Why You Shouldn’t Waste Your Time Recruiting Passive Candidates

© Lasse Kristensen - Fotolia.com
© Lasse Kristensen - Fotolia.com

Every executive and hiring manager worth his or her salt will tell you hiring top talent is the most important thing they need to do. Unfortunately when it comes to putting their money on the table, most often all you’ll see is pocket change.

Somewhere in the bowels of the company’s mission statement is some form of the platitude “hiring top talent is a major company objective.” But in the field where the battle is played out, a different picture emerges.

Hiring top talent, especially those who aren’t looking for a job, is not about posting a boring job description on some site, getting people to apply, and then conducting a series of behavioral interviews. It’s about finding and convincing these top people that your position offers the best career move among competing opportunities. While many recruiters and individual hiring managers can pull this off one assignment at a time, only those companies with a compelling employer brand have mastered the art at scale.

“You can’t hire top passive candidates who aren’t looking”

Another positive U.S. Department of Labor hiring report with 244,000 new jobs created in April 2011 brings seven months of significant job gains. A few more months like this and there will be a real need for companies to accelerate their passive-candidate recruiting.

LinkedIn’s historic IPO roller coaster of a run provides credence to the interest in tools available to help make this shift. LinkedIn can be an invaluable tool in the right hands. In the wrong ones, however, it’s just an expensive company directory. Worse, once everyone has the same directory it will be even less valuable without a companywide ability to recruit and hire passive candidates.

Except in isolated instances, I’m going to contend that based on how companies now recruit passive candidates, most of their efforts will be wasted. In large part, this is attributed to the lack of alignment with strategy and tactics. Simply put, you can’t hire top passive candidates who aren’t looking, using processes designed to hire active candidates who are looking.

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Rather than get into all of the nitty-gritty details of this, the following are some of the bigger issues you need to consider to make sure your company is ready and able to hire passive candidates in any sizeable quantity.

8 questions to answer if you recruit passive candidates

If you can’t answer unequivocally yes to the following questions, don’t waste your time recruiting passive candidates. Instead, spend it figuring how to get ready.

  1. Money talks. Are the funds and resources available to match the level of importance assigned to hiring top talent? If you don’t have enough money in the budget to spend on higher salaries, more recruiters, and better resources, you’ll come up short more times than not.
  2. Hold hiring managers accountable for quality of hire and timeliness. Are the hiring managers at your company held fully accountable for the timeliness and quality of their hiring decisions? This means the topic is part of every staff meeting and part of their performance reviews. If hiring managers are not held responsible for their hiring efforts, and do not consider it a priority, don’t waste your time recruiting passive candidates. You’ll just be disappointed at all of the good passive talent you didn’t hire.
  3. Make sure hiring managers are able to recruit and hire top talent. Are your hiring managers able to both accurately interview and recruit top talent? Not only must hiring managers be held responsible for hiring top talent, they also must be able to do it properly. Recruiting passive candidates — especially the goods ones who are in high demand –requires managers who understand how to position their jobs as career moves and then demonstrate that they have mentored their best people into better jobs. Without this ability and validation, hiring top passive candidates will depend on the company’s reputation and/or the hiring manager’s manager.
  4. Make sure everyone on the hiring team knows what they’re looking for before you start looking. Before the sourcing process begins, do you get everyone to agree to the real job needs and performance objectives? (Here’s an article on how to do this.) If not, how can you possibly accurately assess competency? Worse, top passive candidates always ask recruiters to tell them about the job before they decide to even seriously engage with a company. If the people they then interview with don’t describe something similar, they’ll disengage very quickly.
  5. Offer career moves, not lateral transfers. Are you still posting traditional job descriptions highlighting skills and experiences where passive candidates can see them? If so, stop, at least if you want to hire passive candidates. (Here’s how and why.) The best passive candidates are not looking for lateral transfers. LinkedIn is filled with great people who are looking for career moves, so if you want to attract them you must advertise career moves. As part of these career-oriented messages, describe the employee value proposition, what the person will learn, do, and could become if successful, and how their skills will be used on the job.
  6. Conduct a professional, two-way interview and assessment process. Do you still conduct 30-minute interviews; are any managers unprepared; do you ask silly or inappropriate questions; and do managers still expect candidates to be overly eager? These all run counter to the requirements for hiring passive candidates. The best passive candidates expect the interview process to be professional, well-organized, and those involved, knowledgeable and fully-prepared. They prefer tough questions that dig into performance, team skills, and job-related critical thinking ability. They’ll quickly disengage if managers ask meaningless questions, don’t understand the job, get mixed signals about real job needs, are left waiting, or a rushed through a series of wasted interviews where they’re judged on presentation skills and cleverness rather than their accomplishments. They expect, in turn, to be able to ask tough questions about available resources and upside opportunities, if successful.
  7. Don’t sell, recruit. Do your hiring managers really understand how to attract, assess, and recruit star candidates who have multiple opportunities? Hyperbole and platitudes work when selling snake oil to the naïve, but not to top performers who aren’t looking. In this case hiring managers have to describe real job needs, conduct an in-depth performance-based assessment, and clearly demonstrate that their opening offers stretch, growth, and upside opportunity. Recruiting passive candidates requires them to see your opening as the best among competing career moves. In the process, money will take a back seat and they’ll begin to sell you.
  8. Provide recruiters the time and training to recruit. Can your recruiters recruit and, if so, do they have the time to do it right? Both are prerequisites to hiring more passive candidates. LinkedIn is a great resource, but without skilled recruiters who can attract, screen, recruit, and close top talent based on career opportunities, not compensation increases, it’s nothing more than a job board for the professional market. Don’t bother hiring top-notch recruiters or send them through passive candidate recruiter training either, if they’re not given the time needed to spend contacting and networking with passive candidates.

Finding 100 million passive candidates on LinkedIn is not the same as hiring them. To hire them in any quantity you need committed and capable hiring managers and recruiters who are trusted partners with their hiring manager clients and have the skills and time to recruit.

All of this must be on top of a hiring process that’s designed to meet the needs of top people who aren’t looking. If you don’t have these core pillars driving your hiring efforts, don’t waste your time recruiting passive candidates.

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 “Why You Shouldn’t Waste Your Time Recruiting Passive Candidates

  1. Having been on both sides of this issue, I would also recommend that recruiters remember that passive candidates are and can be reluctant candidates as well.  As such, they require quite a bit more recruiting and sales effort to convince them to devote the time and effort to enter into the process.

  2. Wondering out loud: coming out of the Great Recession when for most people wages and benefits were froze (if not taken away) and companies worked leaner meaning many were over worked and under appreciated… how many people are not looking to see if the grass is greener else where?

    What is the current definition of a passive candidate? Has it changed in the past 16 months?

  3. I can understand each perspective, but have to argue that the passive candidate should be considered in the recruiting process. A passive candidate could be the right person for your organization and should not be ignored. The issue that can be presented is that many organizations make it difficult for candidates to interview–making a overall difficult candidate experience. The candidates often are forced to accommodate their normal workday around an interview, therefore most often do not bother to apply or look for jobs due to schedule confliction. 

    A way to overcome this candidate experience barrier is with video interviewing. With the demands of recruiting increasing users of video interviews have found that it saves time, expenses, and finds quality candidates. More importantly users of video interviewing are discovering that video interviews are less intrusive for candidates. The candidate experience is conveniently tailored for the candidates. It allows the candidate to take an interview on their own schedule and time frame, at their convenience. Candidates are more prone to then accomplish an interview if it is based around their personal schedule for you.


  4. I have to say that when I read the article title – I thought it’s going to be one more rant about passive sourcing. However, Lou make some very sensible and logical points to me.

    Recruiting passive candidate is not alone a responsibility of a recruiter / sourcer. It is a team effort of hiring managers/ leadership. At the end of the day candidate will be working with hiring managers and hiring managers should be able to get the candidate involved into company culture, growth and vision behind their functions. It’s partnership between HMs and recruitment which wins the battle. In most of the companies hiring managers just want to wait in the wings and do nothing to make influence. It does not help as candidate do not gains a confidence about the entire process. 

  5. We provide video interviewing tools to assist hiring mangers with many of the obstacles you mention above.  Because our tools record the video interview, you can build up a bank of candidate videos to go back to when sourcing for a new, open position.  Using video in the hiring process, especially an automated tool that allows the candidate to interview themselves at a time convenient to them, improves the recruting process for the candidate and thus can attract top talent. http://www.video-view.com

    I especially like point number 2 about making the hiring manager accountable.  Hiring managers can’t keep blaming HR for bad hires if they aren’t involved in the process to hire an employee that is going to work under them.

  6. Excellent post and delighted that someone has finally made an attempt to dispel the ‘Passive Candidate’ myth which is more often than not misleading with the exception of the some very major top level appointments.

    There is an unhealthy obsession which verges on the almost delusional built around the analogy of “finding the very best candidate in the market as opposed to on the market”. This has been perpetuated by the recruitment industry and hiring professionals as some kind of demonstration of their divine capabilities to source talent that makes the mouth water and is basically unattainable without their exquisite talents. Utter rubbish.

    After 20 years in the recruitment industry working across all sectors I have lost count of the amount of times when I have witnessed a ‘Passive Candidate’ who was dragged kicking and screaming (apparently) to the interview room table, who had no desire to consider another job, who was rewarded in their current role beyond the realms of imaginable wealth. Who subsequently has had other offers on the table when it came down to negotiating the package at offer stage.

    The sheer diversity of humanity, the depth of quality, inspiration, experience and simple elements such as personality and variations in interpretation of charisma mean that the ‘very best’ will always be a subjective matter to the individual and from one organisational culture and DNA to another. Just because the woman who has returned from 2 years volunteering on a coral reclamation project in Fiji or Honduras is ‘on the market’ and actively applying for a new job, does not devalue the fact that she paid for her 2 year volunteer project with her previous exceptional levels of success and needed time out from those daunting heights of achievement to rejuvenate.

    Any great recruiter would advise and counsel any good company to go to the market, to consider every source and to value them all equally and to maintain a standardised process throughoutu regardless of passive or active candidate status. To focus on the qualities of the candidate not where they came from.

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