The Myth of the Passive Candidate

Originally published in May of 2005.

I don’t like to be difficult, I really don’t, but following the management philosophy of the month can be tiring. From the guy who told us to break all of the rules, to the guy who said to think outside of the box, to the woman who said to think inside the box but to do it in a way that is metaphorically outside the box while still remaining inside the box…it really does sound silly after awhile. (Don’t feel bad. I don’t know what any of it means either.) This brings us to your favorite topic (and mine): recruiting. Like so many other professions, recruiting is generally accompanied by all sorts of different ideas that come into vogue for a period of time. These ideas create one or two new industry darlings (replete with websites, new training programs and the usual intellectual banter) for the recruiting circus to fawn over and are soon replaced with yet another idea de jour, and the cycle begins yet again. Such is our current fascination with passive candidates. Please do not misunderstand me. There is nothing wrong with passive candidates. But they represent what will almost surely be a minority of the candidates who most organizations will hire for four fundamental reasons (there are actually 37 reasons, but I only have time to list four):

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  1. Passive candidates represent the path of most resistance. Those in leadership positions will never understand why you would want to dig people off of lists and websites who have no interest in your organization when you have perfectly good people who are, for example, responding to your ads on the job boards. I can guarantee you that somewhere in that list of active replies are some great candidates who can do the job. Yes, yes, leadership will tell you they want passive candidates, but most of them don’t even know what passive candidates are, nor do they have a clue as to how recruiting works in the first place. No group is more in love with the theory of the week than leadership. Besides, if you count on leadership for your recruiting career success, you will wind up the unemployed active candidate you are being told to avoid.
  2. Few corporate recruiters really know how to get passive candidates out of their current positions long enough to even interview for your position, let alone close the deal. This is not a slight to the corporate recruiting world. Corporate recruiters are hired, in most cases, with different skill sets from the “do or die” crowd who make up the world of agency recruiters (who don’t eat unless they make placements). I know this because that is the world I came from. We made 50 cold calls a day, minimum. How many calls did you make last month to recruit passive candidates? How many did you hire? Hmmm…
  3. Passive candidates are in the driver’s seat because you called them. As a result, establishing candidate control is very difficult, yet it is essential if you want to make things happen. Frankly speaking, passive candidates don’t need your job, your company, your opportunity, or you. Can you learn how to establish candidate control? Possibly, but someone has to teach you how it is done. Test out the candidate control theory by asking the most successful third-party recruiter you know the importance of this technique. Then sit back and relax, because you’re in for a long and definitive lecture.
  4. Staffing needs can change in the blink of an eye. Even if workplace planning is clearly in evidence, it is not possible for most businesses to predict what tomorrow will bring. When the call comes to open an office in New York and staff it with 20 people by yesterday, there is no time to dally. You had better be ready to do more than look at passive candidates as a recruiting model. Know a few people you can call for some of the positions? Great, but that will only get you so far.

To fill jobs, recruiters need all kind of candidates. Here are a few:

  • Active candidates
  • Job board candidates
  • Passive candidates
  • ERP candidates
  • Somewhat active candidates
  • Drawn-to-your-website candidates
  • Pseudo-passive candidates
  • Help wanted candidates
  • Job fair candidates
  • The-person-you-met-on-the-plane candidates
  • College recruiting candidates
  • Internal promotion candidates
  • Candidates who are not Yankee fans (no wait, that shows poor judgment)

I really do hate to buck this week’s trend, but passive candidates are no better than active candidates. Passive candidates are simply people who are not looking to change jobs, but that does not make them better candidates any more than it makes active candidates bad because they are looking for another opportunity. I might look for a job someday. Should I be thrown under the bus because I am managing my career? Wait, forget about me. What about you? Did you ever look for another position? If yes, then you were an active candidate. Did that in turn make you undesirable? Honestly, this is almost painful to write about. The issue is not whether to recruit passive candidates or not, but to understand how to use every tool, every board, every tactic, and every means necessary to aggressively recruit and fill positions. The next step is to figure out a way to deal with resume flow, identify the candidates who can do the job, get them in front of the hiring managers, drive the process (see point #3 in my article 4 Ways to Supercharge Your Recruiting Performance), develop a capture strategy, (see How to Develop a Capture Strategy), close the deal, and go on to fill the next position. Please don’t misunderstand me; I have nothing against passive recruiting. I went so far as to take the new AIRS SearchLab 3.0 course. It was brilliant. I took the test and am now a CIR and proud of it. Every recruiter should take this course. My heartache lies with recruiters being told that everyone is only after passive candidates or that active candidates are somehow no good because that information is simply false. For example, if you know that you are going to need a CIO in three months, passive recruiting is okay. But when you need 60 engineers in 90 days, recruiting only passive candidates will do little to achieve knock-’em-dead results ó and it will do even less for your career. Honestly, it is of little importance how a great candidate arrives at your organization. I suggest that you run from those that tell you the future is only filled with passive candidates, because it is your brains and your blood and your sweat that define that future, not theirs. A candidate’s mindset and career aspirations are in constant flux and nothing stays the same. Today’s passive candidate becomes tomorrow’s active candidate if they are having a bad day. Our job is to source them, qualify them, and get them hired. Do this well and you will be a star.

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


50 Comments on “The Myth of the Passive Candidate

  1. I get miffed every time I read an article about recruiting the ever-so-passive candidate in our upcoming hiring for talent ‘war’ (cringe). Finally, Howard gives us an article that makes complete sense!

    I am pleased to find him going out on a limb to give us the reality. ‘Passive candidate’ status is a temporary state. How long one remains in that state is dependent on many short and long-run, internal and external forces. The ability to recruit them is mostly based on the consistency and/or timing in our communications (some call it luck) and offerings. I hire my share of passive candidates. But, if I were measured on the passive candidate to hired ratio, I’d be in trouble.

  2. Howard, great article and a must read for all recruiters, corporate or otherwise! Your article is what real life recuiting is all about. As a recruiter, especially TPRs, you have to use any and all tools and sources at your disposal to provide efficient and timely service to your clients. I will gladly talk to qualified candidates regardless of source, and feel that I have to work equally hard with both active and passive candidates to qualify and close them.
    Keep up the good work!

  3. This is the best article that has appeared on this site for months! Finally someone with an ounce of common sense. Hooray.

  4. Thank you!! What a breath of fresh air! I am a corporate recruiter, I work 3 days per week, I don’t have a team to support me – I don’t have time to recruit passive candidates. Most of our roles are filled through job-boards and referrals – and I recruit excellent staff.
    I would love to have time to do headhunting and proactive recruiting, but it ain’t gonna happen in my current role and that’s ok. I get the job done – most of the time. When I can’t fill a role, I outsource it to a 3rd party recruiter.
    Your article was full of common sense – thankyou.

  5. I think you missed the boat on this one Howard. Passive candidate recruiting is not about taking some AIRS course. It’s about calling people who don’t need another job, but would be open to explore evaluating something better. Great recruiters are required to pull this off – from creating interest to getting them hired. It is art and science combined. It’s not easy, but it’s invaluable.

    You can certainly ignore the fad, but my partners and I and have placed over 1500 passive candidates in the past 25 years. 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.

  6. Howard,

    Are you just writing for the sake of writing, or just to stir thing up?? I typically have enjoyed your writing, this seems like a temporary departure.

    I have been in this business for over 11 years, mostly specializing in the MIS, finance and energy industries . While I think some of your topics may be worthy of discussion, I do think you are way off base. I would like to pose the following to your 4 points:

    Your first point
    Passive candidates represent the path of most resistance?. Within this you state ?I can guarantee you that somewhere in that list of active replies are some great candidates who can do the job. ? I would be very careful about this. An ad placed on a typical job board, a tech job, can result in 900-1200 replies. Almost all of these are unqualified for one reason or another. My workers are very, VERY good at reading resumes. Going through this many with such a typically low hit rate is many times extremely frustrating and time wasting.

    Passive candidate are, many times harder to find. It is WHY they are called passive. As an example, if you have ever tried to buy a new home or locate a new apartment did the seller or landlord answer your request and sell to you or rent to you?? I doubt it. Almost every great home purchase or great rental story, I have heard, involved a special situation. A ?passive? seller, (EG a divorce that needs to sell the house but doesn?t want the public to know?.or a renter whose friend finds out they took a new job in another city and will have to get rid of this great apartment).

    Sometime least resistance can lead to most headache later on.

    Your next point:

    Few corporate recruiters really know how to get passive candidates out of their current positions long enough to even interview for your position, let alone close the deal.

    This may not be entirely untrue, but potentially for different reasons then you stated. I know many corporate recruiters, most all of them top notch, smart and capable. Many of them can, and do, mine for passive candidates. If they don?t, my experience has shown, that it is not because they are incapable, it?s because they are so busy with every other type of recruiting that the passive method may fall be the wayside. I think that your list of where to find candidates is applicable and each requires an amount of time to be put in to get results. Having only so many hours in the day requires a corporate recruiter to prioritize.

    Your next item:
    Passive candidates are in the driver’s seat because you called them. This comment of scares me the most about your article. I whole heartedly disagree. The worst type of candidate in my opinion is the very active candidate who is replying to many job postings and has 2 or more opportunities in process at once. If a person in this business is doing their job right the passive candidate is not in the drivers seat. Additionally the candidate and hiring firm typically ?view? each other in a better, more relaxed, light. If the candidate is passive they will truly examine the opportunity for overall fit into his/her professional and personal life. The hiring company as well, knowing the candidate is passive will also typically be more candid, forthcoming and genuine about the demands of the opportunity because they too want the best person for the job. If they feel this passive candidate is potentially a good fit, they will take the appropriate time to meet, interview and examine the candidate as well as the candidate examining them. If a passive candidate is mature, professional and qualified, typically the client and candidate will go through the process in a more relaxed way. Unlike the active candidate that many times actually does have other opportunities. This can cause an artificial ?rush-rush? that can lead to a less than ideal hire if one of the hiring firms makes an offer prematurely. Did you live through the Dot.Com hey-day Howard?

    Also, from a long term perspective, passive candidates are some of the best folks to network with and get to know for a productive relationship that can last for many years. In the end, these relationships can actually work faster, yes I said faster, than active candidate searches. Especially when you get about the 125K salary mark. I cannot recall how many times a week I have call on ex-passive candidates to ask ?who they know?. Most of the time if they do not know anyone for the task we are recruiting for, they will point us in a direction that many times ends up being very successful. Even if the passive candidate would not seem to be familiar with a particular skill set or industry specialty.

    Lastly you state:
    Staffing needs can change in the blink of an eye

    This is true, the only thing constant is change. A blend of various recruiting methods appropriate to the level of the position, is one of the best things we as recruiters can do when beginning a search.

    Howard, if this article is just referring to lower end positions, below 50-70k, then you may have a point here. Overall though, on the higher end of the market place, I feel these points miss the mark. I would re-read the other 33 if I were you.

  7. Thank goodness someone has finally verbalized what I’ve been stewing over for the past 3 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. Some of them just don’t want to turn into the lifeless automatons that I know every one of us has seen in our organizations. And some are truly active candidates only because they have to be; I’ve been involved in some organizational layoffs recently, and those people sure didn’t want to change jobs and be thrust into the pool of ‘active candidates.’

    Before we lump everyone looking for a job and applying to our open requisitions into this pile of undesired applicants, let’s remember that we posted these jobs to try and generate interest in the opportunity, and focus on finding better ways to identify the top candidates from our respondents.

    Thanks Howard, you made my day.

  8. Great writing Howard! I seldom read an article start to finish, but I did yours and it captured very well what it is that most of us ‘under the gun’ recruiters are paid to ACCOMPLISH on a daily basis.

  9. I have to agree with the author of this article. Yes, I know, the shortage for talent is making it more challenging to attract good caliber candidates to your open positions, however relying only or mainly on passive candidates creates an even greater perception that there is shortage of qualified candidates in the market and in turn drives up the compensation unnecessarily. As a corporate recruiter I view it as my responsibility to attract the best possible candidate, at the best possible cost to hire, and a reasonable compensation. Ignoring a candidate who is actively interested in your firm, just because they are actively interested in your firm is equivalent to ignoring traffic signs ? both can lead to significant expenses which could have been avoided.

  10. I can’t tell you how happy and validated I felt while reading your article on passive candidates. Thank you for going there.

    Working mostly with start-ups, I have experienced many strange looks & tilted heads while explaining your very point. Most of my recent clients have come to me talking about passive candidates without even knowing what they’re saying or what passive recruiting is all about. Like you said, it’s the idea/buzz word du jour. Many of my initial conversations are spent trying to get the silly notion out of their heads that passive = better. It’s simply not the case. Just a few weeks ago, I was talking with a prospect who told me that they had a backlog of 10+ positions and wanted a recruiter that could unearth passive candidates. I tilted MY head.

    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. Bottom line, great article.

  11. My initial response to this article is Howard coudn’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. This was true in the best of economic times and will be true if/when the dreaded ‘war for talent’ projected by prognosticators, psychics, fortune-tellers, and other self-proclaimed experts hits (forgive me for being a skeptic but I remember Y2K and the dire predictions of shortages in the tech industry). If Howard is wrong and the previous reviewers are right, corporate America by necessity would be focusing internal and external recruiting resources on sourcing and hiring passive candidates because they are inherently more valuable than active ones. But this isn’t true-for most positions companies do just fine hiring active candidates. Howard recognized the place that TPRs and supplemental recruiting services have rightfully earned, but he also did an excellent job of debunking a widely-held premise that is not supported by any real facts or data. As long as workers seek greater growth opportunities, higher salaries, warmer climate, a better manager, there will be active candidates. Forward-thinking companies will develop innovative ways to fill their hiring needs, targeting passive candidates will continue to be just one strategy of many.

  12. The response to this article is interesting and rather depends on your view of recruitment.

    We only headhunt to find candidates. We never advertise or use job boards and very rarely work with candidates who randomly send their CV in. For us, passive candidates are the only candidates.

    This is mainly driven by Customer needs. Our clients only want Candidates that are currently being successful elsewhere and therefore are not typically active in looking for new opportunities. They do not look at ads or surf job boards. It is our job to contact them and gain their interest. That’s why we are called headhunters.

    We do not work with many candidates for each position and therefore each candidate is carefully targeted for what they do and can bring to our clients. If our primary interest in them is because they are active, the chances of any of them being right for the opportunity are very low.

    For other recruiters that use advertising and job boards, they depend on active candidates and so do most Corporate Recruiters which is why they would agree with the article. With this style of activity you need a high volume of candidates to get the right one.

    It’s horses for courses. The article in a generic sense is an interesting one and it raises some valid points. Both active and passive candidates have their place.

    What is misunderstood in the article is why they are different and why in search assignments the best candidates are likely to be passive.

    To say that passive candidates are simply people who are not looking to change jobs misses the whole point in the same way as saying it makes active candidates bad because they are looking for another opportunity.

    I ask all my clients this simple question if I ever get into this discusssion.

    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?

  13. I agree with the Myth and I want to add that after spending 35 years in the Staffing business, I cannot justify recruiting a candidate in these economic times.

    My recommendation to candidates that are gainfully employed, is to stay there until friends, relatives, neighbors, etc are employed.

    There are too many Americans out of work that should be working.

    Corporate America needs to re-employ downsized, merged, etc. candidates.

    Joe Sabrin


  14. Wow! I finally found the time to actually read this article and in a lot of ways it validates the situation I currently find myself in.

    I am the lone corporate recruiter with no supporting staff, for my company. I have to manage 20+ reqs on a regular basis, (with more coming in every day!) plus manage contingent hire recruiting on proposal development. I don’t need to tell anyone what comes with that. And I am being constantly told to ‘headhunt’ and ‘cold call’ and source out of our competitors. I would love nothing more than to have the luxury of time to do just that – but I don’t. I barely have the time to breathe.

    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 agree that there is ‘common sense’ built into this article, although many may not agree.

  15. Let’s say I’m a very successful, gainfully employed CIO (or CEO or accountant or sales rep or whatever), and the epitome of a passive candidate. Now, suppose a headhunter calls to sell me/tell me about a position that pays 50% more than I’m currently making. For whatever reason, I end up not taking the job, but it opens my eyes to the fact that I may be underpaid so I decide to quietly post a confidential resume on an industry specific job board.

    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?

  16. What excellent points are made here. It had me really thinking as everyone had a proven case.

    A good idea maybe to first define what is a passive candidate versus a non passive candidate more thoroughly ? generally the passive candidate is considered to be one who is currently working, does not mean he is happy or likes his boss or pay, but he is working and willing to consider change. Generally this candidate will not consider putting their resume on a job board because of the risk factors, but they do know their recruiters, as they are called very often ? because their work ethics have gotten them recognized in the industry. His boss does not want to lose them, may have even had cut backs, but they were the last to go because they are excellent employees, and they do have some loyalty (sometimes misguided) to their company. If the company goes out of business this candidate is often the first one hired by a competitor, depending on the market of course.

    Now on the other hand, there are excellent candidates on job boards, that may have lost their job because the company closed doors, they lost their job by no fault of their own. The market has been such that it is difficult for them to locate one in their local area.

    That said, corporations do have access to these boards, they do have internal recruiters on staff and yes these candidates should have the same respect as the passive candidate.

    But, considering these points Aspect Lou Adler makes an excellent argument. As a TPR, the clients I represent want me to locate the passive candidate, maybe they have searched the boards and did not find the talent for the position, maybe as Lou said earlier, the position is much higher level, and those candidates generally may not be found on the boards, maybe the position being filled could be compared to finding a needle in a haystack..

    Whatever the reason I stand firm in my beliefs that For a TPR to justify the 10?s of K?s they make as headhunters, we must then definitely work hard for our money and earn our claim to fame. Going to a job board and mulling through resumes, does not make you a Headhunter expert, nor justify your cut of the fee. Our clients can pay someone an hourly to do that for them. In many circumstances we provide in various ways for our clients a different and unique service than they may get in-house, and it is my opinion that we must do our best to maintain that distinction to prove we warrant what we financially earn.
    Please forgive me, I do know that corporate recruiters can and will locate the passive candidate as well, but my line of reasoning is based upon the TPR.

  17. I’ve been in-house twice in my time, once for a Fortune 500 company, so I recognize it’s physically impossible — and not even desirable, really — for overextended corporate recruiters to fill every opening with a passive ‘A player’.

    I’ve also been an active job-seeker twice in the last 25 years. I have clients, references, and friends (sometimes all 3 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.

    The real issue, I think, is not ‘where do the best candidates come from?’ For us on the outside, the question we have to answer is the same one we all ask ourselves when a faucet leaks: ‘Should I call a plumber, or can I fix this myself?’

    Interviewer: ‘How did Ted find you?’

    Please choose the response that you think is most likely to generate the thought in my client’s head, ‘We could never have found this guy ourselves. THIS is what we pay Ted for.’

    a) ‘I answered Ted’s ad [or posting] on [fill in whatever job board, blog, forum, etc., here].’

    b) ‘I have no idea how Ted found me. I’m not looking for a job. In fact, I just received the President’s Award and a nice raise, so Ted had to leave 2 polite voicemails before I even called him back. When I did finally contact Ted, I told him I wasn’t interested in leaving [fill in your client’s most respected competitor here], but he wouldn’t take the hint. He kept giving me pretty valid reasons why I should at least listen to what you had to say. So here I am.’

    If I you have the skills and time to fix the leak yourself — and it’s not coming from the Grohe in your newly-remodedled kitchen — you go find your wrenches. Otherwise, you pick up the phone, call Al’s Plumbing, and pay for peace of mind, quality craftsmanship, and your own time.

  18. In the Washington DC-area government contracting market, the war for talent is raging on as fierce as ever. Unemployment rates are extremely low, and talented, qualified professionals with active security clearances are increasingly difficult to find. Posting to the job boards, attending job fairs, and other traditional active candidate sourcing methods are yielding less and less every day. Those talented, qualified professionals with active security clearances who are ‘Active’ candidates know they are a hot commodity, are moving through their interview process quickly, and have multiple offers to choose from. The resulting competition for this increasingly scarce resource is making hiring more of a challenge than ever.

    I’ll take great candidates where ever I can get them, but the bottom line is that we are finding it more and more critical to get more covert in our sourcing techniques. I personally do not find it productive to ‘Google’ and cold-call truly passive candidates. I believe that more success can be had by reaching out to those ‘Passive’ candidates who we already have some sort of relationship with (i.e. ‘Warm’ passive candidates).

    Strategies including:
    – Maximizing the effectiveness of your employee referral program (asking your employees to refer great people, not just those that they think are looking for a job),
    – Networking through related professional organizations (educating your employees who attend these events as to what you are looking for and how to network effectively)
    – Reaching back to non-active candidates out of your ATS, especially those that rejected offers for fell off-the-market (did that candidate who accepted a counter-offer 6 months ago make the right decision after all?),
    – Effectively using new online networking tools such as LinkedIn (these tools will never replace face-to-face networking, but they can make communicating with passive candidates easier if used effectively),
    …etc., are just some of the ways to reach out to candidates who are already within your immediate and extended networks who may just be interested in your opportunity. You never know who might be interested in the right opportunity should it come along. And in those situations, you’ll have less resistance because a relationship already exists.

    It would be foolish for any recruiting organization to only rely on only passive recruiting strategies. But just sitting back and waiting for active candidates to apply (especially in a market as hot as the DC-area government contracting market is right now) can only limit one’s overall recruiting effectiveness. When great candidates are hard to come by, one should take them where they can get them without bias as to how they arrived at your doorstep.

    The war for talent (primarily ‘cleared’ talent) is hotter than ever here in DC. Many of the same aggressive recruiting strategies that we saw in the late 90’s are being resurrected by necessity as we are all fishing from the same shallow pool. The reality here is that only those who effectively and efficiently pursue active AND passive candidates will have any chance of success.

  19. Great article Howard! There are two points I think are most important to take away from this. One – the value of the passive candidate is a myth commonly overstated by line managers and executives. It is our role as consultants to help them understand other startegies. Two – passive candidates are one type among many sources. Recruiters have a lot of tools at their disposal. Efficiency is gained through the ability to select the correct tools to use for the task at hand.

    I congratulate Howard on bucking the trend and forwarding an idea that has great validity but will have lightning rod unpopularity in some corners.

  20. As much as I hate offending anyone, and not being one that normally weighs into the fray, I can’t help myself on this one because it is a subject that is near & dear to my heart.I have been recruiting for over two decades on both the executive search side & the corporate side and for the past decade I have been a corporate recruiter who does nothing but direct sourcing & relationship recruiting.
    First let me say that we would all be better served if we did away with the ‘labels’ and all concentrated on hiring the best POSSIBLE people rather than the best AVAILABLE people. This by it’s nature means that there has to be a direct sourcing component, but doesn’t preclude other means as well.
    With regard to passive candidates representing the path of most resistance – that is absolutely not true. If your ‘passive’ recruiting campaign is based on a long term relationship recruiting model, then you have built up a talent pool and there will always be people in that pool who will move for the right opportunity. No disrespect to those that are unemployed….all to often their #1 objective is to find A job, not necessarily the right one. An individual leaving a job to come to yours is ‘vested’ and has made a move for the right reasons. I am not advocating that unemployed people not be recruited and hired. I am saying that if that is your principal source of talent then you are doing your corporation a diservice.
    If the statement that ‘few corporate recruiters really know how to get passive candidates out of their current positions’ is true, then I pity all of us, because our function is the next one heading to India. In todays wired world, sorting through ad responses and mining the internet for resumes can just as easily be done in New Delhi as in New York. Recruiting is a ‘sales’ profession and the people that do it need to be professionals with the requisite skills. Recruiting is not a sub set of HR and is not the path to a ‘generalist’ position. If it is for you, then please get out of the way, because you are blocking progress. I don’t know about anyone else, but I am not ‘filling openings’. I am ‘building a company’ with the people I recruit and hire, and if people are indeed our most important asset and the one thing that your competitors cannot emulate, then there is no higher reponsibility.
    I could write pages on this subject, but enough said for now.

  21. Howard –

    Great article!

    And what do you call a passive candidate who happens to look at what is out there once in a while, and will respond to an independent recruiter rather than a company, knowing his resume will end up lost in some big pile? Or worse, have his name bantered around management. Many great passive candidates may look at the net a few times a year.

    Or who responds to a (hopefully professional) recruiter so he retains control and knows his resume or name is not all over the place, or where he might have a crack at some other opportunities the recruiter is working on?

    A smart company once suggested I put an ad on Monster (along with theirs) knowing full well many good candidates would respond to mine, but never to theirs. For multiple ‘cookie cutter-type’ positions, like you said, you need to utilize advertising.

    There are great candidates everywhere. Bad ones too. I would love to see you write an article about all the B companies we work for and find hopefully B+ candidates, that probably constitutes a majority of what many of us work on, whether we admit it or not.

    I walk the talk. That is what I do.


  22. Enjoyed the article and think you’re telling it like it is, but Alan Fluhrer also makes a good point. Much of the ability to recruit passive candidates depends on the level and interest of the opportunity and the ability to offer a compensation package that is good enough to help your case.

    How many of us work for organizations that want cream of the crop passive candidate but don’t want to take the time to work with you to develop a good ‘selling’ description of the opportunity or put together a comp package that will lure a highly successful candidate out of a competitor?

  23. Hi Lou:

    I understand what you are saying but to set a tone in your articles that active candidates are of little value is simply wrong.

    Furthermore, of the 1,500 candidates your partners placed, how many of them are corporate recruiters as opposed to TPR’s.

    You and I both come from the same background. Passive candidates were our business but corporate recruiters need to find great candidates from ALL sources.

    The replies speak for themselves; 4 to 1 in agreement and these are the people that are in the trenches of corporate America.

    See you in Boston at ERE.


    Howard Adamsky

  24. Brilliant opinion piece; says it all, and quite well too. Brings to mind, the Chinese proverb – What matter the color of the cat, as long as it catches mice.

  25. Great article. I have used all these different approaches that I view as means to the right end, with not just one approach being the Best.

    Your ending sentence hit it right on the head:

    ‘Our job is to source them, qualify them, and get them hired. Do this well and you will be a star’ (and your candidates and clients will benefit and be happy with you and your results.)

  26. Mike,


    Youve hit the nail SLAP BANG in the middle, square on the head.

    Well said.


  27. Intriguing article Howard! What is the definition of a passive candidate? For me a truly passive candidate is completely content with their current situation and is not looking in any way to make a change. Does such a candidate exist? If you found such a person would you be interested in them? Tom Peters once wrote, and I paraphrase here from memory, that everyone should ask themselves at the end of each day what they could now add to their resume that wasn?t there at the start of the day. In this way one?s marketability increases daily or at least our attention is on our marketability. A corollary of this is that everyone should be looking all the time. So, does the truly passive candidate exist? Sure they do but if they are truly passive they probably are of no interest to you or me and are probably almost impossible to move. I have found that most candidates are in fact looking. They may have job search agents running on their favorite job boards, they may take calls from recruiters, they may casually look at the newspaper classifieds on Sunday, or they may listen to a friend who calls with an opportunity.

  28. I would take this a little further. No matter how happy someone is in their current role, I rather suspect that there is always SOME room for improvement.

    The best talent is always at least open to learning about new opportunities. They are simply more discriminating as to those opportunties which they elect to entertain.

    So from my perspective, it is a matter of degrees. Some are more active in seeking new opportunity then others. As you stated, anyone who is truly passive (e.g. not interested at all) is likely not someone you are looking to hire.

  29. An article has just been posted called ‘Discouraging Low Quality Applicants Allows You To Focus on the Best’ by Dr John Sullivan that in a nutshell deals with this discussion.

    Its a good article and shows what you get when working with active candidates. It also outlines what you need to do to compensate for the poor quality it attracts.

    Working with passive candidates alleviates this problem altogether.

  30. No TPR can read this and take it seriously. Don’t believe a word of it 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.

  31. I take issue with this statement:

    The author states: But they represent what will almost surely be a minority of the candidates who most organizations will hire for four fundamental reasons (there are actually 37 reasons, but I only have time to list four):

    I would ask any HR Manager what % of hires are referrals? CareerxRoads does an annual source of hire survey and Internal Referrals representing around 25% of all hires which is roughly EQUAL to ALL sources from the Internet.

    90% of the referrals I gather are of passive candidates! or at least in the sense that they didn’t apply to my organization via the web nor did they call me or even know of our opportunity.

    My reality in healthcare recruitment, when you have a limited supply of candidates, especially the highly specialized ones? Well you just can’t draw water from a rock! And if in most surveys I’ve read ACTIVES only represent 10-30% of a candidate population, you’d be a fool not to have an aggressive plan to pursue the passives.
    Basically, I humbly disagree with the premise of this article at least in the context of my industry, healthcare!

  32. As someone who helped to create this myth more than 30 years ago when mass advertising meant running an ad in a local newspaper, what may be a passive candidate to you who does not use a job board but may have found someone through a referral, may actually (heaven forbid!) be an active applicant with a resume on a board. How do you figure out which category they are in?

    Back in the Stone Ages when some of us didn’t want top invest in an advertising budget, we would tell our clients that we didn’t just try to find the best person who happened to read an ad on Sunday, but the best person available. Sound familiar?

    Now, it’s the best person referred to you, the best person with a personal commercial on ZoomInfo or Hoovers or who happened to have a message on an online forum . . . or who responded to an email into our data base.

    And once you have that passive applicant interviewing with your client and they decide to put their r?sum? on a board and interview with others, do they suddenly become inept.

    One person?s passive maybe another’s active ad response or Infogist search query response.

    With that said, many corporate recruiters are far too busy to do the sort of cold calling necessary to unearth an (allegedly) passive applicant. After all, with 6-8 interviews per day plus reporting requirements, meetings with managers, communicating with search firms and other responsibilities, when are they supposed to do this?

    Now for the most logical part of the argument, the best person is the one that the manager selects, regardless of source. To reject someone because they decided to be aggressive with their career instead of being a wimp, taking what their employer or manager gives them, because their division is struggling through no fault of theirs, impacting their career options or because they decided that changing jobs was financially beneficial (a job changer who gets a $10000 raise effectively earns more than $56000 with job changes and more than $75000 if they change positions for a second time in 3 years.

    So, since the primary attributes that make someone a great employee are skills competence, character, self-confidence (maybe charisma, even) and chemistry–attributes that translate into personal leadership, the source of these attributes should not be at issue. That the person has them is the only determinant of excellence.

    And given the number of hires done from active applicants it should go without saying that companies seem to be consistently disagreeing with this myth.


  33. Howard,
    Great insights. The ‘build it and they will come model has so many flaws it is just ridiculous!
    If you take the variables involved in recruiting
    (Timing, experience of candidate, chemistry between candidate and client interviewers/intervuees, location, drive, salary desire, skills etc and try to make all of those physical factors match and on top of that take the astronomical waste of time talking to candidates for positions that either don’t exist or timing of availability of a candidate to want a position now or down the line that is not ready to move, you couldn’t have a better formula for FAILURE. 43% of all recruiters use online ads to draw currently available and interested candidates and more than 60% of online ads are recruiting agencies that have a more focused time environment to accomplish recruiting as opposed to in-house time overhead of a internal recruiting staff. Using technologies to match candidates with job orders (which most inbound recruiting from websites companies do not use) further hampers their no results formula for non competitve recruiting efforts. I love it when the client asks
    ‘So how long have you know this candidate’? Like I have been moving this person like a chess pawn for 10-15 years. The ignorance of many clients as to how our processes and results are obtained are our trade secrets for success and yet they ask us to supply them to justify our efforts or use them once we have provided the service. That is why working directly with hiring managers is every Sr. Recruiters modus operndi. HR just keeps trying with little success to have contrary goals to good recruiting practices with results that supply bulk talent, but often far from good or the best talent. Anyone can read emails and call people and interview them, finding the pearls among them is a skill that takes years to form in good intuition and reading the signs along the way during the process to ensure that the candidate you have is the right one in the end.

  34. Howard,

    GREAT article! I am glad ERE reprinted this as it is very timely with the turn in the market place. Your title is absolutely correct – the ‘passive candidate’ is a myth. Sort of like the ‘hidden job market’.

    I have always maintained that trying to chase the so-called passive candidate is a waste of time. You put it very cogently – you never really have candidate control!

    And in a tight labor market, what you wind up with is a bidding war. If the candidate was satisfied with the job they have, you will have to pay more to get them to leave.

    Best regards,

    Ted Daywalt

  35. Passive Candidates are good for comprehensive searches that might take 90 days.

    Passive Candidates are bad for multiple openings of the same skillset due in a short time.

    I imagine most recruiters use the best tools when they can, assuming they understand their timetable and where the best talent lies.

  36. This article makes little sense. It’s broad and generalist in nature. True, a strategic recruitment plan should always be comprehensive and balanced as it pertains to each industry,and each organizations unique challenges. And of course active candidates shouldn’t be looked at as evil.

    What the author fails to admit is ..
    There are commodity positions and there are specialty positions (let’s say mission critical or in my industry Life Critical).

    Take my industry for instance health care. Educated, experienced and licensed professionals do not grow on trees nor can they be cloned, nor can h1b visas be dished out to solve the problem as in more technical industries…Thank God! Trust me, when your under the knife, you’ll want someone that can communicate and was educated under strict, controlled medical standards.You can fix poor software code, unlikely you can fix a botched heart transplant. Onward.

    As health care utilization increases (and it is) and a labor pool stagnates or diminishes(and it is)? Where do you go? There is A FIXED NUMBER OF CANDIDATES IN ANY GIVEN MARKET!

    Ask any corporate healthcare recruiter in the heat of the battle…providers are trying to grow, trying to meet staffing ratios, turning patients away and having to make ethical and moral ‘patient care decisions’ every day, directly related to staffing! Tell them Passive Candidates Are A Myth!

    Howard..God forbid you ever need skilled patient care someday…I think you’ll be singing a different song. It is important that candidates have tenure, skills, and history. If you can find the best talent in an active pool..great! But if you can not…where do you go?

    All the best!

    Philip Foti

  37. What an interesting article and look at the stir that has followed! This is one of those subjects that is very dependent upon ones opinion? so here?s mine 🙂

    I’ve been on both sides of the recruiting fence (agency and corporate) and I’ve worked for the job boards as well. One of the most frustrating things I’ve heard in my experience is, ‘We are only interested in passive candidates’. When I hear that, it tells me 1 of 3 things.
    1). The opening is new, and you have time to be choosey (foolish in my opinion but I?ll bet we talk in 90 days from now when you’re pulling your hair out).
    2). The recruiter/hiring manager doesn?t have the budget to spend on the recruiting tools that they need.
    3). The recruiter/hiring manager is of the belief (like Howard mentioned) that active candidates only bring headaches because you get too many of them. (In my experience, quality comes from filtered quantity, it?s the recruiter?s job to sift through the pile and find the best fit).

    Think about this, if 83% of the American population is on-line, and there are over 1 billion searches on Google each day (a 1/3 of that traffic is from America), employment/job searches make up 1 of the top 3 searches done each day. Unless a candidate has an unlisted number, lives in a cave, and does their work on a stone tablet with a chisel and a hammer, there is a pretty good chance that they?ll be reached or at least be tempted to take a peek at what?s out there once in a while.

    Listen, I am a firm believer that you are only fooling yourself if you think you can get your job done (as a recruiter) by only using 1 or 2 of the many tools provided. The fact of the matter is that recruiting takes effort, and A LOT OF IT! If you want great candidates, beef up your corporate career page (make sure you spell check your jobs and your titles make sense – to the rest of us!) as this is the first impression your applicants will get, start working your employees for referrals (in fact work everyone you talk to for a referral), post your jobs to the major job boards, start digging through the resume databases, then go pick up a phone and start calling (voices recruit not emails), tap the passive market by calling into your competitors (I don’t understand corporations that say ‘we don’t do that’… does that mean your sales team won’t compete with your competitors for sales then?), finally… don’t be afraid to call a professional recruiter (it?s like calling in Barry Bonds when your softball team is down 2 runs). By the way, when you do tap that professional recruiter, they are the ones that should really be focusing on that passive market for you if you can?t.

  38. Some passive candidates are bums and some active candidates are superstars. So what. There is far too much labeling going on to suit me. Your article prompted me to remember a similar article I wrote a few months ago.

    Food for Thought
    By Paul Hawkinson, Editor
    The Fordyce Letter (

    The ABCs of our business

    We?ve all heard about ?A? players as the desired target in recruiting. They?re those elusive ?passive candidates? who are currently employed and happily climbing their employer?s corporate ladder with little or no thought to making a change.
    Those ?B? and ?C? players can find their own jobs (probably never to be a true career) through Monster, CareerBuilder, HotJobs and the like. The fact that they?ve chosen to put their resumes out there for all to see is perceived by many that they are second class citizens . . . over-the-hillers, wishful thinkers, window shoppers, tire kickers, wannabes and God knows what else. No ?A? players there ? right?
    But ?A? companies will supposedly only hire ?A? players and they?re unwilling to pay our fees for any B?s and C?s as though they are only worth immediate relegation to the candidate toxic dump site like this was a black hole from which they can never recover.
    That?s the current ?conventional wisdom? for many in our business. But if that were true, why do most of the ?A? companies prohibit referrals of anyone whose resume resides in cyberspace? Could it be that public domain candidates aren?t all ?B? and ?C? caliber? Does having a resume on the Internet inevitably mean a lower offer from an ?A? employer? Are they permanently tainted and tarnished?
    I?ve been in this business for well over four decades and always thought I was able to spot a ?walking fee check? or a ?water walker.? But for whom? What is an ?A? player? For some, it may be a verifiable progressively successful record of increasing profits. Or decreasing costs. A true ?impact? candidate! But we?ve all seen people who have failed in one company only to become a superstar for another one.
    Truth is, for most pragmatic recruiting practitioners, any company anxious for a quick hire, willing to pay you a full fee for an exclusive and competitively salaried position is an ?A? company. And guess what . . . they are almost always more interested in skills than window dressing. They are more likely to be evaluated by a real hirer rather than being screened out by some HR flunky. They don?t have to be a Fortune or Forbes-listed firm because, frankly, those will nit-pick you to death with one-sided contracts and bureaucratic claptrap and, in my opinion, are anything but ?A? firms.
    I can fondly remember my first placement when I placed a ?D? player with a ?D? company. I was given a desk, a phone, some Yellow Pages and the application form of a janitor who, because he had completed a correspondence drawing course found on the back of a matchbook cover, wanted a job as a draftsman. My training consisted of convincing walk-in traffic to sign a contract obligating them to a hefty self-paid fee before I would work with them.
    Because I didn’t know any better, I placed the ?custodian/draftsman? within a week with a company needing a janitor. They promised to give him some part-time drafting if the need arose. He paid his fee (in long, drawn out installments) and retired from that same company as the V.P. of Engineering with a string of patents as long as your arm.
    When you try to categorize candidates and companies with the ABC?s, you are making a fundamental mistake. I?ve seen true ?A? players rejected for the flimsiest of reasons . . too little hair, the wrong color eyes, too tall, too skinny, too qualified and you name it. Personal biases (yours and your client?s) will always influence your decision about the ABC?s.
    I can?t tell you how many placements I made without ever having met the candidate. When I was subsequently introduced to them (and the people who hired them), I hate to admit that had I personally interviewed them, I would not have referred them in the first place. As Dr. Phil says, ?It was a changing day in my life.?
    It?s hard to admit your best chance for a placement may be to send a ?B? candidate to a client requesting an ?A? player. Remember, employers always request an ?A? player. It?s your job, as a professional, to re-alphabetize the process.

    1. You are so right, because performance is context dependent. That is why the ABC model is fundamentally flawed, and this passive candidate “fad”, being an extension of same, similarly flawed.

  39. Thanks for an excellent article.

    One thing to consider, however, is that passive candidates aren’t a one-shot deal and then ignored for all of eternity.

    Let’s say that I’m a recruiter in the pulp and paper industry. Let’s take that one step further and say that every week, I take 10 minutes to dash off a ‘Highlights in the Pulp and Paper Industry’ ezine that gets sent out automatically to all who have requested it.

    Every week, I’ll be demonstrating my knowledge about the industry to passive candidates (ie, folks who aren’t yet looking for a position). Every week, I’ll be branding myself as the recruiter who can walk the walk, talk the talk, and *truly understand* how the industry works.

    Now…when the time comes that my readers *do* consider looking for a new position…whom is the recruiter they will approach? Someone off of a job database…or the recruiter who, week after week, has been branding herself as the one in the know?


    Passive candidates should be turned into customers for your industry knowledge….because eventually, the chances are they’ll further evolve into active candidates for your positions.


    Barbara Ling
    Become The Recruiter of Choice with
    Comprehensive Recruiter eSeminars

  40. I do agree with Howard on the concept that from time to time, there are some good ‘board candidates’. I also don’t want to simply put up a defense mechanism because I operate as a TPR. Is there value in the passive candidate? Well, sure there is . . . considering they’re the best person for the job! They’re might be a board candidate just as good for the role, but there are perils to be avoided with the active seeker as well.

    However, I am left to scratch my head about what Howard is recommending: Is is to hire only board candidates, or to take it one step further, only those that apply to your job online? In my experience, isn’t this what most internal recruiters want to hear anyway (i.e. positive reinforcement)?

    At the end of the day, is that the best strategy? If you want to look at what global CEOs’ are saying about this, the latest Mckinsey Quarterly has a survey that indicates that most CEOs’ believe that the internal talent pool is now driving stock price (i.e. firm value) more than innovation itself. Think about that for a minute.

    This isn’t to say that there are not good board candidates here and there, but if you know that you’re better off pulling the VP, Marketing from the organizations that are beating you on a daily basis . . . do you think those individuals are on a board? Or do you think that they’d take the time to fill out a Google career profile if they’re working for Yahoo? Is there level of business acumen so low that they’d rather have a resume out there for the world to see . . . instead of partnering with an exec recruiter that will maintain their confidentiality?

    I’m still scratching my head . . .

  41. Howard — BRAVO and well said!!!
    Recruiting is all about balance and embracing all people at different stages of their career. The passive candidates will take a longer to hire for the reasons you stated. It’s the pipeline/network a good recruiter builds, their ability to quickly strategize when prioritizing the urgent positions at hand. It’s all about utilizing the resources, and about making the connections through those various vehicles. Just as job boards are not the solution to recruiting, passive candidates are not the answer either if that is the only route you take. The candidate management piece so often I think is a lost art. This is a skill that comes down to, the ability to gain trust quickly, maintain mutual respect, and leaving the candidate with the feeling that you have their back all the while, trying to meet your company’s hiring goals. For those of us that are forever fine tuning this skill when we are able to close that ‘passive candidate’ we become the hero! The reality is once the high dies down, the next search will require the same cycle once again to begin. That next hire may result from yet another avenue which may not gain much recognition but none the less resulted in another successful hire. Such is the life of a recruiter!

  42. Carmen:

    Thanks so much for the kind words on the article. I really consider the content to be in alignment with the 50 plus other articles I have done for ERE. I try to insert a bit of reality and insight into situations that reflect attitudes at times so bizarre; so extreme that one wonders if the recruiting population has simply lost their sense. Sadly, so many of them are the ?thought leaders.? (Kind of makes you wonder who is leading the leaders.)

    Sadly, if you take an industry that has no bar for entry, the ability to simply write whatever supports your agenda or program of the month you are selling, these are the results. Very unfortunate indeed.

    I hope we keep an eye on the thought leaders and hold them accountable. Some days, they really frighten me.

    Howard Adamsky

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