What Is All This Business About Passives vs. Active Candidates, Anyway?

You cannot step twice into the same river; for other waters are continually flowing in. — Heraclitus

There’s a huge controversy that raises itself now and then here in the Recruitosphere and that’s the idea that one type of candidate (passive) is better than the other (active). The thinking goes along the lines of “If they’re looking, there must be a reason they’re looking!” There’s probably something wrong with the guy.

On the other end of the spectrum glistens the shiny new: that person popularly known as the “passive” candidate. The accompanying reasoning goes something like: “If he’s out there and nobody’s talked to him before, I’ll be the first one at the table to get the best (and biggest) portion.”

In reality, both lines of thought are problematic.

I’m reminded of the Clay Walker country song line, “What’cha gonna do, When the new wears off And the old shines through…?

In defense of the actives, there are good people represented in the mix – and they’re going to turn up in some of our “passive” searches anyway. It happens the more thorough we become in our sourcing skills. I try not to leave anyone “behind” when I’m phone sourcing, unless the customer asks for a specific number out of a certain company.

The reality is, passives aren’t always truly “passive” and actives aren’t always “active.” Some “actives” have gone to ground, so to speak, and are fully engaged in another job that really gives them those desirable “passive” characteristics again that are so highly regarded nowadays. Skipping over them in any job search is a mistake. Keep in mind that anything we put out on the Net is going to stay out on the Net, regardless of our efforts or desire to remove it. So if someone has a resume, say “out there” somewhere, at some time, he or she could turn up in a future search regardless of whether they’re looking at the present time or not.

There are passives who really aren’t passive at all. They know what they’re doing to market themselves. They know how to glisten beneath all that fallen snow that assures they’ll be the first snowflake picked out of the landscape. This is the person who’s active on the net, who does a lot of posting (or a little) that includes a lot of biographical information that, at first glance, appears innocent. It’s not, usually. Those tagline signatures that give us names, titles, addresses and phone numbers should be approached with some hesitation. The question to ask is: “If I found them, who else hasn’t?”

I know it’s exciting when your Boolean search ferrets out that exact title in the exact location that the job is calling for and it appears that all you have to do is dial the number and confirm that the guy’s still there. I know very well that temptation to end there and call it finished.

Article Continues Below

Don’t! Doing this is short-shifting your customer as well as yourself. This little “gem” you uncovered as a result of your knowledgeable Boolean entry (you did work so hard to learn Boolean, didn’t you?) sometimes is tantamount to someone’s resume being posted out there – it screams, “Hey recruiter, look at me – I’m what you want – call me for your new job opportunity –I’ll make it easy – here’s my office number and my cell!”

No one understands that you have given everything. You must give more. — Antonio Porchia, Voces, 1943, translated from Spanish by W.S. Merwin

“Foul!” you cry. “They’re mine to find!”

Yes, they are yours to find if that’s all you’re interested in finding. That “passive-active” usually has a team of coworkers he interacts with everyday. The best way to set that little hard rock into your job setting is to build his organization out around him. And that usually means (actually I don’t know of any other way) that you must get on the telephone and call him, or call his Administrative Assistant, or call his manager, or call the guy in the cube next to him, or call someone in the Mail Room who delivers mail to him and his group everyday, or call the VP of Engineering’s Executive Assistant, or call someone, anyone that will give you the names of the other people in his group!

Chances are they’re the truly passive candidates in the mix!

You must remove (at least one hand, momentarily) from the alphabet portion of your keyboard to dial that number. These days, and it’s going to become ever-more-important moving forward, you must become an active names sourcer vs a passive names sourcer! If you don’t do this your research will suffer the consequences as more and more people are learning (and depending) on Boolean to fill their searches. Set yourself apart by honing your telephone techniques. They’re the ones that are hardest to master and they’re the ones that return the most unique results! They’re the ones that give you the only advantage to finding the truly passive candidate – the guy sitting at his desk doing his thing, 8 to 12 hours a day, too busy to even think about another job. The guy who doesn’t “post” for ulterior reasons or isn’t listed in some fabulous online gathering. He’s the guy who’s gainfully and masterfully employed doing what you need him to do for you – go get him!

Keep in mind the overall quality of the pipeline. Proactively adding both passive and actives into it at the same time is going to give you a healthy mix in the end.

Maureen Sharib has been a “Socratic sourcer” her entire sourcing career; from the moment she first picked up the faxed list of Silicon Valley high-tech companies that was her target list to “phone source” in 1996 to today she has instinctively followed this method of investigative sourcing using (mostly) the telephone.  She is a proponent of sourcing as a synonym for success and envisions the craft moving away from a dangerously drudgery-paced life-form existence to an exciting investigative/competitive place within organizations where practitioners co-exist within a framework of market research, human resources, and C-level future planning. She owns the phone sourcing and competitive intelligence firm TechTrak.com, Inc. You can contact her at Maureen at techtrak.com or call her at (513) 646-7306.  If she’s not on the phone she’ll pick up!


12 Comments on “What Is All This Business About Passives vs. Active Candidates, Anyway?

  1. I always want to remind those I am training that we’ve all been active candidates at one point in time – and it didn’t mean we were less than we are now. Especially now, there are phenomenal candidates who are not employed – through no fault of their own. Doesn’t it make sense to offer the full 100% of those most qualified? And you are right. Who’s going to open up to you about a new career move unless you pick up the phone and actually talk to them.

  2. Good article! As at third-party recruiter, I have always looked at the ‘active’ candidates as the low-hanging fruit. Because they are either unhappy or unemployed, they have made themselves easier to find. Putting aside why they are unhappy or unemployed, the bigger issue is that they are a minority. They only represent, at most 25% of the given talent pool. So ‘passive’ candidates are the vast majority and simple odds say there is a much greater chance of finding a top performer in the passive group then not.

  3. Many jobs are filled by active candidates, not through job postings, but through networking. The active candidate lets those they know who are employed in similar industries know they are “on the market.” Candidates coming from internal referrals are usually more highly prized than other sources of candidate generation as well.

    Passive candidates that are developed into active candidates through networking are also usually of higher quality than those found through a boolean search.

    The old adage “it’s who you know” still has signficance.

  4. Interesting.

    you see, I am the outsider and I can tell you that I have been touched by a phone recruiter just once in 30 years. I’ll ask you to accept that everyone on th etechnoogy side of my business and on the marketing side knew/knows me. I’ll ask you to accept that customers regard me as the g-to guy for all technical and business problems. I’ll ask youto accept that I have published magazien articles and academic papers. Now – how come yyou folks have never contacted me?

    The answer has to be one of:

  5. oops – glitch!

    a: the methods do not work
    b. A whole industry is not trying hard enough
    c. I show the signes of being a total loser.

    I can rule out c as too often I’ve been called in to clean up the mess the shiny guys have made…

    How odd.


  6. Great Article…
    As a headhunting & recruitment trainer I have to say…90% of individuals will consider a new role if it enhances their current circumstance. And thats whether they are passive or active. Active candidates can have other irons in their fire BUT passive ones once rekindled are soon on the chase.. so for me its a timing issue – get a passive candidate interested and if your client then takes 2 weeks to get their ar*e in gear it means your passive is now active !

  7. Senior recruiters are open to passive or active candidates, the difference usually being the line of questioning. Assuming an active candidate is submitting or posting a resume or out of a job, the questioning centers around why they are looking or why they are “on the beach”. This is a line of questioning that doesn’t go as deep with passive candidates. Recruiters usually do this in order to bring the active candidate “up” to the level of the passive candidate.

    All things being equal, it’s best to offer a nice mix of passive and active candidates. Explain the issues and let the client decide.

    (My bigger issue is the entire pool of candidates. How does a client know if you are presenting the best candidates if you are only willing to show them 5-10? How can you prove they are the best when you can’t prove you looked everywhere? The fact is many recruiters just deliver the first candidates who fit and are willing to entertain the opportunity.)

    This is how we address it: http://www.prospectcity.com/our-platform/pipelining.html

  8. Great Article Maureen!

    I think it is interesting how this concept does stir controversy. In my humble opinion the success of a search is often defined by the size and quality of the candidate pool. Why limit that pool by eliminated either active or passive. I believe it is critical to have a solid approach to both pools.

    Picking up the phone is still necessary! I’ve heard it said that recruitinig passive candidates is hard. I’d argue it is not hard but it does require reaching out to people over the phone. A passive candidate becomes an active candidate when they hear an opportunity that interests them. AutoSearch is a great tool to simplify and speed up the process of finding people to call. You don’t need to know how to write complex boolean search strings and you don’t need to download 500 names to find 10 names to call! If you are willing to pick up the phone to find that right candidate – check out http://www.getautosearch.com

  9. Thanks Maureen!

    I pick “b” too. I’m looking forward to the next upturn when I predict that neat software will actually shrink the size of the recruiting industry simply because it does a better job! No, not sour grapes (well, some maybe) but rather the confidence that we can build a better economy by having a better match of person and job and by doing everything better. Better is cheaper is faster!


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *