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

Aug 20, 2009
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

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.

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.

This article is part of a series called Opinion.
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