The Best Sources for Identifying ‘Passives’ … or How to Find “Not-Looking Top Prospects’

Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 3.16.14 PMIn a related companion article last week, I highlighted why using the term “passive candidate” or “passive job seeker” was inappropriate and I proposed a more accurate name, “not-looking top prospects.” In this article I highlight the best sourcing approaches that can be used to identify and eventually attract the highly desirable “not-looking top prospects.”

You Must Use the Best “Not-Looking Sources” And Approaches

Many in staffing call them “passive sources,” but the sources used to find the names of “not-looking top prospects” should actually be called “not-looking sources.” The best “not-looking sources” can be broken into three categories: A) finding the names of top prospects; B) finding the work of top prospects; and C) making top prospects more aware of your company as a desirable employer.

A) Name-finding sources for identifying top employed prospects who are not looking

Because these “not-looking top prospects” don’t post resumes or apply for jobs, finding their names will take special approaches that are designed specifically for those who are almost never in job search mode. It takes a proactive or direct-sourcing approach to identify the names of employed top performers who are not-looking. A complete list of the name-finding sources for not-looking top prospects is provided below: the most effective are listed first)

  1. Referrals — well-designed referral programs harness the energy and connections of both your employees and “friends of the firm” to capture the names of the very best. Using your employees to identify and assess top prospects make sense because, as Google states in its referral slogan, “Good People Know Other Good People.” So in the end, your own top employees are the best judge of who the top performers at another firm are.
  2. LinkedIn –– you should use LinkedIn to find the names of nearly every employee currently working at each of your target firms. A review of their LinkedIn profile will in most cases reveal whether they are top performers.
  3. Boomerang rehires — you should already know the names of all of the top performers who left your firm. And for those names you should select the individual corporate alumni who you would like to return. If you don’t know it already, LinkedIn can tell you the name of the firm where they work now.
  4. Award winners — even the shiest top performers win awards or are recognized in some way.  Internet searches or an assessment of their LinkedIn profile will frequently reveal those prospects who should be targeted because they have been previously recognized for outstanding achievement.
  5. Speakers at top events — top performers are highly likely to be invited speakers and panelists at industry events. When you pay your employees expenses at a conference, expect them to bring back at least three names of top performers who they met.
  6. Name gathering during interviews — you can challenge top performers who come in for an interview to reveal their contacts and their industry knowledge. By asking for these key names across multiple interviewees, you can eventually capture the names of nearly every top prospect in the region.
  7. Hire compensation officials from target firms — no one knows top performers better than the professionals who calculate their performance bonuses. Hiring a single compensation expert from a target firm can reveal the names of the best at their former firm who you should target.
  8. High Internet influence scores — top performers are likely to be active on the Internet and social media. Remember that something as simple as a Klout social media influence score or the number of Twitter followers who an individual has may reveal the names of the best.
  9. Cold/warm calling — it’s expensive and time-consuming but “agency-trained recruiters” can often capture the names of the top performers at a target firm using variations of this approach.
  10. Hire them both — because top performers want to work alongside other top performers, a buddy hire program (e.g. Google) will in each case capture the name of at least one additional top performer. Hiring them both may allow you to land a highly desirable prospect who simply wouldn’t come without their buddy.

B) Find those who are “not-looking” through their work

When you find great work on the Internet, it is easy to identify the name of the top employed prospect who created it.

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  1. Online technical contests — online technical contests are one method that has been proven to be effective for attracting both active and not-looking prospects. This is because their competitive spirit may cause even not-looking top prospects to submit a solution.
  2. Find their work through instructional videos — top professionals often reveal their knowledge and competencies on instructional videos that are posted on sites like YouTube.
  3. Find their work on SlideShare — top professionals who frequently present their ideas in public often reveal their knowledge and competencies on slide presentations posted on sites like SlideShare.
  4. Find their work on technical sites — some functions have Internet sites where professionals can post their work (e.g. GitHub). For software professionals, you can often also find the work of top professionals on open source software sites. Even sites like Pinterest and Instagram can reveal the work of top design professionals who are not looking.
  5. An Internet topic search may reveal their work — a simple Google search on a leading-edge topic may reveal the names of top professionals who are knowledgeable in that area and have been interviewed by the media.
  6. Search their blogs — top professionals frequently reveal their ideas on their own blogs. The number of likes, shares or retweets may reveal quality work.
  7. Patent searches — you can identify the quality of the work of top professionals in many fields by the patents that the individual applies for or is eventually granted.
  8. Online forums  top professional often post comments and answer questions on technical forum and “question sites” like Quora. Often these comments or answers can by themselves reveal top professionals who are not looking for a job.
  9. Professional learning communities — professional learning communities provide an opportunity to find and assess the ideas of top professionals. Online “meetups” may also be effective in identifying the names of top professionals in a particular field.
  10. Identify top startups — many times top professionals work at startups. So identify the startups with innovative ideas and approaches and then use benchmarking calls or employee referrals to identify the very best not-looking professionals at those startup firms. If you can’t acquire individual talent, consider a common practice for large firms … which is to buy startups primarily for their talent (acquihire).

C) Subtle employer brand messaging can make many aware of what your firm has to offer

You simply can’t use recruitment advertising to reach individuals who are not-looking, because they often judge these types of messages to be non-authentic. However properly placed, authentic employer branding messages that make them admire your firm may build their interest over time. The goal here is to get your firm on their “someday-I-might-like-to-work-there list.” Some of the subtle “non-recruiting” actions that may pique their interest in your firm include:

  1. Best-place-to-work rankings — even not-looking top professionals are interested in what the best firms have to offer. So being listed on the Fortune, LinkedIn, or Glassdoor “Best Place to Work” employer rankings is a good idea because a neutral party is reading your firm.
  2. Media articles  articles written by neutral writers that highlight the innovative products or best-place-to-work features at your firm may catch the eye of professionals on the leading edge. Articles written by your employees in professional journals on advanced technical topics may also get “not-looking” top prospects interested in learning more about your firm.
  3. Speeches at professional events — speaking on an advanced technical topic at a major industry tradeshow or professional event may cause those who are not-looking to be exposed to what your firm has to offer.
  4. Employee posts on social media — encourage your employees to talk about the quality of your products and generally how attractive your firm is for top performers. Employee posts are often more visible to non-lookers because these top prospects may already be connected or former colleagues of your current employees. Having your employees make the statements on social media also makes them more credible.
  5. Sell them on your firm using YouTube instructional videos — because top professionals are always trying to learn and grow, having your own employees post technical and instructional videos on YouTube may increase their interest in finding out more about your firm. A video may be a superior way, over words and still pictures, to show the excitement that is going on at your firm.

Final Thoughts

The great Michael McNeal, while at Cisco in the late 1990s, popularized the terms “passive and active.” But even he soon realized that the word “passive” was often mischaracterized by others. And unfortunately that mischaracterization has continued for decades. But for now, bypassing the misuse of the name, the important lesson to be learned is that the most valuable prospects are top performers who are employed at other firms. That means that they must be fought over and “pulled away” from good jobs at competitor firms. Unfortunately, because they’re not looking for a job, it’s almost impossible to even get their initial attention. That is, unless you use recruiting approaches that are subtle and that are specifically designed for “non-lookers.”

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.



5 Comments on “The Best Sources for Identifying ‘Passives’ … or How to Find “Not-Looking Top Prospects’

  1. You’re perpetuating a myth, John when you say:

    “2. LinkedIn — you should use LinkedIn to find the names of nearly every employee currently working at each of your target firms. A review of their LinkedIn profile will in most cases reveal whether they are top performers.”

    Specifically, this:
    “…to find the names of nearly every employee currently working at each of your target firms.”

    Not only are you perpetuating a myth, you’re showing us that you’re not doing your homework AND, I guess you’re playing to a corporate audience that’s spending lot of money with LinkedIn so they can feel validated in their spend.

    Not only are you doing all that, you’re directing the herd to fish in an already over-fished evaporating pond that’s producing (along with a few good candidates), many that have been hooked out before and thrown back in.

    If you were actually working down here in the ditches where we get our hands and skirts dirty, you’d know MOST recruiters won’t move past that #2 (remember, the “most effective” were listed first!) in your list to try ANY of your other recommendations.

    It distresses me greatly that you’d make such an irresponsible statement and it distresses me more that ERE would print it.

    The whole bunch of you have no way of knowing without seeking out the facts, which apparently you have no interest, or knowledge, or, worse yet, motivation, in doing.

    Maureen Sharib

    Phone Sourcer

    513 646 7306

    1. Maureen makes an excellent point. While most recruiters have LinkedIn profiles, the percentage for other disciplines is much less. Also, a significant percentage of those who do have profiles have information that is out-of-date or factually incorrect or lacking in enough detail to make their profile useful. For most STEM skill sets, accurate and detailed profiles make up significantly less than 50% of the total talent pool; exact percentages vary greatly depending on the specific skill set. An interesting exercise for those working in Fortune 1000 companies with strong internal STEM talent is to go through your internal directory and see how many of your company’s engineers and scientists have LinkedIn profiles and how many of those profiles have specific information on skills, etc. This is a good project to assign to an intern and is pretty eye opening. I’ve had the opportunity to see this done at several companies and it clearly illustrates the problem with relying on LinkedIn too much for sourcing. I do think LinkedIn is useful but to say you can use it to find “nearly every employee” is so far from the truth that it is ridiculous. Otherwise, thank you for an interesting and well written article.

      Doug Friedman
      LinkedIn Profile

      1. Mr. Friedman’s suggestion to create a project in-house, every house and collate those results is one of the best, most common-sense solutions I’ve seen in a long time in the Recruitersphere to the LinkedIn stranglehold complaint.

        Preparation, determination and know-how will go a long way to counter the ever-increasing roughshod tactics LinkedIn is using on an industry they figure is cowed into submission.

        Nobody believes anymore that “everybody is on LinkedIn” and they can try all they want to influence the media with what amounts to protection racketeering blitz coverage but the public perception of them has mostly become, at best, jaded and at worst, despised. Recruiters are still in love with them for all the obvious reasons because – hey, sourcing is hard.

        John said it.

        It’s time consuming.

        It’s expensive.

        It’s also worth it.

        Some interesting facts were scared up on a Facebook string yesterday that might add to this conversation.

        “…current stats show that somewhere north of 20% of technology users are leaving the network (or just stopping their activity all together) and moving over to networks such as Github and StackOverflow where the Recruiters are not plentiful and the Spam is non-existant. Also they are more code based and not as resume based so most Recruiters don’t know how to use them.”

        In a late entry to that string last evening, a respected and renown peer in our industry places the U.S. workforce population on LinkedIn at about 30%.

        That sounds about right to me, and remember as a phone sourcer (who sources across all verticals, all positions) I am uniquely qualified to make that statement.

        No, that percentage doesn’t “jive” with the stated numbers (non-farm US labor population:134M/LinkedIn US population:118M) but, at this point, are you still believing what LinkedIn tells you?

        Maureen Sharib
        Phone Sourcer
        513 646 7306

  2. I agree with Maureen that “most” recruiters won’t move past using employee referrals and LinkedIn from your list. Unless…

    The only way I have seen a team wide shift in work habits is when a staffing leader utilizes scorecard reporting.

    Scorecard reporting is simple….

    Step 1: Create a metric. Let’s say #6: Name gathering during interview
    Step 2: Create goal and put a timeframe around it. Let’s say “5 names generated per week.”
    Step 3: Measure activity against goal….WEEKLY.

    For a company to implement the ideas in this post, or any other post that talks about best practices… a company really needs to identify the strategy and define tactics, determine goals, and measure results by recruiter.

    Accountability is typically a 4 letter word in talent acquisition. That really, really needs to change. Otherwise, to Maureen’s point, people can just keep throwing out ideas and thoughts without caring or knowing what actually produces meaningful results.

  3. I agree with Maureen, LinkedIn is not a one stop shop to find all employees at a target company (psst they aren’t all on LinkedIn!) and it will NOT reveal if they are a top performer, or all top performers. Endorsements are dubious and many candidates do not have many recommendations, therefore you are relying too heavily on the candidate profile. Written and verbal recommendations never go out of style, and that is why #1 is a much better option. If you are interested in searching for technical talent on many different social sites, use Boolean Search and Connectifier. Also, Behance: and Boolean Search are really the best ways to find awesome design professionals.

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