The Sad Existence of the Active Candidate

“To see the right and not do it is cowardice.”

–Author Unknown

A recent article by John Zappe entitled Should We Be Telling the Unemployed Not to Apply? was excellent. Furthermore, judging by the varied, contentious, and well-thought-out comments, John’s work clearly struck a nerve with a cross section of ERE readership, this writer included.

Tell the unemployed not to apply? Why not? Welcome to the ugly underbelly of capitalism, artificially induced fairness, and employment rage of the masses. Welcome to the new world order that simply does not have enough to go around, combined with the enabling technology’s required to outsource as many possible jobs to the most dirt-poor places on this planet. Think of how Ralph Lauren lives and think of how those who make his clothing live. Beyond despicable.

Welcome to the sad realization that capitalism tends to work far better when there is a surplus as opposed to a shortage; when there is an oily excess that tends to hide the evil of discrimination and of inequity and of monstrous corruption. Welcome to the post-surplus economy of underemployment and lost careers, of investments vaporized and the numbing fury that accompanies learned helpless. Welcome the myopic CEO who views employees as an expense to cut as opposed to an investment to nurture. Welcome my fiends, to the new normal.

Not hire the unemployed? Horrifying, of course, but let’s be honest here. Discrimination of the unemployed has been going on for as long as I have been recruiting. (Also among the short, gay, old, obese, and assorted others but later for that.) Unspeakably evil in its intent as well as its outcome, but let’s be realistic: most companies do not want to hire the unemployed. After all, if they were any good, they would have a job right?

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If, as a recruiter, if you do not see this as an almost everyday reality, then you fall into one of four categories:

  1. You work for one of the small handful of organizations that try to do what is right.
  2. You recruit for some type of a job that is so hard to fill that no one really cares about anything if the person is qualified to do the job. Two heads? No problem here.
  3. You push like hell to influence decisions that allow you to sleep at night.
  4. You are living under a rock.

Not hiring the unemployed used to be a dark little secret, but not anymore. Care to know what gave it a sense of being OK? The passive candidate movement, of course. See The Myth of the Passive Candidate and read the comments; your comments. Passive recruiting, although not necessarily evil in its intent, was the beginning of the legitimization of discrimination against active candidates, as it preached the wonders of going to the “deepest, darkest corners of the web” to identify candidates. Quite frankly, passive recruiting lined the pockets of many, and told us that those looking for a job are losers. Honestly, if this is not a felonious embarrassment to the world of recruiting, what is? Want passive candidates? Go and get them after the active ones have been ruled out because they are unqualified, not before. (I am always on the hunt for work so that makes me an active candidate. Think I‘m an incompetent?)

How to fix it?

  • Do we need “smarter, more-business-savvy recruiters with backbones” as per Steve Levy’s suggestion? Of course.
  • Do we need more government in our business to help us to go from inefficient to less efficient? God no.
  • Do we need self-policing and internal audits to secure the elusive fairness for which we claim to struggle? Nope.

We need what has been lost in our society: a sense of fairness, decency, and community. A belief that we need to do what makes us right as opposed to what makes us rich. Even in this age of bad behavior and gushing oil, trips to rehab and corporate looters, it is important to manage this situation and remember that if we fail in the effort to achieve decency, no small gains form any company profit will help us come to any good. To tell anyone that active candidates are of poor quality solely because they are active in the midst of the worst economic times since the great depression is unconscionable.

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


22 Comments on “The Sad Existence of the Active Candidate

  1. Maybe I fall into the 2-head crowd, but I have no problem at ALL with active candidates. In fact, active candidates are usually less demanding and easier to deal with in the hiring process. Sadly, I lack enough to fill my strategic needs so I have to do passive search (I wouldn’t have a job so I’m not that sad). However, this past year we have hired some unemployed candidates (who were willing to relocate) and they have done a great job. This market has helped us up our game on the HR front and other areas.

    Keep up the great writing Howard, have always loved your stuff.

  2. i for one, am so damn sick of seeing all these goofy “How to” blogs about recruiting passive candidates and recruiters patting themselves on the back, extolling how virtuous and wonderful they are if they only recruit passive candidates or don’t post jobs.

    The capper in my book of Sleaze was the recruiter who extolled his ability to train active candidates on how to appear to be passive. “Let me teach you to lie, suckers”.

    I agree Howard, how about we shame those who beat the drum that are somehow wonderfuller than a speckled pup cause they only work with “passive” candidates.

    I have to dig up a lot of “not currently looking” candidates myself due to demand for a lot of what we do but if they are not willing to be active. I pass. That’s my idea of a passive candidate.

  3. In defense of our third party friends, no one calls them if someone posted and prayed with no success. So they play in that world full-time. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard Lou Adler or other leaders in the passive space outright say a passive candidate was ‘better’ than an active candidate. Have they?

  4. Not so long ago, I represented an organization who placed a premium “bounty” on hiring passive candidates. That bounty was based on beginning with a cold call and ending up with a hire. In that well respected organization, a recruiter who hired pure passives received bounties four times higher than ones who used all the tools in their toolboxes. In this metric driven organization, was the measured quality of hire (measured in annual increments)HIGHER for those who stayed the passive course? No. Did management regard more highly the “passive only” recruiter? Yes. He was god like (emphasis on the little “g”.) Did the awards for best retention and best quality of hires EVER to the “passive only” recruiter? No.

    Does a plummer bring one wrench to an assignment?
    Does an archer cradle only one arrow in the quiver?
    Did David tote only one stone to slay Goliath?

    How many organizations ask their “business builders” (to quote an author near and dear to us….a.k.a. “recruiters”) to raise their right hands and solemnly swear to toil in effort to do EVERYTHING within their spheres of influence and power to bring the VERY BEST possible individuals into their organizations?

    I prefer restaurants with full menus. Some menu builders within the ivory towers of HR sometimes miss the best panoramas in spite of their allegedly elevated vantage points. They send their business builder/foot soldiers into battle with limited weapons for warfare and expect great results. It is within their power to do so.

    Are foot soldiers self empowered to vote with their feet?

  5. Howard,

    Astonishly insightful observation, which pulls together threads which many of us have been talking about for some time. I hope it is read by everyone who has an interest in business success AND saving their souls.

    And to you, hiring authorities everywhere, remember that as far as the unemployment line goes, there but for the grace of God, go you.

  6. Great article – particularly for the times…

    Take ourselves back ten years to the last throws of the Dot.Com Era and compare the difference between not enough and way too many (available job seekers that is). When the economy is cooking and there are fewer people seeking work than available jobs – it is easy to make the argument that those left “on the beach” are there for a reason (albeit an erroneous one…). When the economy is in trouble (about once every 8-10 years), and there are way too many job seekers than jobs, it is absurd to question the reasons that people are job seekers. Fast forward to the present, and we are experiencing economic trouble beyond anything we have experienced for decades. It is reprehensible to consider that a person without a job is not as qualified as one who has one.

    The key to these times lies in evaluating the multitude of job applicants we are all experiencing for our openings. Regardless of their current job status, it is imperative that we sift through ALL interested job applicants and come up with the best person for the job. With so many people applying, one would think that this would be easier, but for anyone that is getting 200 resumes for each opening knows – it is far from easier. Resumes are woefully inadequate for times like these and better assessment methods are needed to uncover the 50 people you get for each job whose resumes all indicate a qualified match!

    Fortunately, through the use of Talent Communities, Online Assessment tests, available Internet data and other Social Media activities – we’ve never had more opportunities available to make the best choice (email me if you want a list of the best places to go for this…).

    When viewed in this context, whether the person is working or not is a moot point.

  7. Howard,
    Good comments. Regarding passive, active, etc… for over 15 years I have done everything possible to find the best candidate for job, period. It doesn’t matter where they are: Active……..passive……in line at the coffee shop or the bank, (yes I have gotten candidates this way), conferences, conventions, and job fairs.
    And I agree, why is an active candidate bad? If a PGA pro moves to a new set of clubs because they think it will improve them, is that a bad thing? If a mid-level manager realizes there is very little additional upward mobility at his firm, should they be penalized for doing everything possible to better themselves?
    While I hear the unemployed need not apply comment, these may be the same companies that in the future will not be able to hire some passive candidates, or active ones for that matter. Think about it, my experience is that passive candidates, because they’re passive, many times, take a broader and deeper look at the company interested in them, culture, working conditions, and the character/ethics of a company. I would be willing to propose that some passive candidates will interview with company ‘X’, and whatever they think, once they find out this company adherer’s to the unemployed comment, may think to themselves, “Yeah, they’re a good company, now. But what If someone hiccups and decides I am no longer needed?” They may very well take a pass, and everyone loses.
    And when the economy turns, and we all know it will. These companies will be the ones that already have a reputation in the marketplace that may be near-next to impossible to shake. Fast forward 1, 2, 3 years, company ‘X’ is now reeling, needing to hire people, and , perhaps even , ditched the “don’t hire the unemployed” mantra. But the oily stench of that reputation still lingers in the marketplace and candidate after candidate that interviews there, then does their research, comes back and says, “Thanks but no thanks”.

  8. What, whom or which deity proclaimed that only the passive candidates were worth chasing for our jobs? I am constantly bombarded with webinars, seminars, web sites, etc. all dedicated to hiring the passive candidate.
    I’ve heard that Monster, Careerbuilder and other job/resume posting sites will fall to the wayside to LinkedIn, Twitter and Face Book.
    I don’t think I can recall a single article dedicated to hiring someone who is already unemployed. When did being unemployed become such a dirty word? People are losing their jobs en masse to such wild variations such as oil spills, to outsourcing, to cut backs to “insert reason here”.
    I know a few sources that used the employed only technique that are now facing the backlash of their own recruiting preferences – they are unemployed.
    That mind set needs to change. To not think of the unemployed as a valuable resource just short changes every one of us and those we recruit for.

  9. Rob:

    Your question is hard to answer. I have been a watchdog; an observer of the passive candidate stuff for years. There is so much that has been written about it that to say if one person or another actually said that active candidates are better is not something I know as that would take a great deal of research. I can however, tell you this; ice cold and no questions asked; the flavor of that sentiment is there and to miss it is to simply not see reality.

    What is said in exact words is on some levels unimportant. It is the undertone, the message between the lines and the intent that concerns me. As an example, it fascinates me that people still speak of passive candidates as though it were the good old days when there was a war for talent. (Of which I seriously question…)

    My concern is on a far greater level. It is in the subtleties and the understated; the nod and the wink that is most dangerous. It is the flavor of what has been written and the shaping of minds who actually fail to see the big picture.

    With that in mind, let me say this to you Rob. My article is based upon the piece done by John Zappe. Entitled “Should We Be Telling the Unemployed Not to Apply?” Had he not gotten me into an uproar based upon its contents, I would not have written my article. That being said, the very fact that he wrote that article in the first place is a sign of the ominous and the scary things that supposedly intelligent people are beginning to think. I have a strong feeling his work did not arise from fiction; from an errant thought with no content or substance.

    We all seek a brave new world. Lets hope the one we get is better then the material we are fed by those with an agenda. If not we are all in trouble.

  10. This article probably wasn’t popular with traditional thinking, so I laud the author for the wakeup. However the true, sad irony is that many of the same companies who struggled with talent management and recruiting with passive candidates will do the exact same with unemployed, active candidates. HR professionals and consultants are missing out on moving companies ahead through talent acquisition at a time when it should be much easier than any other time in the past 20 years.

    Not much has changed though – same tired processes coming to the same “passive” candidate conclusions. Even worse, it often takes several interviews, meetings, follow-ups and visits, conference calls, and acts of God to get many companies to make decisions on hires. That’s a direct result of recruiting passive candidates who may need even more time to make a transition from one company to the next. There should be almost no positions open for a very long time any more, yet I still see positions open for 6-12+ months all the time. I have serious doubts in my mind that any critical position can be open that long.

    Being unemployed is an unspoken stigma for some candidates. It’s a characteristic that cannot be shaken off once it’s acquired, and it often puts that candidate at a huge disadvantage with perception.

    The irony is that most companies would jump at hiring well-known but failed “unemployed” executives and managers who’ve been on “sabbatical” or “chose to take a break or time off to experience life.” Look at how some of the highest positions at companies are continuously filled with “unemployed” executives who then go on to champion the same mindless thought that keeps other good people from being hired.

    This unspoken issue is going to continue to hamper companies who can’t do things differently. People are in denial so I’d recommend you just ask an existing well-regarded executive or manager to anonymously apply to an position leaving a gap in recent employment as a test case. They can do everything but set up an onsite or video interview. They won’t believe the silence, but they wouldn’t be able to deny that it happens.

    By the way, that process is a quick self-check on hiring practices. Very few companies do it. That’s why they fall behind in recruiting so easily.

  11. Rob – folks that tread in the Exec Recruitment space as I did for years – are only looking at people currently doing the work – preferably at a competitor…

    …and Howard, there is no nod or wink, it is out and out specified in the Statement of Work or SLA or whatever is used. It is important to note that a lot of other things are also typically specified. As an illustration, I did a project many years ago for a $30 billion company that only would hire people from the top five business schools for certain roles – no exceptions. There are numerous other stipulations such as energetic (healthy), years of experience (not too old), right pedigree of career progression (only from top companies) – and on and on…

    So it is rarely just the employed v. unemployed that get specified in these situations. When you are paying a large fee (typically six figures) for a job, hiring authorities certainly get very specific and it is expected.

    Having moved on from that type of work several years ago, it bothers me that this type of hiring has trickled down to every hire made. I truly feel that the Social Web will help to eradicate this type of hiring and usher in a strong dose of “the best person for the job” – period…in fact in many cases it already is!

  12. Great article. Want to point out that this attitude is not simply a result of evil recruiters. The recruiter’s attitude is in itself a result of the broader opinion of hiring managers. I agree that the mode of thought that ‘passive candidates are better’ is indeed prejudiced and incorrect — but to attack it, we must reeducate the hiring managers as well. Will that take ‘pushing like hell’ as Howard puts it? Yup. but it also will take a societal shift. I do think at some point, with the barrage of unemployment news out there, societal attitudes are in a state of change and the ‘stain of unemployment’ is more easily washed out – simply because there are so many people who have lost their jobs or know someone close to them who has. But maybe I’m an optimist on that point.

  13. Captain Renault: I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!
    -Casablanca (1942)

    Much of corporate customers’ hiring is done based on the GAFI Principles:

    We can:
    1) Look/work for the organizations where it isn’t dominant.
    2) Work where we have to and hold our tongues/noses or (if we can/are so inclined) manipulate it to our advantage.
    3) Work to change it and (without a lot of savvy/political firepower at our backs) become unemployed.

    Keith “Not as Bitter as I Sound” Halperin

  14. We will take anyone suited for the position. Period. We target competitors, absolutely, but not because they are ‘elusive’, but because they may also bring a value to our business above and beyond another candidate.

    We recently halted our massive post approach but not because we are simply targeting passive candidates, but because the wicked economy conditions and other ‘free’ outlets are allowing us the opportunity to free up some budget. I’d much rather reinvest in my Recruiting team and upskill our negotiating abilities and leverage these other networks. A penny saved…

    Besides, who ISN’T active these days?

  15. Howard–A very good article and one that definitely resonates with me. The “concept” of not hiring the unemployed will ultimately bring companies nothing but a bad reputation. As history is known to repeat itself, we will once again experience an employment situation that aligns with the job candidate having the upper hand. I can see a line being drawn in the sand… employers of choice on this side of the line and undesirable employers on the other side.

  16. Interesting article but I doubt it will have any affect on corporation’s hiring practices. I hate the whole “passive” thing too. I mean many times the buried “passive” person is out of sight for a reason.

  17. Any fear or concern about hiring unemployed talent makes no sense. It’s a readily available pool that could be filling gaps that companies have now. Then again, the same companies who are entrenched and just holding on through the tough economy probably are more concerned with self-preservation than what an opporunity this is to make a quantum leap forward in new talent for the organization.

    Educating hiring managers and HR professionals to address this problem is going to be very challenging. At the core, hiring someone who’s unemployed strikes another unspoken fear – what if the new “unemployed” hire is better than me?

    I have advised hiring managers and company execs for years that one of the toughest mindsets to overcome is an executive’s or manager’s fear that they will be outshined, especially by someone who’s currently not at her/his level in the organization.

    That same fear stifles hiring and development in ways that are very hard to trace or directly address. In the end, it’s contributing to the talent problem many companies face.

    I’ve never believed heavily in passive candidates either. Almost everyone working for someone else is active. If working for more money, better conditions and perks, and a better life-work harmony was on the table, anyone would consider a change.

    So again I say, passive, isn’t the right word. Everyone’s basically start-stop active. Those who don’t like where they are or who are unemployed are simply proactive job seekers.

    By the way, you can tell if the leadership team at a company gets it when to a person they can demonstrate full depth through all levels of the organization and can highlight leaders who hire and develop people and aren’t afraid that hiring someone (even someone currently unemployed) isn’t a direct threat to them.

  18. Howard, you always cause me to think (and that is a good thing). It appears that you also provoke thinking and comments in others. I think the reason that this entire active and passive conversation occurs is because there are just not enough active candidates to meet our needs. As a third party recruiter, I differentiated myself from others (including corporate recruiters) by playing the passive card. When I became a corporate recruiter, I played the passive card to buy enough time to find the right people. Perhaps a victim of my own storytelling.

    The one thing that no one seems to be able to prove is that passive candidates are better. The only research that I have seen on the subject was offered by CLC Recruiting ( (formerly the Recruiting Roundtable). Their conclusion that was that passive candidates performed .1 % better. The study concluded that the real benefits of passive candidates was in the “candidate control” area (certainly useful data, but nothing to do with quality of performance).

    In terms of presenting active candidates, no problem at Microsoft. In fact, we even write blogs ( to assist job seekers with navigating Microsoft as well as tips on their job search in general. My reality is—if a candidate is qualified, regardless of employment status, they will be considered.

    So the passive candidate discussion goes on….(

  19. As a research partner to corporate recruiters, it’s not about excluding active candidates, it’s about not duplicating what our clients can do on their own. Sure, we flaunt our abilities to identify and attract passive candidates. That is what our clients need for various (ethical) reasons. We must continue to develop – and take pride in – our passive candidate capabilities since this is where (most) corporate recruiters need the help. This need is becoming more and more consistent as companies aim to reduce their placement fees and pay only for the service they really need – getting the candidates that they could not find or attract on their own. I give my clients the benefit of the doubt; they recognize that a comprehensive strategy, one that includes active and passive candidates alike, will yield the best hires. We’re here to help them with the passive part.

  20. Nowadays, with all the bloodcurdling bloodletting that’s gone on in corporate America there’s gold in the active candidate stream.

    In the (truly) passive candidate stream there’s still gold but it’s tempered much more today by caution. If it’s these candidates you want (only) be prepared to offer extra.

    A lot extra. Tempting them isn’t the same thing as tempting an unemployed or active jobseeker.

    It’s entirely a horse of a different color.

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