Where The Truth Lies: The Need For Balance Between Active and Passive Recruiting

I once heard a story that the CEO of a major executive search firm told a group of newly minted partners to never present candidates who are unemployed. When one of the new partners raised his hand and challenged the CEO as to how the firm could adequately serve its clients without evaluating all potential candidates, the CEO implied that, by definition, anyone who is unemployed is inferior.

I understand this line of thinking. It’s simple, concise, easy to categorize. A “sexy” pitch. In fact, it’s the same line of thinking that leads to the idea that anyone who hangs out with a communist must be a communist sympathizer, or that someone who fires a woman must be a misogynist, or who is accused must be guilty in some way. In short, it’s dead wrong.

What’s wrong about it is it’s incendiary, irresponsible, and extreme. One-sided. And it’s not like I believe the opposite line of thinking to be true either (that all recruiting should be focused on those who are unemployed). Quite the contrary. I have a problem with that version as well. I’ve read a number of articles (such as in Workforce Management Magazine lately, in this recession, that imply (or even overtly state) that passive recruiting is a “shameful practice” and contributes to the distrust of corporate America by the many millions of workers who are seeking employment. Passive recruiting shameful? Again, this reasoning is as misguided as the CEOs above.

“To suggest that passive recruiting in the face of a high unemployment rate is unethical is a misnomer that fails to take into account the bigger picture,” says Dr. Cheryl-Marie Hansberger, vice president of strategic development for Delcan, a global engineering firm. “It is true that most industries are seeing an increase in the number of applicants per position; however, for our company this increase has not equated to larger pools of qualified candidates. Instead this increase creates an additional burden for lean HR teams as we spend more time processing unqualified applicants. The fact of the matter is successful companies use the most cost-effective means to recruit qualified candidates, whether it is a direct hire or a passive candidate, period.”

And this is what I’m not hearing much of in all the chatter out there — the middle ground — where the truth lies.

“Recruiters … want to fill the job perhaps more than anyone,” says Ginny Eagle, director of talent acquisition for T-Mobile. “If the requisition has attracted what appears to be top candidates, we look no further. If not, we source. Sourcing involves multiple activities to find the perfect candidate. Professional networking tools are used, and we often can’t really tell if someone is still employed or not because people are not updating their profiles when they first leave a job. They sometimes wait, so they don’t appear to be unemployed.”

One of the themes that I’ve constantly referred back to is, when it comes to recruiting, one size does not fit all. As mentioned above, great recruiting requires both active and passive strategies and, in short, good, hard work. As with most things, to say that something is all or nothing simply isn’t true. For instance, the idea that active recruiting involves “damaged goods” is simply not always the case. It takes a great HR person to know the difference.

“There is no denying that many share the opinion that the best people don’t get laid off. To me, this is a narrow point of view as situations certainly exist, such as our current economic environment, that put even the best people at risk,” notes Jason Farr, vice president, global talent acquisition, Coca-Cola Enterprises.
“I believe it’s important to not limit ourselves and to be open to all candidates.”

To be sure, there are candidates who have been laid off for performance reasons, and companies do use an economic downturn to mask laying off people for performance issues. In this instance, companies know there are a lot more active candidates in the marketplace and thus, they can replace the individual laid off quicker. As a result, there are certainly individuals with professional red flags in the marketplace, but the successful recruiter will have a balanced view of this.

And there are undoubtedly specific roles whereby the chances are that 90% or more of appropriate candidates will be developed through passive recruiting. For certain roles, in certain professions, there are simply not a lot of candidates, and the best people are employed elsewhere. “While passive recruiting is very costly, it is essential in industries that have large barriers to entry and, as a result, smaller qualified applicant pools,” says Hansberger.

“Those in the healthcare industry know this quite well,” adds Christine de la Paz, human resources director, Aurora Behavioral HealthCare. “We are specific to what we are looking for, and not only through our whim … the requirements are dictated by government bodies and accrediting organizations. After all, our RNs need to have a valid license.”

Thus if you’re a company looking for these types of people, you have to know where they are and be able to convince them to come elsewhere. To not adopt this approach for these key roles would be corporately irresponsible.

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But a vital element in all of this is you don’t have to pursue only one strategy. The different approaches do require different skill sets. Active candidate recruiters tend to have a “post and pray” mentality and are very assessment-focused; passive candidate recruiters are skilled at sourcing strategy and research, among other things.

The key is that as recruiters and HR professionals, we have to develop skills and techniques to do both and should not necessarily be single-strategy focused. Some (dare I say many) roles will require both an assessment and sourcing strategy.

Notes Chelle Wingeleth, director-global recruitment services, Research in Motion Ltd, the developer of the BlackBerry mobile device, “It is incumbent upon recruiting professionals to design and pursue strategies to find the best talent quickly. In today’s market it is true that there are more active candidates; however, this does not mean that we can become complacent and rely upon one source. Posting a job so that active candidates may apply is not a silver bullet. What if the right candidate does not apply? A good recruiter will focus on attracting active applicants and, in parallel, search for passive candidates.”

A question bigger than all of this lurks, however: As staffing and recruiting teams have dwindled in companies and the recruiting specialists have left, where do we go to identify candidates?

The answer, as you may have guessed, turns out to be not one place but many places. They include everything from using outsourced providers to developing appropriate sourcing methods in-house (as mentioned above).

Ultimately, according to Wingeleth, “Companies and recruiters are striving to do the right thing. Who among us does not want to see unemployment go down? But, the reality of our situation is this: The national jobless rate is 9.5%. This means that 90.5% of Americans are employed. No line manager or company playing to win in this economy would say they want to ignore 90% of the potential talent. Put another way, who would only want to consider 10% of the possible candidates?”

Thus, as I’ve mentioned previously, if your ultimate goal is to increase your value to your organization, and be the best recruiter possible, you have to stay away from only-one-way-or-another, all-or-nothing mentality. In the end, in this economy, it may get you nothing.

Jeremy is managing principal of Riviera Advisors, Inc. (www.RivieraAdvisors.com), based in Long Beach, California, a leading human resources consulting firm focused on helping companies improve their internal recruiting processes and capabilities. In addition to his more than 15 years of consulting with corporate staffing teams all over the globe, he has more than 20 years experience leading the global staffing function for companies such as Universal Studios, Idealab, and Amazon.com. He is a leading speaker to organizations on the value of the staffing function, including chairing the ERE Expos in 2006-2007. He is a professional member of the prestigious National Speakers Association and the Institute of Management Consultants; and has served on the national staffing management special expertise panel and the workforce planning standards committee of the Society for Human Resource Management. He is the author of the book “RecruitCONSULT! Leadership: The Corporate Talent Acquisition Leader’s Field Book” (STARoundtable Press, 2011).


15 Comments on “Where The Truth Lies: The Need For Balance Between Active and Passive Recruiting

  1. Having built a MBA recruiting service at http://www.mbaglobalnet.com that features “passive candidates” I understand the “active” versus “passive” dance for recruiters.

    I own the URL: talenpools.com and invite any HR entrepreneur interested in building out a new “passive” candidate service to let me know. I have the business model figured out, but need a passionate person to help “sweat equity” build it as I don’t have the time.


    Rob Steir

  2. Jeremy:

    I loved your article! In my experience, I assumed that recruiting was so easy anybody could do it. Hence, I found it astonishing when many HM’s struggled to find quality staff. Upon gaining a deeper understanding of the challenges the HM’s faced, I found that the truth is many HM’s relied upon a single methodology of recruiting “post, pray and hope” or a hit and miss strategy. When this method did not provide the results they sought, panic set in.

    I’ve learned in many cases recruiting is not a problem for an operator until a need arises (understaffed). To make matters worse the decision making process is complicated when there’s a lack of understanding in interviewing and selection. Ultimately, if desperation sets in, they will hire a warm body. It can be a negative cycle and counter productive to business growth. I’ve learned that companies that have a recruiting culture and value talent pools do much better.

    In my experience, I’ve found that the key is to have the following: multiple channels of attracting quality staff on a continuous basis; building your image and connections within the community (on and offline) and integrating strategic partnership with your resources in which, they have a clear understanding of your target market (in turn becoming an extension of your team).

    I’ve believe that quality and the right fit are more imperative to the hiring process than making assumptions about “employed vs. unemployed” people because there are too many circumstances to make those assumptions. In conclusion, it’s important to look at the whole picture, diversify your efforts and build a solid recruiting strategy, which include metrics, in order to create sound hiring processes.

  3. hello fellow Jeremy…

    this statement is so ignorant, but not surprised it came out of an Agency’s mouth: “anyone who is unemployed is inferior.”

    20 bucks says that CEO has been unemployed since then 😉


  4. In my opinion the most important difference between active and passive candidates is situational.

    Active candidates = likely to know you’re hiring.

    Passive candidates = unlikely to know you’re hiring.

    A thorough search for the ideal candidate may often involve engaging both types of candidates. Because many large companies post positions and attract active candidates it is important that the search firm they choose to partner with works on engaging passive candidates.

  5. Jeremy L.

    I guess you skipped the part of the article, actually the very first line, that reads, “I once heard a story that the CEO of a major executive search firm told…”. You also skipped over the fact that what you have quoted is simply the author’s summary. It is not a quote!

    The writer is relaying something they simply heard about. In all likelihood, it is fictional. You, however, have taken “the story” as fact, accepted the author’s summary as fact and quote, and loosed your outrageous bias against agency recruiters upon the rest of us.

    You might want to rethink you use of the term “ignorant”.

  6. Well thought out article. I agree with you about the “misguided reasoning” in the Workforce Management article. That article is wrong on so many levels. But on the most basic of levels, the author is taking an antidotal situation and making it a widespread trend. Secondly, the person quoted was involved in executive recruiting which is a unique (and much smaller) portion of the market. In my experience, if the active prospect is qualified (regardless of level) they will be interviewed for an opening.

    The facts are most of us cannot meet our talent demands by relying on just the active job seeker. If only 14-20% of the talent supply looking for work, the odds of an active jobseeker having the specific skills that a job might require is very small. And as you article (and feedback to your article) suggests we need to be active in multiple channels. In my world, it is not about active vs. causal, passive or inactive job seeker, it is about recruiting the best talent to meet the businesses needs.

  7. Thanks for the comments everyone. The story I related to regarding the head of an executive search firm was in fact a story that was shared with me by a colleague who worked for that search firm. Although I was not there, it was truthfully related to me by my colleague who was attending an executive retreat for a worldwide executive search firm. The point I was trying to make was not indicting any executive search person, but ANYONE (corporate HR, Hiring Manager, Executive, or search person), who implies that anyone who is unemployed is inferior. That was the point. And, the point is that there must be a middle ground between ALL passive and ALL active. Thanks for your comments.

  8. Seeking to hire only passive candidates is not only tragically flawed as it drastically reduces the candidate pool; it is also discrimination in its purest and most malevolent fashion.

    Call me a nihilist but to not give equal consideration to candidates who worked for organizations that have had massive layoffs or worse, been victims of corporate malfeasance in this unspeakable meltdown is evil beyond all manner of thought or action as it takes individuals who have been victimized and victimizes them yet again.

    If I knew of an organization that did not consider hiring candidates because another company did not already employ them, I would stay up nights figuring out how to not buy their products or services. When I got that straight, I would stay up more nights figuring out a way to see that everyone else on the planet did not buy them either. Let them sell to their passive candidates.


  9. I almost said to a client, “who would you rather have the person that was let go from your competitor, or the person still there”?

    Boy am I glad I did not say that because later in qualifying the order I found out his wife was just down sized.

    I think it is important to look at everyone and present toughs that are qualified. The only thing scary about present an active candidate (at least in my company. We work both direct and contingent), is there is a better chance the customer may flip the candidate into accepting a temporary to ire.

  10. As a TPR we focus on the “passive talent” mainly because if a company is actively looking, posting ads everywhere, and doing their own sourcing then it is our job to be a value added service and show them talent they would not see otherwise. Having siad that, I do work with and actively seek out the active candidates (employed or not) that fit the specs for the positions we are engaged on for our clients and customers.

    I agree wholeheartedly with Jeremy in that we all must look at ALL potential candidates, especially in this market when entire operations have been closed, plants shuttered and staffs cut (not just the “fat” but muscle and bone too). In these situations even the best and the brightest can get caught – does anyone NOT want to see these people if they fit your job, company and team dynamic?

  11. I can’t believe the active vs. passive debate continues. Someone working at their desk today is a great candidate because they’re passive. Tonight they answer an ad or post their resume and suddenly they’re not a great candidate because they’re active? That doesn’t make sense. Active or passive doesn’t determine the best candidate for a job. One is not inherently better than the other and the recruiter who only sources from one isn’t doing all they should to provide the best candidates.

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