The Myth of the Passive Candidate

Originally published in May of 2005.

I don’t like to be difficult, I really don’t, but following the management philosophy of the month can be tiring. From the guy who told us to break all of the rules, to the guy who said to think outside of the box, to the woman who said to think inside the box but to do it in a way that is metaphorically outside the box while still remaining inside the box…it really does sound silly after awhile. (Don’t feel bad. I don’t know what any of it means either.) This brings us to your favorite topic (and mine): recruiting. Like so many other professions, recruiting is generally accompanied by all sorts of different ideas that come into vogue for a period of time. These ideas create one or two new industry darlings (replete with websites, new training programs and the usual intellectual banter) for the recruiting circus to fawn over and are soon replaced with yet another idea de jour, and the cycle begins yet again. Such is our current fascination with passive candidates. Please do not misunderstand me. There is nothing wrong with passive candidates. But they represent what will almost surely be a minority of the candidates who most organizations will hire for four fundamental reasons (there are actually 37 reasons, but I only have time to list four):

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  1. Passive candidates represent the path of most resistance. Those in leadership positions will never understand why you would want to dig people off of lists and websites who have no interest in your organization when you have perfectly good people who are, for example, responding to your ads on the job boards. I can guarantee you that somewhere in that list of active replies are some great candidates who can do the job. Yes, yes, leadership will tell you they want passive candidates, but most of them don’t even know what passive candidates are, nor do they have a clue as to how recruiting works in the first place. No group is more in love with the theory of the week than leadership. Besides, if you count on leadership for your recruiting career success, you will wind up the unemployed active candidate you are being told to avoid.
  2. Few corporate recruiters really know how to get passive candidates out of their current positions long enough to even interview for your position, let alone close the deal. This is not a slight to the corporate recruiting world. Corporate recruiters are hired, in most cases, with different skill sets from the “do or die” crowd who make up the world of agency recruiters (who don’t eat unless they make placements). I know this because that is the world I came from. We made 50 cold calls a day, minimum. How many calls did you make last month to recruit passive candidates? How many did you hire? Hmmm…
  3. Passive candidates are in the driver’s seat because you called them. As a result, establishing candidate control is very difficult, yet it is essential if you want to make things happen. Frankly speaking, passive candidates don’t need your job, your company, your opportunity, or you. Can you learn how to establish candidate control? Possibly, but someone has to teach you how it is done. Test out the candidate control theory by asking the most successful third-party recruiter you know the importance of this technique. Then sit back and relax, because you’re in for a long and definitive lecture.
  4. Staffing needs can change in the blink of an eye. Even if workplace planning is clearly in evidence, it is not possible for most businesses to predict what tomorrow will bring. When the call comes to open an office in New York and staff it with 20 people by yesterday, there is no time to dally. You had better be ready to do more than look at passive candidates as a recruiting model. Know a few people you can call for some of the positions? Great, but that will only get you so far.

To fill jobs, recruiters need all kind of candidates. Here are a few:

  • Active candidates
  • Job board candidates
  • Passive candidates
  • ERP candidates
  • Somewhat active candidates
  • Drawn-to-your-website candidates
  • Pseudo-passive candidates
  • Help wanted candidates
  • Job fair candidates
  • The-person-you-met-on-the-plane candidates
  • College recruiting candidates
  • Internal promotion candidates
  • Candidates who are not Yankee fans (no wait, that shows poor judgment)

I really do hate to buck this week’s trend, but passive candidates are no better than active candidates. Passive candidates are simply people who are not looking to change jobs, but that does not make them better candidates any more than it makes active candidates bad because they are looking for another opportunity. I might look for a job someday. Should I be thrown under the bus because I am managing my career? Wait, forget about me. What about you? Did you ever look for another position? If yes, then you were an active candidate. Did that in turn make you undesirable? Honestly, this is almost painful to write about. The issue is not whether to recruit passive candidates or not, but to understand how to use every tool, every board, every tactic, and every means necessary to aggressively recruit and fill positions. The next step is to figure out a way to deal with resume flow, identify the candidates who can do the job, get them in front of the hiring managers, drive the process (see point #3 in my article 4 Ways to Supercharge Your Recruiting Performance), develop a capture strategy, (see How to Develop a Capture Strategy), close the deal, and go on to fill the next position. Please don’t misunderstand me; I have nothing against passive recruiting. I went so far as to take the new AIRS SearchLab 3.0 course. It was brilliant. I took the test and am now a CIR and proud of it. Every recruiter should take this course. My heartache lies with recruiters being told that everyone is only after passive candidates or that active candidates are somehow no good because that information is simply false. For example, if you know that you are going to need a CIO in three months, passive recruiting is okay. But when you need 60 engineers in 90 days, recruiting only passive candidates will do little to achieve knock-’em-dead results ó and it will do even less for your career. Honestly, it is of little importance how a great candidate arrives at your organization. I suggest that you run from those that tell you the future is only filled with passive candidates, because it is your brains and your blood and your sweat that define that future, not theirs. A candidate’s mindset and career aspirations are in constant flux and nothing stays the same. Today’s passive candidate becomes tomorrow’s active candidate if they are having a bad day. Our job is to source them, qualify them, and get them hired. Do this well and you will be a star.

Howard Adamsky has been recruiting since 1985 and is still alive to talk about it. A consultant, writer, public speaker, and educator, he works with organizations to support their efforts to build great companies and coaches others on how to do the same. He has over 20 years' experience in identifying, developing, and implementing effective solutions for organizations struggling to recruit and retain top talent. An internationally published author, he is a regular contributor to ERE Media, a member of the Human Capital Institute's Small and Mid-Sized business panel, a Certified Internet Recruiter, and rides one of the largest production motorcycles ever built. His book, Hiring and Retaining Top IT Professionals/The Guide for Savvy Hiring Managers and Job Hunters Alike (Osborne McGraw-Hill) is in local bookstores and available online. He is also working on his second book, The 25 New Rules for Today's Recruiting Professional. See if you are so inclined for the occasional tweet. Email him at