Passive Candidates — Valuable, Yes, but They’re Not Passive Nor Are They Candidates

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 2.02.01 PMWhy calling them “passive candidates” or “passive job seekers” is misleading

Using the term “passive candidate” is just wrong for so many reasons. First, these recruiting targets haven’t applied for anything, so they can’t be classified as candidates (the correct name for those who have not applied is prospects). Calling them “passive job seekers” is equally inaccurate because they are not in fact currently seeking a job. And finally, they can’t accurately be called “passive” because they are definitely not passive individuals. In fact they are frequently bold and aggressive individuals while on the job.

The only thing that these prospects are passive about is looking for a new job. First, they are disinterested because they already have a job. In addition, because they are also top performers, they are likely to have a good manager and to be treated well, which means they have no business reason to look for a new job outside their current firm.

Once you understand the proper name to call them, you still have a major problem because “not-looking top prospects” can simply never be reached through normal recruiting channels (because almost all of these approaches are designed for prospects who are “actively” looking for a job). There are four key realizations that recruiting leaders must accept if they expect to have any real chance to land these highly desirable “not-looking top prospects.” The realizations include:

Realization #1 — “Not-looking top prospects” are the most valuable hires by far

Top prospects by definition are also top performers. These top prospects fall in the top 10 percent of all employees at a firm on their performance scale. In addition, they are classified as “top prospects” because they are also innovators, leaders, rapid learners, or they also possess “future skills” (which are skills that will be desperately needed within 12 to 18 months). But they have another added value, which is because they work at a competitor, when you hire them, your firm will get significantly better while simultaneously your competitor will become weaker. They are also likely to bring with them current best practices and ideas from your product competitors. And finally, these top prospects will add more value because they are so well-known that they will act as “a talent magnet.” Their hiring which will cause three to five other valuable employees to follow them to your firm.

Realization #2 — The very best professionals are already employed

It’s not politically correct to say this but that doesn’t make it less true: the very best performers in any industry or function are almost always currently employed at another company. If you need an example, consider professional football. What are the odds of a coach finding a single top-performing exceptional player who isn’t already signed up with some NFL team during mid-season? Can you even imagine a top performer like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, or Aaron Rogers not being on a team during mid-season, if they weren’t hurt or retired? Of course there are always some good players and employees who are unemployed, but the percentage of top performers in that unemployed group is low and it is even smaller during low unemployment times.

Remember that a focus on recruiting not-looking prospects will not in any way limit your ability to get unemployed people. This is because most unemployed people, including top performers, are extremely active jobseekers who will find you anyway through your job postings and other active recruiting approaches.

Realization #3 — Be careful, 20 percent of the employed are “not-looking” for the wrong reasons

We’ve established that the best recruiting targets are likely to be currently employed. However, by definition, only around 10 percent of all employed people can be classified as top performers (i.e. the top 10 percent). That means that the remaining 90 percent of employees are not top performers. Be careful, because among that remaining group of employees are the 20 percent of a firm’s employees at the bottom of the performance scale. These “bottom 20 percent” are also likely to be not-looking for another job. They also fall under the “not-looking” category because they either don’t have the drive or initiative to look for another job outside the firm, or their performance is so low, that after trying numerous times, they have simply given up and stopped searching for a job.

Don’t fall into the trap of trying to recruit any prospect who is not looking, because some may actually be passive for the wrong reasons. But instead limit your recruiting to the top-performing employed prospects who are not-looking because their high-value results in them being treated well. I called these prime recruiting targets “not-looking top prospects.”

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Realization #4 — Don’t worry about recruiting above average to average employed people; they will find you

Don’t worry if you want to recruit the employees who fall between the 90 percent and the 20 percent performance level. This above average to average group is probably not treated exceptionally well (because of their okay performance) and they are not targeted by the best recruiters. So when they decide to look for another job, they fall into the category of active jobseekers who will find you if you simply post an open job.

How Do You Know if a Top-performing Prospect Is Not Looking?

If you are unsure whether someone who you have in your target prospect list is not looking, don’t fret. Not-looking top prospects have several job-search-related factors in common:

  • No updated resume or profile — a top not-looking prospect will literally never have an updated resume immediately available. And no recruiter call will convince them to work on it (in order to apply) because they view it as a time-consuming and an unpleasant task. For the same reason, they may have outdated or incomplete social media profiles and on LinkedIn their profile may purposely be minimalized because they have been approached or hassled by so many recruiters.
  • They don’t return recruiter calls — even if the best recruiter calls or contacts them, they say “no thanks” almost immediately. Or, if a message is left, they never return the call. They’re not interested in talking to recruiters mostly because as top performers they get so many unsolicited recruiter calls. But they may also be reluctant to talk to recruiters because being treated so well makes them loyal to their manager and talking to an aggressive recruiter seems to be a disloyal act.
  • They won’t even glance at job postings — not-looking top prospects will literally never look at job postings, job boards, recruitment advertising, or corporate career pages. They won’t look at these obvious recruiting messages partially because they are not looking for a job. But they also won’t look because almost all top performers got their last job through a referral from a top-performing colleague, and if they ever do decide to go external, they fully expect to get their next job through another referral. Taken together this means that they may actually be appalled by ordinary recruiting approaches, much like a vegan would be appalled when they are offered a big juicy steak.
  • If you ask them about the current work situation, they will not be unhappy — if one of your employees runs into a “not-looking top prospect” and asks them about their work situation, the response will be either neutral or positive. They will have no major gripes because their current boss knows their value, and as a result, they are treated well. That means they will have to know and admire your firm before any conversation about recruiting them can even begin.
  • The best college grads may also be classified as not-looking — my research has revealed that up to 20 percent of undergrads at top schools are also not looking. They are not immediately seeking a job either because they aspire to go to grad school or they plan to start their own business. Yes, even though most college grads can be classified as “super-active jobseekers,” you’ll never find these not-looking stars through the campus career center or as a result of a job posting on a college job board.

Final Thoughts

By using the wrong terminology, you can cause hiring managers and recruiters to misunderstand what must be done in order to successfully identify and recruit what should be referred to as “not-looking top prospects.” But once the terminology is corrected, everyone should realize the value of these top prospects, and how to determine the best approach to source them. Next week on 2/16/15, I will publish a second related article on ERE.net covering those sources entitled: “The Best Sources For Identifying ‘Passives’ …  or How to Find ‘Not-Looking Top Prospects.’”

Dr. John Sullivan

Dr. John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions. He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," Staffing.org called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website www.drjohnsullivan.com and on www.ERE.Net. He lives in Pacifica, California.