Recruiting Passive Candidates with Multiple Offers

Sep 10, 2010

On the face of it, this title makes no sense. First, how could a passive candidate have multiple offers? Second, who cares? In today’s troubled economic times, when we make an offer, it’s accepted, no negotiations, no counteroffers, no competing offers. It’s just accepted. Period.

So I could leave it at that, and make this officially the shortest article I’ve ever written on ERE in 10 years. But what’s the point then? Under the low probability chance the market for top talent is finally starting to heat up a bit, recruiters might soon be faced again with the challenge of recruiting candidates with multiple offers. And, if not, they can bookmark this article for that exciting day.

So for recruiters who don’t remember what it’s like, and for those recruiters who are too young to remember the golden olden days when top candidate supply was less than demand, a little history is in order. Whenever the economy is expanding more than a few percentage points, labor shortages in certain job categories frequently occur. Under these circumstances, companies aggressively compete for this scarce talent by bidding up prices (i.e., salaries and signing bonuses) and increasing the speed of decision-making. In this hyper-heated market, mistakes are made, recently hired candidates are pursued by ultra-competitive recruiters who are paid for making placements, and hiring managers are pulling out their hair. For third-party recruiters this is what’s referred to as “the good old days.”

There are some things recruiters can do to minimize the bidding wars and increase their chance of landing the star players.

  1. Be first. Employ an early-bird sourcing strategy. Whoever gets the best candidates first has the best chance of closing the person a week or two later. Everyone else has to play catch-up, with a significant comp increase used as the primary lure. Of course, as you’ll discover in a moment, while being first has a huge tactical advantage, employing a career maximization recruiting strategy is required if you want to actually hire these people. This will minimize the need for paying ever-increasing compensation premiums.
  2. Don’t take no for an answer. Once the market for a certain job category heats up, the best people in this class get bombarded with emails and calls from recruiters. In the hustle for face time, recruiters often stumble over their own feet, hoping to attract the person’s attention with “the best job ever.” To avoid the used car sales recruiting approach, good candidates use a number of ploys to dump said recruiter. These are typically of the form “not interested,” or “not looking,” or “happy where I am,” or something similar. Don’t believe it, especially if your job truly represents a positive move for someone. In this case, you’ll need an attention-getting statement that prevents the candidate from throwing said recruiter into the dung-heap of clichés. One of my favorites is to say something like “Are you aware you’ve just made a major decision with minor information. On the chance the position I’m handling represents a true career move, wouldn’t it make sense to talk 5 or 10 minutes?” Then go into my favorite recruiting technique of all time, the “time is your most critical asset, don’t waste it,” technique.
  3. Convert the conversation from compensation to careers. One primary goal of the first call with a passive candidate is to get the person to think about your job as a career move rather than a compensation increase. As soon as you sense that money is the topic du jour, describe the differences between a career maximization vs. a compensation maximization strategy as the key decision-making process the candidate needs to consider. The idea behind this is that compensation will grow faster in the long term if the person maximizes career growth instead of money in the short term.
  4. Create an opportunity gap to begin the career move discussion. Make sure you use the “candidate talks first” technique to get the person to provide a quick review of his/her work history. During this phase, look for gaps in the candidate’s background your job fills in or expands. Consider factors like team size, scope of the effort, budget impact on the company, company growth rates, learning opportunities, and the like. When you describe your job opening, mention these points as representative of growth opportunities for the candidate. Then ask if the person would be interested in considering what you have to offer in more depth. Go slow here. Your goal as a recruiter is to sell the next step, not the end game.
  5. Formalize the candidate decision-making process. As part of the initial conversations, ask the candidate what criteria he/she will use to determine if the job represents an appropriate career move. While these factors vary depending on the function and job level, they typically cover items like technology challenges, company growth, the scope of the project, learning and career opportunities, the hiring manager and quality of the team, and compensation, among others. I add any that are missing or specific to the company, and ask the candidate to prioritize these in some formal way, usually in an email. The idea behind this is to make sure the candidate obtains all of this information during the interviewing process. If the candidate has multiple offers to consider, I then suggest that all opportunities be evaluated based on the priorities initially provided.
  6. Be last. Don’t make an offer until the candidate says yes. As part of maintaining applicant control and using a “stay the buyer” approach to recruiting, it’s important to not enter into a bidding war. Key to this is to test all offers before making them formal. This involves a sequence of tests throughout the interviewing process. Start by asking the candidate how interested she/he is in the open opportunity after the first set of interviews. As the pursuit progresses continue the testing by asking when the person could start if a fair offer was presented. As you get closer to the end, ask the person how your position compares to others the person is considering, using the comparative decision-making process mentioned above. Finally, ask if the person would accept your offer if formally presented under the terms negotiated. Only when the person says “100% yes” should you make the offer. The idea behind this is to negotiate the offer before it’s formalized, getting agreement in incremental steps.

These recruiting strategies and tactics are useful whenever you’re recruiting a top person who has multiple offers. This is more common during periods of economic expansion, but it’s also quite prevalent whenever labor shortages by certain job classes exist. Under these supply/demand constraints, the idea is to present your position as the one offering the best career move, not the one that just offers the biggest comp increase. Of course, you have to prove it, but that’s the whole point, isn’t it?

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