The Best Article Ever Written on Passive Candidate Recruiting

This could be a very good article, maybe even a great one. It all depends on your point of view. For the chance it turns out to be a great article, wouldn’t you agree that it’s certainly worth investing a few minutes’ reading time? Some of you are already aware that the title and first paragraph demonstrated a few fundamental aspects involved in successfully recruiting passive candidates. First, you must capture people’s interest. Second, you have to keep them engaged. Third, you need to make an offer that has a potential big reward for a minor cost.

How these ideas can be used to recruit passive candidates will become clearer by the end of this article. In fact, if too many of your voice mails aren’t being returned, you’ll be able to use this concept to get a 75% call-back return rate. To get better at recruiting passive candidates, you first need to assess yourself (or your team, if you’re a recruiting manager) against some best practices. You might find my earlier ERE article, “The 10 Commandments of Recruiting Passive Candidates,” to be a useful benchmark. From my experience, you don’t need to be fearless to make cold calls ó you just need to be better prepared. From a performance management standpoint, there are five basic metrics you need to track to see how well you’re doing recruiting passive candidates. Daily tracking is part of this, since it allows you to quickly determine how well your changes are working. For our purposes, passive candidates are people who are not actively looking for work ó so you need to call them.

  1. Number of cold calls made per day. Whether you’re using a list developed using ZoomInfo, competitive intelligence, or some Shally Steckerl Internet data-mining technique, you should be able to leave 30-50 calls per day. Try to limit these calls only to worthy people based on their names, companies, and titles. Worthy people are those who are either potential candidates for your open position or those who personally know someone who would be.
  2. Percent returned calls. This is a critical metric. Calling people who don’t call you back is a waste of time, so you’ll need to shoot for at least 50-60% call-backs ó and 75% if you’re really good at leaving messages. Later in this article, I’ll provide some ideas on how to improve your results in this area. Read the first paragraph again and substitute the word “job” for the word “article” for a quick hint on how to get started here.
  3. Percent yeses. When the person returns your call, you must get them to say yes to your offer. Here’s my standard offer which will guarantee 90% “yes” responses: “Would you be open to explore a situation if it was significantly better than what you’re doing today?” If you’re getting less than 75% “yes” responses, you need to re-work your pitch.
  4. Percent worthy candidates. Remember that a worthy person is one who is either a top-flight candidate who is interested in your job or knows someone who is. I suggest you minimize your calls to people you’re not sure are worthy. This means you must limit the number of calls you make directly from the initial cold list. To work a cold list, just call the best 15-20 people based on their titles and companies. Once you find a few good people in this initial group, don’t call anyone else on the list. Just recruit and/or get referrals from this initial group. The key is to get pre-qualified, strong referrals from the initial people called. This way, all subsequent calls will only be to worthy people.
  5. Number of worthy referrals per call. The secret of passive candidate recruiting is getting great referrals of more worthy people. If you’re good at networking, (here’s one of my favorite networking articles) you’ll be able to obtain 2-3 worthy referrals from every worthy cold call. Getting names from unworthy people is a waste of time.

You can quickly see how important these metrics are. If you’re only getting 20-30% call-backs, and you’re making them to unworthy people and getting bad referrals, you’ll spend lots of time spinning your wheels. So when recruiters complain that the cold lists they’re working from aren’t any good, first track how they are doing on these five measures. You’ll probably discover that the list is not the problem. Since the biggest yield loss is not getting calls returned, here are some ideas on how to improve your efforts in this area. The key theme to all of them is the need to generate personal interest in your open opportunity by directly appealing to the potential candidate’s self-interest. If you’ve read the other articles linked above, you know that I suggest you don’t tell the person you’re calling much about the job, even after he or she expresses interest. Instead, have the person describe his or her background to you first. If you tell the person too much about your open position, you’ll lose the chance to get worthy referrals if the person finds out too early that the job isn’t a good fit.

Voice Mail Techniques Goal: Establish Credibility and Create Interest The Direct Recruit

You’ll get better results if you recruit the person directly rather than be evasive. Say, for example, “I’d like to discuss a senior-level position in marketing with you.” People are more likely to call back if there’s something in it for them personally. Be vague about the title. “Senior level” or “executive level” work well.

I’m the Expert

Build up your reputation as someone worth knowing. “I’m not sure if you’ve heard my name before, but I’m recognized as a leading recruiter in the Java space. During a recent meeting at the ______ conference, your name was mentioned twice to me as someone I need to connect with regarding a search for a senior-level developer.” People are more likely to call back if they can network with someone who is well-networked. Even if the current job is not a perfect fit, something in the future might be, so establish yourself as an important person to know.

The Name and Info Dropper

Mention someone or something important that the candidate will recognize. “I was just talking to the CFO at ___ regarding an interesting take on the new Sarbanes-Oxley ruling. This came up as part of a search I’m conducting for a senior-level financial executive for a Fortune 200 company.” Knowing important people and current issues gives you more credibility.

Confidential Referral

On ZoomInfo, you’ll find candidates’ former companies. Mention this in your voicemail. “I was just talking with a marketing director at (prior company) and your name was brought up in the conversation as someone I need to call regarding a search I’m leading for a senior-level manager.” When the person calls back and presses for the name, mention that you automatically treat the names of people who provide names to you as confidential, and you’ll do the same for this person.

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Direct Referral

If you have permission, just mention the person’s name. This will yield close to 90% call-backs if the referring person is credible. Since more than 50% of your calls will be like this, you should be able to get your overall call-back yield over 75%. “Karen Jones says, ‘hi,’ and insisted I call you on a search I’m conducting for a senior-level person in ERP systems design.”

The Creative Pesterer

Keep on calling and leaving messages at different times with fun messages. Eventually, the person will either answer the phone or call you back just to get rid of you. “I don’t want to bother you too much, but I know you’ll buy me dinner once you hear about a search I’m leading for a senior management position in engineering.”

The Follow-Up

Use this as part of an email or direct mail campaign. Using ZoomInfo’s Job Cast and other tools, you can find email addresses for many people on your initial cold list. Send them a compelling summary of the job and mention that you will follow up with them in a few days directly on the phone. If you have their regular mail addresses, you might want to send a real letter.

This list is limited only by your imagination. Hopefully, these will get you started. Send me some of your favorites at, and we’ll discuss them in an upcoming free conference call. The Internet has made the process of finding names of passive candidates quite easy. But this is only the first step in getting them into your network and possibly hired into your company. Look at the names as the start of the process, not the end. Don’t call each person blindly on the list hoping one will say yes. This is both time consuming and unprofessional. Instead, use the five metrics discussed above to track your progress in improving your performance. First, get a baseline of where you are today. Then put a plan together to improve your end-to-end performance by 100-200% over the next 90 days. This is a huge jump in productivity, and it’s easy to achieve especially if your call-back rates are in the 25-30% range. Recruiting passive candidates takes skill, professionalism, and ambition. It’s worth it if you want to get the reputation of being one of the top recruiters in your company. If you’re a recruiting manager, take your best recruiters and put them through a crash course on recruiting passive candidates. Then give them your toughest search assignments. If you follow the techniques described above, you’ll have a few candidates for each assignment before the week is out.

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).


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