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What’s So Great About Passive Candidates?

by Dec 9, 2008, 5:37 am ET

Groucho Marx once said, “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have someone like me as a member.” Some recruiters feel similarly about candidates. They don’t want anyone who shows the least interest in joining an organization like theirs. They reject these applicants out of hand while searching out the true gems. These recruiters bypass “active candidates” while concentrating on those ever sought after, much-prized “passive candidates.” The question I have to ask is, what’s so great about passive candidates?

We spend so much time pursuing the passive candidates that we overlook the ones knocking on our door. Something about the stigma of someone who’s out there looking. But in this time when literally tens of thousands of people are losing their jobs, it’s crazy to assume that everyone who is out there looking for a job is “damaged goods.”

Some people I’ve met even look for reasons to devalue the candidacy of active candidates who are still employed. I’ve heard recruiters question why people are responding to ads while they still have a job. This train of thought goes something like, “In this day and age if you have a job, why would you be considering making a move? Are you about to be fired or laid off?” What is it that makes us question the motives of people looking for jobs? Aren’t we making our jobs harder by only looking for the flaws in active candidates? I’m all for screening applicants, but lately I’ve seen recruiters time after time shooting themselves in the foot.

Are we back in high school playing “hard to get”? As Todd Raphael put it when we were discussing this topic, “It’s a silly game where a candidate is supposed to be pretending they’re not looking.”

And what makes someone a passive candidate anyway?

The same person can be both a passive and an active candidate. If you find someone on LinkedIn and it says they’re “open to new opportunities,” is that person active or passive? Some might say that if they are employed they are passive, and if they are not then they are active. But it’s the same person you found when you were searching a person with that skill set. What difference does it make if they are unemployed if they’ve got what your organization needs!

If you call someone in your network talking about your current search and he says, “I know this guy named Peter; you should call him, he’d be perfect” — is Peter a passive or active candidate? If Peter happens to have his resume on Monster and CareerBuilder, does that mean he’s less valuable because he needs or wants to find a new job? Maybe you overlooked Peter’s resume because he has experience in a different industry, but now that he has been recommended by a trusted source you’re willing to ignore that deficit in his experience. You may have disregarded a perfectly viable candidate because you were intent on finding so-called passive candidates.

We also make our jobs harder because right now lots of passive candidates are less likely to take your calls or consider a move. People are trying to ride out the storm. I have yet to meet the recruiter who says they need to make their job more difficult.

There are all kinds of reasons that people are actively looking for work, and most of them do not cast a pall on the applicant. What if I need to find a job because my wife is being transferred to Chicago? What if I need a job because my company is going out of business or laying people off? What if my company just merged and I’m being proactive in positioning myself on the market before the company starts making up their RIF lists or transferring departments and people to other states? These are all attributes that make the person a more, not less, desirable candidate. The man who is looking because his wife transferred has shown that he is a good team player who can support others. The person who’s lost a job due to a business folding has learned valuable skills about how to survive in a difficult environment. The woman staying ahead of the curve by looking before the merger RIF’s hit has demonstrated a keen business sense and the ability to be proactive and in control. We may find ourselves ignoring proactive, experienced team players with solid business experience just because they are actively looking for a job. Since when did looking for a better job become the mark of Cain?

Many of us assume that the passive candidate is better because these are the people who are currently employed and therefore, employable. They are doing a good job for someone. Why do we assume that they’re doing a good job? Because they are not out there looking. How circular is that logic? Unless you have access to their personnel file and can review their last three performance evaluations, how do you know this person is doing a good job? If you use only one metric — employed — to validate their candidacy, you may be putting too much weight on a flawed criteria. Most successful recruiters use multiple metrics to determine the viability of a candidate.

The recruiting landscape has changed once again. We need to change our thinking about candidates. There are Boomers who thought they were going to retire looking to extend their careers; there have been a flood of layoffs; companies are closing their doors. There are going to be a lot of candidates, good candidates, available to us. Very active candidates who need our jobs and are anxious to fill them. We ignore active candidates at our own peril.

And don’t forget, passive candidates often cost more to attract, to recruit, and to retain. If you want to find good candidates less expensively and more quickly, open your doors to active candidates. They will be grateful for the opportunity; anxious to show they can do the work and just may be the keys to solving your staffing problems.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  • Howard Adamsky

    Hmmmm.

    Is this guy smart or what!

    Howard Adamsky

  • Jack Williams

    This is on the money. Nice writing, and solid logic behind his argument.

  • Marylyn Brennan

    I totally agree! I currently work for the Federal government, am secure in my position yet I am looking for a different job. Passive canidates don’t have much desire to leave their current position, whereas when you want to change you want to change! I am not a passive canidate yet since I am motivated I feel I am a better prospect for recruiters that contact me.

  • Susan Joyce

    ABSOLUTELY CORRECT! I’ve always thought this theory was not only crazy, but very damaging to people who needed a job.

    People who are out of a job for very long can lose their homes. Marriages break up. Kids have to drop out of college. And don’t forget the increase in illness, alcoholism, crime, and suicides that results!

    There is concrete research by Dr. Harvey Brenner that documents the cost to society of a 1% increase in the unemployment rate, and this pointless if-you-are-interested-in-us-we’re-not-interested-in-you attitude DOES NOT HELP!

  • Joseph Murphy

    Great perspective. To me, investing energy in finding and pursuing the passive candidate is an indicator of a sourcing problem. Makes me want to ask, why are solid candidates not finding you?

    Resume spam from passive seekers obscuring the interested, overly long cycle times from wooing the coy candidate while over looking the engaged, fishing for trout in a catfish hole. All these add up to staffing process waste.

    Recruiters we work with say: Give me someone who above all others has put sincere energy into finding my company, my jobs.

    Joe Murphy
    Shaker Consulting Group
    Developers of the Virtual Job Tryout®

  • Ron Selewach

    Any person with an up-to-date resume is an active job seeker; true passive candidates do not have a resume because they are not on the market. That’s what makes them so desirable – they are stable and focused on their job. One might argue that such a person would not be interested in considering a career move, but almost everyone would be willing to consider a good career advancing move; the key – if it were easy to do so! Going through the frustration of putting a lifetime’s worth of experience on two pages, or dealing with a tedious resume builder is not what one would call “easy”. Announcing a job title and then immediately demanding a full accounting of one’s background is not “making it easy to consider a change,” nor is it effective marketing of the opportunity. However if you have a system whereby a person can engage in a web or phone based interactive interview, where they can answer direct job related questions (instead of guessing at what to put in a resume) and also receive more information about the opportunity, the company, and the culture, without the prerequisite of a resume, then you have an effective tool anybody will embrace, resumed or resumeless. The trick to all this is learning how to reach people that don’t have a resume, and engage them.

    Candidates will be most attracted to those companies that are considerate of their time, provide an efficient and effective evaluation process, and give them closure in a timely manner. The race for talent will be won by those companies that can whisk a candidate through a world-class experience without the prerequisite of a resume.

  • Todd Noebel

    I love this article. It highlights an issue I see with so many recruiting efforts and dare I say recruiters – they’ve lost sight of the true end game of hiring the best possible person for the role. Period.

    Who cares what label has been arbitrarily assigned to a candidate? Does the difficulty in finding and attracting the person inherently make them any better suited to the role? Not any more so then the act of a candidate expressing interest in a role makes them inherently LESS well suited to the role. Heck, I’m a passive candidate myself…right up until the time I hear something that piques my interest and then I get active. Very active.

    I guess this all boils down to the ugly truth that recruiters need to understand the role they are being asked to fill so that they know how to recognize, cultivate (also known as rapport building getting to know), and attract a good person when they speak with one.

    The “myth” of the passive candidate, as is so often the case with myths, has taken on a life of its own.

    Nice to see some other folks doing some myth busting!

  • Bob Gately

    Ron, great article.

    Too few hiring managers know how to determine who will become a successful employee so they hope that another employer’s long-term employee is the best person to hire. PAST PERFORMANCE is the BEST PREDICTOR of FUTURE PERFORMANCE (PPBPFP) is at the heart of the problem. Dr. Wendell Williams did a nice job of explaining that recently.

    There are too many variables for PPBPFP to hold true. If a passive candidate has a good manager and accepts a position reporting to a bad manager, then PPBPFP does not hold true.

    If a passive candidate has a bad manager and accepts a position reporting to an even worse manager, then PPBPFP does not hold true.

    Does the bad manager blame himself when the a hire quits to get away from him?

    When hiring managers hire for talent they know that the best hires are passive candidates about 20% of the time which means that 80% of the time the best person to hire is an active candidate. The secret to hiring for talent is to know how to measure talent.

    Competence is King but talent is the King’s Queen and together they rule job performance.

    gately@csi.com

  • Ann Clifford

    “Passive candidates are just an illusion. There is a reason why they are called “passive.” It’s because they are “passive.” They generally do not move into action until someone pushes them to do so which is not a characteristic of an “A” player.”

    Excerpt from blog link:
    http://safarisolutions.compendiumblog.com/blog/ann-cliffords-blog/0/0/passive-candidate—an-illusion

  • Michael Goldberg

    Good Article, but it will be interesting to see the articles that come out when this market turns around about how important passive candidates are. I don’t know how far the history of articles goes back, but I can bet you there is more than one article on building pipelines and seeking passive candidates.

    True, as recruiters we should be looking at the active candidates and considering them first. It is very important, but I believe you can source the candidates currently working (see, I didn’t call them passive) for pipelining purposes. When the economy does turn around and open requisitions begin to reappear, we as recruiters need to be ready for our hiring managers’ needs…that means we need to have those pipelines filled and ready.

    Active or Passive, I am always open to speaking to people who can make a difference in any organization.

  • Jean-Marc Frion

    Applying logic to challenge a myth … I wonder how effective it can be on the believers. Fortunately probably not much. I say fortunately because in our business, like in most others (luxury goods is a very obvious example) myths prop up demand for our services. So let’s giggle about it but please stop short of destroying it. The next myth could be much uglier.

  • Ron Tarver

    Sorry. This article is thoughtlessly shallow (or at least only partially right) and overlooks one of the main disadvantages of actively-looking candidates–the fact that the candidate can be easily found by the client and that the internet trainers will show them howe. At bottom, clients pay real recruiters to do what thet cannot do. That is, to find highly qualified people that can be secured in NO other way.

    When I learned how to GENUINELY recruit(through Steven Finkel’s terrific DVDs on the subject, “The Art of Recruiting” and “Book More Business”,though Larry Nobles’ book is also good), I no longer heard “we’ve already got that candidate” and “you’re the third recruiters who’s called me on him”. I quit getting turndowns due to other opportunties the candidate was looking at.I increased my production enormously!

    If you liked the old classified ad responses, you’ll love the internet boards.I’m sure the clients do. REAL recruiters..recruit! And make much more money doing so.

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  • Charlene Burke

    Once I was a candidate – active if you need a label. Not desirable because obviously something was wrong with me or I wouldn’t be looking for a job. Then I was a candidate – passive if you need a label. I became desirable because I was working, obviously not in need of a job. Too bad you missed out the first time!

    Now I am self-employed as a researcher. Not just a candidate sourcer, though that is one of my many income streams. I provide research to companies in need of information that will allow them to make their bottom line decisions with more confidence and success.

    Rather than miss out on my excellent background, tenacious and persistent desire to complete a project perfectly, and high skill levels – contract your work to me.

    Generally speaking my experience shows that the need to use labels is the easy way out of personal growth and professional success.

  • Keith Halperin

    Though I find Ron’s tone unpleasant, I agree with the argument he makes: with a few exceptions, unless we are able to recruit the way he suggests and provide high value-add services, we will be replaced by people doing the other types of recruiting services (e.g., internet sourcing and “board scraping”) who cost no more than about $2-3k/month (and some of us will be providing the people who do those services).

    Cheers,
    Keith keithsrj@sbcglobal.net 415.586.8265

    “In the 21st century, everything changes and you gotta be ready!”
    - Captain Jack Harkness
    …………………………………………………

    Ron Tarver Dec 9, 2008 at 10:32 am
    Sorry. This article is thoughtlessly shallow (or at least only partially right) and overlooks one of the main disadvantages of actively-looking candidates–the fact that the candidate can be easily found by the client and that the internet trainers will show them howe. At bottom, clients pay real recruiters to do what thet cannot do. That is, to find highly qualified people that can be secured in NO other way.

    When I learned how to GENUINELY recruit(through Steven Finkel’s terrific DVDs on the subject, “The Art of Recruiting” and “Book More Business”,though Larry Nobles’ book is also good), I no longer heard “we’ve already got that candidate” and “you’re the third recruiters who’s called me on him”. I quit getting turndowns due to other opportunties the candidate was looking at.I increased my production enormously!

    If you liked the old classified ad responses, you’ll love the internet boards.I’m sure the clients do. REAL recruiters..recruit! And make much more money doing so.

  • Amanda Blazo

    I would say that a passive candidate is simply someone who is not currently seeking a new position. An active candidate is one who is currently seeking a new position. They could post a resume on Monster or post a note on a profile of a social networking site or just email their “friends and associates network” to let them know they are looking.

    Passive candidates are harder to find, take longer to develop a relationship with and longer to find that perfect opportunity. But when you do find it for them they are more likely to stay in the new opportunity.

    I would also say that branding and marketing of your organization can be just as important as knowing how to search for candidates. How great would it be if the candidates could find you, learn about you and understand exactly what you are looking for, then apply for positions you have posted? Much lower cost and much more effective way to find candidates.

    Anyway, passive candidates are what third party recruiters try to find because their client companies can easily find the active candidates themselves. No need to spend time duplicating efforts that your client won’t find valuable.

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  • Joshua Letourneau

    The sweeping generalization that Passive candidates are ‘always’ superior to Active candidates is a myth pushed forward by Executive Search firms to protect the money stream. I know because I’m an Executive Recruiter myself. I’ve been to the sales seminars; I know the worn out tag lines about “Great People”.

    It’s not the actual Passive candidate that is superior – rather, it’s the Passive candidate search process that is superior. This is simply because it involves moving beyond active applicants. If there is a super candidate that submits to a job posting, then consider yourself fortunate and move on it quickly – as you know, it normally doesn’t work that way. Keep in mind that when it comes to active candidates, time is of the essence.

    Every time I present to a Client (or prospective Client), I find myself explaining that our firm only wants to work roles that are critical or pivotal to the organization’s success. If the roles we’re asked to work are not, then not only is the fill probability low, but so is the value that we’re creating. Ultimately, not all roles are critical or pivotal – in other words, not all roles require the same search strategy. If it’s a non-critical role, first try a job board. If that doesn’t work, then call the Big-Box Publicly Traded Candidate-Grinders. They specialize in a volume environment where they’re shuffling candidates around to multiple employers in an effort to maximize the fee or make a quick deal. Since they work so many like-jobs, there is no client exclusivity and frankly, it’s an easy way to make a quick & cheap hire at 15% to 20%. Now, if the role is critical, work exclusively with 1 to 2 boutique firms that specialize in that given area. Don’t take your chances when it comes to those roles that most correlate to stock price, new product development, or creation of competitive advantage.

    Organizations would be well-served to not consider all open opportunities through the same process lens. Marketing and Finance have taught Talent Acquisition that portfolio theory is superior to a “One size fits all” mantra.

    Lay all your roles on a matrix and work to identify which are truly important – Do all you can to economically quantify this importance. When we view each job family or role in mutually exclusive fashion, we are thinking like true business people. This is how we begin to justify a meaningful “seat at the executive table”.

  • Stephen Shearman

    Ronald,
    Thanks for your thought provoking article. It’s refreshing to hear/read different views from the normal mantra about “active vs. passive”.
    As a corporate Recruiter/Sourcer I have heard it over and over from the experts: passive is quality, passive are the best, lower turnover with passive, etc, etc. I initially battled with the debate until I came to realize that not every employer needs “the best in the industry”. It is all relative. It boils down to what my employer, customer or client wants. For me, eliminating these external expectations, restrictions and definition of “passive” or “active” was liberating.
    In the book by Edward Lawler titled “Talent; making people your competitive advantage”, Lawler succinctly wrote that not every company requires “the best” talent to create a competitive advantage in the marketplace. A company’s “competitive advantage” might be their unique product or service; not their people. Maybe, because of the industry, only 200 of their 1200 employees are real difference makers to the corporation. In that case, these 200 positions might be allocated the resources (above average salary, top in the industry benefits, etc) to find “the best talent” and the other 1200 positions -“qualified” will do fine. Having “the best talent” might not be an economic priority for all companies. It might not be part of their business model, industry or fit their margins. He gives an illustration to make the larger point; ‘does having ‘the best talent’ for a Wal-Mart greeter make sense for Wal-Mart?’ No.
    Companies choose where to create their competitive advantage, and it might not be their employees or all their employees. Finding and hiring just “qualified” candidates might meet the company expectations just fine. It doesn’t make the company good or bad, better or the best.
    I have learned that for me, knowing and meeting my customer’s quality expectations for each requisition is my standard. Not every client requires “the top talent” to succeed.
    Thanks. Good article.
    stephen.shearman@tyson.com

  • Jean Evans

    Right on, Ron. It’s hard for me to understand why many so-called “professional recruiters” still hang on to the “passive is better” myth despite all the evidence to the contrary. During my 18 years as a recruiter, the best hires I have made have been “active” candidates. In my mind, one of the most valuable features of a great candidate is his or her sky-high degree of desire to do a great job. An active candidate ardently demonstrates this desire.

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  • Henry Butler

    Great article. I’m a bit confused about whether I’m an active or passive candidate. I’m currently in a position that I enjoy very much and I’ve been in this position for almost 5 years. Well, my wife’s company will be transferring her to Houston, TX next year and I’ll one of those passive/active candidates out there looking for a job. It’s good to know that there are recruiters/employers out there are not just looking for the “employed but open to new opportunities” candidate.

  • Ronald Katz

    Thank you all for your comments, praise and insights on my article. Happy to have inspired such a rich dialogue.

    I’d like to share a closing thought from a colleague who saw my article. Here’s his experience:
    “After passing on several offers from a contract recruiter in early 2008 , she contacted me again in July. This time I really needed to do something else and so was interested. I’m virtually certain that if I had shown any interest in the earlier assignments, she would not have considered me for what has turned out to be a great assignment. I think I became a sales challenge and so the assignments became more interesting and financially rewarding. Whatever it was, the recruiter was persistent and did eventually make the sale.”

    I know that many of us who subscribe and read ERE do not fall into the mold of the typical recruiter, but as you can see, evidenced by my friend’s story, there are still lots of others out there waiting/needing to be enlightened. Let’s keep advancing the profession! Ron

  • Lina Henson

    I can only speak for myself, but I don’t necessarily think “employed is better”. As a past department manager, I had awful employees who I had a hard time shedding. What I do think is that our clients are smart enough to log on to monster or computerjobs or dice or the ladders and look at the talent for themselves. Why would they pay us a fee to bring them candidates that they can find on their own? I know there are a lot of Boomers unexpectedly in the job market and I know there are a lot of active job seekers as well due to current layoffs. Those two qualifications do not make them the most talented candidates either. Of course I don’t toss out the resumes of active job seekers who contact me. That would be irresponsible as well as stupid; however, I do conduct a search for passive candidates as well. Most people who responded seemed to be on one side or the other: active or passive. I am on the side of my client: BEST TALENT POSSIBLE. I will use whatever source I can to get that talent.

  • Jim Shaw

    If a recruiter calls me today while I’m working, I’m a great candidate because I’m passive. If I put my resume on Monster tonight, I’m a poor active candidate. I’ve never understood this. Active or passive has nothing to do with whether a person is qualified.

  • Lindsay Thompson

    Very interesting piece, Ron. Both active and passive candidates can be great or awful, and what is needed is a fast, cheap, safe and convenient way to find out which side of that equation they’re on. Remote interviewing, like what GreenJobInterview.com offers, allows passive candidates to stay home and not miss work while you find out if they’re good or just cautious. And the good active candidates can be differentiated from the ones that aren’t employed because they’re not employable. This kind of remote video interviewing enables real conversation (not those practiced answers to canned questions) and totally streamlines the interview process while you help cut costs and save time.

  • Jim Urbaniak

    -Very well written, very well said! Dismissing active job seekers out of hand is limiting, short-sighted and just foolish. There are often very solid reasons for a job seeker to be active and especially during these difficult economic times, it may be truer than ever. I fall into this group at present, though I’ve never previously been unemployed in my adult career, recently moved for a job that fell through because of the economic decline, and have a stellar career reputation and experience. By the same token, making the sweeping assumption that passive candidates are always the best choice is by no means a guarantee of top talent. While a passive candidate may jump ship for the right fit and a wonderful match may be made, a passive candidate may just as easily reflect an individual who is not resilient to change, would not mesh well in another company’s culture or have other potentially negative motivations for being passive. In all my years as a third party and corporate recruiter, I have believed firmly in taking a 360 degree view of the candidate pool to assess where the best talent is and this has rewarded me in great placements time and time again.

  • Steve Jones

    Ron, great article – one that my peers adamantly disagree with me on. Personally, having frequently been associated with volume hiring, I’ve always entertained the active candidate as well as the passive candidate. Yesterday was the day I was concerned with finding that right mix. Today, I can accomplish more in less time, without sacrificing quality, by spreading the word and letting the active candidates come to me.

    There are now 10.3 million US workers unemployed (bls.gov) with many more to come.

    The rules have changed. The business savvy and proactive candidates are looking and will find you if you know where to get the word out and to whom.

    I could talk more on this, but we’ll save that for another day. Email recruiter.steve@gmail.com for continued discussion.

  • Bob Gately

    The word talent is used frequently when discussing passive and active candidates yet few people define talent or how to measure talent. Hiring managers that measure talent know that an active candidate is just as likely to have the requisite talent as a passive candidate which means their pool of applicants is much larger than passive candidates only.

    How do we define talent?

    How do we measure talent?

    How do we know a candidate’s talent?

    How do we know what talent is required by each job?

    How do we match a candidate’s talent to the talent demanded by the job to be filled?

    Managers who hire for talent know the answers.

    bobgately@verizon.net

  • Yasser Ismail

    Great article. Kudos!

    Yasser
    http://www.jobstaxi.com

  • Kelly Magowan

    Hi Ronald,
    It is great to read a balanced and logical article around the topic of active versus passive talent. As you have illustrated it should not even be a point of contention. The focus should be purely on identifying and sourcing talent and leave it at that. There is enough boxing, matching, segmentation, discrimination and so on that occurs in the recruitment process without adding to it.
    Regards,
    Kelly Magowan
    Six Figures, http://www.sixfigures.com.au, the Executive Job Site

  • http://www.passivecast.com Steve Gilbert

    Good points and well written. I’ve often felt the same way.
    We’ve all been active and passive candidates throughout different points in our careers, right? I think the strongest point in this article is “What difference does it make if they are unemployed if they’ve got what your organization needs!”

    I strongly believe that a company, corporate recruiter, or hiring manager must engage both types of candidates. Pull Active Candidates in by job postings, etc while also pushing the opportunity out to passive candidates via direct recruiting.

    After 9 years of recruiting passive candidates I can say that there are a few advantages to engaging passive candidates.

    1. They tell you what they want and what they feel are their true strengths (as opposed to what they think you want to hear) and you can therefore get an accurate initial motivational fit. Active candidates usually know what you’re looking for (by reading your job posting) and may architect their answers to fit the role.
    2. Your opportunity is likely to be the only one they are considering if they are truly a passive candidate.

    I’d like to propose a new way to frame our discussion of ACTIVE vs PASSIVE candidates. Perhaps we should define the two types as “Know you’re hiring” vs “Don’t know you’re hiring.” There could be a wonderful candidate out there who is perfect for your opportunity but if they don’t know you’re hiring then IT DOESN’T MATTER IF THEY’RE ACTIVE OR PASSIVE does it?

    Thanks. Great article.
    Steve
    steve.gilbert@passivecast.com

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  • http://www.the-linkedin-speaker.com/blog/ pat omalley

    Good article.

    Another idea is to look for candidates that have just joined LinkedIn. They may have just joined because now they may be passively looking for a job.

    This is something that you can do with Advanced Search, but very few people realize it.

    I actually have a blog entry that describes it at

    http://www.the-linkedin-speaker.com/blog/2009/03/09/linkedin-training-tip-for-hr-and-recruiters-%e2%80%93-a-clever-talent-management-technique/

    Thanks,
    Pat O’Malley

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