Survey: 74% of Workers Are Passive Job Seekers Ready to Consider a Move

If there is one thing that is pretty obvious as we slowly crawl out of the recession, it’s this: quite a few workers are ready to bolt for a new job if the right opportunity presents itself.

One survey last fall by Jobvite said that nearly two-thirds of America’s workforce, or 77.5 million people, were ready to leave for another job. Other surveys have had other numbers depending on when they were taken, but they all have one thing in common: a strong sense that quite a few people are not-so-happy with how they were treated by their employers during the Great Recession and that many are now ready to move on should they get the chance.

Think that’s way too pessimistic of an analysis? Maybe, but here’s yet another survey that not only reconfirms that thinking but makes the point even more strongly.

A large “silent majority” of passive job seekers out there

According to a recent survey conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of Plateau Systems, a wide majority (74 percent) of employed full time/part time and not self employed workers would consider a new job opportunity. No big surprise there, but there is a twist in this poll.

According to Plateau, “after several years of recession marked by widespread layoffs, benefit reductions, and pay cuts, many assume U.S. workers would be singing ‘I can’t get no satisfaction,’ and actively hunting for new jobs. While certainly true for many, the survey indicates that most workers are satisfied or very satisfied with their current employment, and only about a quarter have an updated profile on resume on a job board or networking site like LinkedIn or Monster.”

Okay, that’s the twist — most people are generally satisfied in their current job. That’s somewhat surprising given the general sense that just as soon as the economy recovers enough for healthy job growth, employees will start voting with their feet.

But despite the promising signs, the Plateau survey also found that there is a large “silent majority” of passive job seekers. In nearly equal proportions, workers surveyed say they would consider a new job or career opportunity if approached, even if they’re not actively looking (74 percent), a percentage that is even higher among college graduates (77 percent) and those with a household income of more than $75,000 a year (76 percent).

The survey found three key reasons why workers, even if they are generally satisfied with their current jobs, are ready to make a move:

  • The desire for higher salary (57 percent);
  • A need for general change (31 percent): and,
  • The lack of adequate career and/or advancement opportunities (29 percent.)

“There’s a lot of talk about widespread job dissatisfaction, so we were frankly surprised by the findings,” said Jeff Kristick, Senior Vice President of Marketing at Plateau, in a press release that accompanied the survey. “The large percent of passive job seekers presents an interesting challenge for HR leaders as the predicted ‘war for talent’ heats up — this is clearly larger than a top performers problem.”

HR can impact workers’ perceptions

Ah, the “war for talent” again. This phrase popped up last week as a growing issue in Bersin & Associates latest quarterly survey, and the Plateau survey seems to reconfirm that the notion of “War for Talent 2.0” is a growing issue in the workplace and an area of concern for talent management leaders and HR pros everywhere.

Plateau’s analysis of the survey also said this: While most workers are seemingly just a better offer away from jumping ship, HR leaders have the opportunity make a significant impact on workers’ perceptions, if not the reality of their circumstances.

One way they can do this is by putting career and development programs front and center, for example ensuring that employees have an individual development plan (IDP) in place that gives them a clear picture of their future with the organization. HR can also play a role in providing greater transparency around what it takes to meet advancement opportunities, for example by establishing position-based competencies.

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Additionally, linking pay to performance can help ensure that top-performing and high-potential employees are fairly compensated, and thus less likely to jump when a competing firm “flashes some cash.”

Those are all good suggestions, but they still don’t address the major issue — a large and seemingly growing group of employees are ready and willing to get up and go even if they seem relatively happy in their current job circumstances. This “silent majority” of passive job seekers is a ticking time bomb for many companies, and it shows yet again (as if we needed more proof) that the businesses have done a great job getting their workers to accept the notion of “free agent nation” where there is no real loyalty from the company and it is everyone for themselves.

Workers didn’t necessarily want that, but businesses did, and they have had the upper hand in the relationship for some time given the terrible economy and glut of talent available. It will be interesting to see how businesses adjust when workers finally have some degree of power back in their hands again and can be a lot choosier about where they work.

Addressing the 3 reasons why workers would go

We may not be quite there yet, but as the Bersin research pointed out last week, this “New War for Talent” is distinguished by what Bersin calls “the borderless workplace,” an environment in which age, geography, gender and organizational boundaries are disappearing. Companies must immediately address employee and customer satisfaction issues, they say, because these factors will quickly surface on social networks.

The Plateau survey was conducted was conducted online within the United States by Harris Interactive on behalf of Plateau from January 25-27, 2011 among 2,516 adults ages 18 and older. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.

This survey, although not quite as pessimistic as some, does give some hope that retaining quality talent is possible for an organization if they can address the big 3 reasons why workers would be willing to go — pay, new job challenges, and longer term career opportunities.

Will American business respond and do what is necessary to keep those passive job seekers on board? It’s hard to say, but one thing is clear; between the Bersin and Plateau surveys, there is a clear and undeniable sense that retention and talent management issues are becoming highly relevant again.

Even if you were able to ignore these issues during the recession, that doesn’t seem to be the case moving ahead.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


7 Comments on “Survey: 74% of Workers Are Passive Job Seekers Ready to Consider a Move

  1. As a recruiter, one sign of candidate passivity is how quickly (if at all) a candidate responds to my outreach when I am conducting a search. Two years ago, I needed the “jaws of life” to extricate a candidate from a position to consider the one that I was retained to fill. A recently completed search, however, showed that the times-they-are-a-changing in a way consistent with the survey findings mentioned in your article. The two finalists in the search conducted for a global consumer products company, were both snug and happy in their positions (also with two other global leaders.) Both, however, were ready to move on for the right opportunity. Compensation wasn’t the major reason; the desire to take what they know and advance their careers in a new organization was the deciding factor to engage.

    Additionally, when massive cuts were taking place, the “survivors” in organizations that were downsizing, were asked to take on broader responsibilities, often going outside of their areas of expertise. Coupling the relief of having a job with a longer, harder, more challenging workday, these professionals now find themselves in somewhat enviable positions. They are considered the desirable “employed” as discussed in last week’s post, Refusing to Consider the Unemployed? Read This and Then You Decide, by by Dr. John Sullivan, and they can demonstrate broader experience and the ability to be nimble as a result of wearing so many hats. With companies now putting their toes back in the water as far as hiring is concerned, these “generalist” candidates may become a hot commodity as hiring continues to ramp up. In November, I gave a talk to our local IABC Chapter (International Association of Business Communicators.) The content of the discussion focused on a series of questions that I posed to a several members of my network . . . all Communications professionals ranging from Manager to EVP levels and across a wide range of industry sectors. One question, “what career missteps do you see communicators making?” brought answers relevant to most professionals, not just communicators. The consistent response? . . . not being willing to take on new responsibilities, not pushing the envelope as far as their own areas of expertise are concerned, and not raising their hands and rolling up their sleeves when help was needed. While employees who did these things were overburdened, they are also emerging as battle-tested and well-rounded . . . a very compelling package for a prospective employer that needs to fill key positions. They are the ones who, I think, will start returning recruiter calls with greater frequency. Thank you for the great post, John.

  2. John, Your article was spot on…we see this daily in working with candidates who desperately want out of their current position partially because their employer keeps cutting salary and benefits while increasing work load but moreover, the attitude the employer has of “You are not of any value to us anymore because if you leave, there are 10 like you waiting in line for this job.”

  3. These results again stress the importance of investing in your talent, and not only in terms of their financial compensation. Employees want to know that there is a place for them in the future of the company, and that that place is more elevated than the one they are in now. You need to express to them that they are valued and that their contributions are integral to the organization. I’m not saying this type of engagement is going to keep all passive job seekers from eventually leaving your company, but in a time when workers have seen their friends, family members and co-workers laid off by the dozens, they need a little reassurance that you’re invested in them as they are in you. It’s never too late to get started, either:

  4. I’m not so sure people would really leave a job these days becasue of the trauma of how bad the economy reached not too long ago. Maybe the part-timer who are just working to get through school will leap at the chance, but others who are earning money from their actual careers, that need to support a family are going to lay low until the economic coast is VERY clear, which won’t be for a verrrrrryyyyy long time.

  5. We’ve been hearing about this supposedly huge group of dissatisfied employees ready to move for a few years now (typically through a survey sponsored by a company that might benefit from that finding). The logic is that the vast majority of employees has been so badly treated they will jump employers at the first opportunity. So I’m confused . . .

    Which employers exactly will they be running to? If everyone’s been treated so badly, where are those few angelic employers that didn’t have to make the rational business decision to cut costs and headcount over the past few years? Hint — they’re few, far between and likely are well staffed already if they’re such highly profitable engagement machines. Was it actually bad treatment they suffered or, if they’re still employed, was it an employer choosing to give them a paycheck when they could have laid them off?

    Which job hasn’t had the performance/workload bar raised over the few years? Does this “almost ready to jump” group think that those same magnanimous companies have also not made their jobs more complex and challenging. Really? They think that the level of effort they expended 5 years ago is going to be acceptable today? The recession taught companies that they could do more with less and there’ s no compelling reason for them to change that now.

    If they’re that qualified, why haven’t they moved already? The job market was challenging over the past few years, but hardly non-existent. Companies I was employed by and consulted to were still hiring at all levels — selectively. The best talent has had opportunities available throughout the downturn.

    There likely are a few companies who managed badly during the recession (and likely before it, and after it). Their employees should be encouraged to vote with their feet and apply their skills elsewhere. But to believe that the entire labor force will be able to play a game of corporate musical chairs is more than a little ridiculous.

  6. I’m no great statistician, but when the percentage breakup (57, 31, 29) of “reason workers want to leave” adds up to over a 100% it leaves me questioning the authenticity of the study.

    1. Ben: Frequently, surveys like these allow for people to mark more than one reason or answer given that it rarely is one and only one thing making them want to leave. That is probably why the percentages add up to more than 100 percent — and why you shouldn’t automatically discount the survey results.

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