Treat All Candidates as Passive to Increase Your Quality of Hire

There’s an old adage that you should treat candidates as customers. Somehow this has been forgotten in the current era of high unemployment and slow job growth. I’m going to reframe this idea and suggest that if you want to hire the best people possible, treat everyone as if they were a passive candidate. This is vital for candidates who are actually passive candidates. More important, treating everyone with the respect they deserve, including those who are active candidates, will fundamentally improve your overall quality of people you hire.

Here’s why.

For one thing, by treating everyone with respect they’ll all feel positive about your company’s selection process and your company. As a result, they’ll tell everyone in their network and post it on Glassdoor before the day is out. This is just commonsense, and common courtesy. In addition, this is a great technique for getting some great referrals. To do this, mention some non-competing jobs during the interview and ask if the person knows any top-notch people they’d refer, even those not looking.

Another important reason for treating all candidates with this type of respect is to increase assessment accuracy. Let’s be frank: the negative bias of being active or unemployed is hard to overcome, especially for hiring managers. The problem is that there are some very good people in these groups who could be outstanding hires if they were objectively assessed. Some corporate-level intervention akin to a blind audition is essential in order to measure these people properly.

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While the feel-good idea of treating candidates as customers makes for good marketing jargon, most people just don’t know how to do it. Some company-level guidance can help here. Here are some ideas on how to operationalize this idea. These are essential if you want to hire passive candidates. As you’ll see, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be applied to all candidates regardless of their job-hunting status.

  1. Offer compelling career opportunities, not lateral transfers. If you want to hire top-notch passive candidates at scale, you need to foster a culture of performance and opportunity that’s obvious and relevant. This means people are going to be challenged and pushed, and if successful, provided opportunities to take on bigger roles. This theme needs to be carried into the hiring process at every step, from how job descriptions are written, how the career site is designed, how the application processes is implemented, and how candidates are interviewed, assessed, and offered positions. Expecting to hire the best people, treating them like a commodity, and expecting them to be grateful is not how you build a dynamic and motivated workforce, even if they are grateful.
  2. Go fast, slowly. Go slow enough to ensure the candidate has enough information to make a strategic decision in comparison to other opportunities being considered. As part of this, go fast enough to ensure you don’t lose the person for lack of attention. Fully-employed passive candidates need time to evaluate your opening as a true career move. Leaving a good situation is not an easy decision to make. Going just slow enough ensures the candidate has the opportunity to collect all of the needed information to make the best personal decision.
  3. Treat the person as a consultant, not a vendor. Why not start the interview process by assuming the person is competent, rather than assuming the person isn’t? This reframing changes the whole tenor of the subsequent interview process. If you treat the person as a knowledgeable consultant and expert in his or her field, the conversation is more open, more honest, more relevant, and more accurate. This doesn’t mean you let the person off the hook. It just means the conversation will be among equals. Passive candidates demand this respect. Active candidates deserve it.
  4. Use the one-question interview to describe the job and determine job fit. Stop the 20-minute introductory sales pitch. Instead, cut this down to a two-minute overview of the job. During the interview describe a critical performance objective and ask the candidate to describe his or her most comparable accomplishment. If you do the same for all of the remaining performance objectives, by the end of the interview you’ll know if the person is a great fit for the job, whether active or passive. The candidate will also know if the job offers a career move, or not. (More info on the one-question interview.)
  5. Use the interview to recruit the person. There is more to the interview than assessing competency and motivation. As you conduct the one-question interview as described above, look for areas where the candidate is a bit light (i.e., span of control, impact, job complexity, skills, etc.). If you find 4-5 factors like this and the gap isn’t too wide, you can then position your job as means for the candidate to quickly grow and develop in these areas. Collectively, these gaps represent a career move. In this way, you’ve “customized” the career move idea for the candidate by using the interview to uncover these factors. This is much better than over-selling or using generic boilerplate and hyperbole.
  6. During the interview describe an “if…then” future if the person is hired and successful. The quality of the career growth opportunity is the primary reason a top-notch person will accept one offer over the other. The best way to set the stage for this is for the hiring manager to mention to the candidate that if the person is successful in the role there are a number of future possibilities available. Then the manager should go on to describe these. Combining this “if…then” future in combination with the career gap idea above is a great way for the candidate to see your opening as one offering a compelling move.
  7. Formalize the candidate decision-making process. Most active candidates accept offers for the wrong reasons, primarily to get back on the payroll. While companies think they have the upper hand here, it’s short-lived once the person starts. To improve on-the-job performance, employee satisfaction, and retention, don’t let your candidates (active or passive) accept your offers without evaluating them from a career perspective. These means they should evaluate your job opening from a short- and long-term perspective considering the type of work, the opportunities for growth, and the compensation package. (Email us if you’d like a sample copy of the form we use in our training listing the factors top passive candidates use when comparing opportunities.) If you make every candidate go through the same process, don’t be surprised if all of your new hires start performing at peak levels from Day 1.
  8. Measure Quality of Hire pre- and post-hire. Quality should not be determined by how active or passive the candidate is in their job-search process. We use a 10-factor scorecard as part of our performance-based interviewing process to measure pre-hire quality in an objective way. This goes a long way in leveling the playing field between passive and active candidates. Since passive candidates are more difficult to recruit, it then makes sense to focus on active candidates if QoH is comparable.

The key idea behind all of this is to treat everyone as if they’re top-notch, whether they’re active or passive. Job hunting status should not be part of the quality of hire assessment. In the process, you’ll not only see and hire more talented people, you’ll also make everyone who has been through your assessment process feel they’ve been assessed professionally and treated fairly. We all treat our customers with respect, All candidates should be offered the same courtesy.

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).


7 Comments on “Treat All Candidates as Passive to Increase Your Quality of Hire

  1. Thanks, Lou. I see frequent cases of recruiters with strong beliefs in courtesy, respect, and consideration for candidates stymied in their efforts to provide decent candiate care by bloated recruiting bureaucracies which have no such beliefs or practices. As I frequently mention, this could be easily and affordably handled by $2.50/hr Virtual Candate Care Specialists. Still, you can always be polite and respectful- “Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you”



  2.’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice, especially to customers/applicants.

    Great points Lew, it certainly comes across as a professional giving basic advice to do-it-yourselfers. But you do know that there are no shortcuts in getting things done through humans, as no two humans are alike. It might make more sense as Keith alluded, to outsource those functions to professionals who apply those principles and can get the job done more efficiently. ($2.50/hr)

    Keith…what is a virtual candidate care specialist?

  3. Another great article, Lou. It’s a shame that we need to be reminded to treat candidates as humans. I will never forget being told by peers at one organization that I waste too much time talking to candidates. Although my peers made fun of me, my candidates accepted my offers and sent me referrals. It’s more than treating candidates like human beings, it’s also smart business.

  4. Great points Lou. It helps even more to know early on which active (or passive candidates for that matter) actually have the strongest potential for delivering value to the job, so you can invest the most in the folks that have the best chance of delivering. That is where a short, engaging, valid assessment experience comes in.

  5. I would add one additional point #9, building off your first paragraph of treating all candidates with respect. Get back to candidates on a timely basis, particularly those that have interviewed with the company. Provide them routine updates of the position status, even if it means they are hearing negative news such as the position has been put on hold or another candidate has been selected for the position. That simple common courtesy will go a long way to building a strong reputation and positive image for your company. You can read more on this subject at

  6. @Ken:
    A virtual candidate care specialist is someone (typically with a strong customer service/call center background) who is hired to make sure each and every applicant’s experience is efficient, courteous, and professional, if not actually pleasant. They would be the person who makes sure each and every inquiry is acknowledged and question answered, either by phone or by email. They’re the person the applicant goes to find out what’s going on with his/her application/hiring status. People like this are very available overseas and (as I said previously) can be hired for *$2.50/hr and up(wholesale).

    IHBME (it has been my experience) that most companies don’t care what the ordinary applicant goes through, particularly if they are employers of choice. If they claim they do, more likely than not they leave it up to a FT recruiter making $70,000/yr or a CR making $70/hr to let candiates know what’s going on. Does this make economic sense to you?


    Keith “High Value-Added Recruiting Skills Maximizer” Halperin

    *If you’re interested, I can help refer you…

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