with respect.

    3) Will be honest with the recruiter and the manager.

    4) Require honesty from the recruiter and the manager.

    5) Tend to be the best performers once hired.

    6) Demand more in terms of compensation.

    7) Are a necessity for any successful enterprise.

    8) Don’t send blind resumes or accept interviews they know little about.

    Indiscriminate employees:

    1) Will tell you anything they think will get them a job offer

    2) Doesn’t Respect Recruiters, internal or external.

    3) Accept blind submissions, blind interviews, and double submittals as the price of job-seeking.

    4) Reply to jobs they are under or overqualified for.

    5) Have a high fallout ratio in terms of accepting an offer and showing up.

    6) Thinks they are perfect for any job.

    7) Are a greater legal risk

    8) Tend to make average or poor employees.

    The differences are clear. Discriminate/Indiscriminate removes artificial barriers like Employed/Unemployed and replaces them with desirable/undesirable traits.

    In terms of planning out a strategy, everyone can agree that Discriminate employees are worth searching for, and Indiscriminate employees are a waste of time.

    Recruiting strategies can be designed around building an employment brand and becoming an employer of choice rather than focusing on cost-of-hire or number of resumes received.

    link to a blog post about the subject

  3. Howard,

    You are completely on the money. The ?passive? thing is marketing pure and simple at least the way it is being presented and talked about ad nauseam on this board. We all want to differentiate ourselves from the next guy so whatever ammo sounds good gets used. (By us TPR types) Not to be boring, but what it comes down to is execution of a tried and true process that has not changed in well? ever. Technology has facilitated the process but not changed it. If an individual/firm or internal recruiter wants to make it their niche to only work with ?passive? candidates more power to them. But it is not the next sliced bread, no matter how they want to cling to that ideal. So thanks for the common sense.

  4. Great stuff – if I may add my 2cents:

    1) ‘Active/Passive’ is nothing more than an accepted practice of market segmentation. It is not a value judgement. One type of candidate is not ‘better’ than the other. It is not exclusionary. There are Active candidates and there are Passive candidates. Proper recruting must address (& market) to both segments.

    2) Yup – a monolithic ‘Passive’ doesn’t make a lot of sense: How about ‘Passive-Approachable’ for those potential candidates who are not actively looking but would definitely entertain new career opportunities. And ‘Passive-Distant’ for Meg Whitman and only if Disney is calling.

  5. James –

    Great stuff. Its the inbetweeners that can fool you and waste a lot of time.

    Life is getting more complicated. Now you have to check your mailbox each morning down here in Laguna to see if your zip code changed overnight.


  6. I don’t respond often. But please accept my agreement with your recent post. This is a people business pure and simple.

  7. Every study, report I’ve seen over my 10 years in executive search show that somewhere between 10-30% any given candidate population is Active, look at it however you want but it’s simply a fact that a majority of any given candidate population are NOT posting nor applying on job boards nor searching/applying via the classifieds. It’s a simple matter of supply and demand, do you want to source from the little pond (actives) or expand your reach into the big pond(passives). There are quality fish and bottom feeders in both ponds, the key difference is that of supply. If you hiring goals are expansive and the skill types are specialized, ‘higher level’ professionals, most likely you will need to move to the bigger pond if you want to reach your goals. It’s been my experience that choosing the pond you fish in depends on 1) How great are my needs (volume of hires) and 2) How specialized, narrow are the target candidate fields.

    As an example, in healthcare, run an ad or post a job for a phlebotomist, basically one who draws blood (plenty of actives in that low skill pool) and then try the same for an experienced Transplant Nurse, good luck, you may get lucky but chances are uncle Johnnie may have to go without that new kidney for a while!

    Phil Foti
    Abiliti Medical Search

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