The Search for the Perfect Candidate

Recruiters are no different than most people; they gravitate toward what is easy. In sourcing, that means settling for “active” candidates. But what they should be doing is seeking out the most difficult candidates to source&nbsp:ó currently employed top performers, most of whom are not actively looking for a new job and therefore they do not appear on job boards, visit your corporate job site, or respond to newspaper ads. The #1 error of corporate recruiters is not focusing on the passive or currently employed candidate. An Example Perhaps an example will illustrate the point. If you were an NFL or NBA coach during the regular season and you were seeking a top performer, the last thing you would do would be to look for an “unemployed” player&nbsp:ó because you would know that the very best are always currently playing for some team. Of course, recruiting a top player away from another team is never as easy as recruiting an unemployed player. But in professional sports, if you want the very best, you have no choice&nbsp:ó because top performers are seldom unemployed. Players that are cut don’t want to admit it, but this year’s all-stars are never “cut” (unemployed). Now, shifting back to corporate recruiting. When recruiters ask managers to describe the “perfect candidate” to recruit, almost without exception the description goes like this:

  • They are a top performer in their job.
  • They are currently working at a major competitor or benchmark firm.

There Are Basically Three Types of Candidates Recruiters must recognize that there are only three types of candidates, and that some are much more desirable than others. The three types are:

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  1. Employed non-lookers: Employed people (also known as passives) who are not actively looking for jobs. They are the most desirable of all candidates.
  2. Employed lookers: Employed people that are actively looking for jobs.
  3. Unemployed lookers: Unemployed people (also known as active candidates) who are actively looking for jobs. This group in particular is where you are unlikely to find a superstar candidate.

B>Non-Lookers Make Up 80% of the Workforce Great recruiters focus on the first category&nbsp:ó employed non-lookers&nbsp:ó which, incidentally, is the largest group. In fact, at any one time, less than 20% of employed people are actively seeking a job, which means that the vast majority of employed people (80%) will be non-lookers at the time you are seeking to hire them. True, most of these non-lookers are average or even bottom performers who are either too lazy to look or have no hope of finding an outside job. But this is the pool where the top performers are found. Incidentally, finding top performers in this large group is relatively easy (if you talk directly to people at the firm), because they are frequently publicly recognized and because everyone within the firm talks about them. Why Employed “Non-Lookers” Are Superior Candidates Currently employed top performers are generally not active in the job market for a variety of reasons. They are not “looking” because top performers are invariably already:

  • Making a difference and producing results, so they are probably well-paid and frequently rewarded
  • Recognized by management for their excellent performance
  • Confident of their future career growth within the firm
  • Getting considerable challenges and learning opportunities
  • Capable of influencing managers to provide them with the tools they need to succeed

Because they are well-treated and well-paid, non-lookers are content in their jobs and, unless their company is in serious trouble, are generally not looking for new opportunities at another firm. In short, this means that employed non-lookers must be “talked into” looking for new job, and that opportunity must be a superior one to spur their interest. It is your job as a recruiter to convince your hiring managers to make sure that any job you offer is clearly “superior” to what they currently have&nbsp:ó even if that means redesigning an open job! If you still need proof of the fact that non-lookers are the best candidates, search the job boards, job fairs, and other active sources for your own employees. Invariably, you’ll find that none of your top performers are actively looking, while a good number of your below average and “malcontent” employees resumes will be found to be looking. Why Employed “Lookers” Are Less Desirable The second category of candidates are those who are currently employed but who are also actively looking for a job. I call these candidates “employed lookers.” These lookers are quite often less desirable than the employed non-lookers. This is because the fact they are actively looking often means that they are unhappy with their present job situation. This unhappiness may be because they are unable to influence their current managers to the point where they get the resources they need to succeed (which is not the sign of a perfect candidate). Other reasons that they could be sending out their resumes could be include that they are just malcontents or that they are not “good enough” to appear on the radar screen of top executive search and corporate recruiters. Whether you want to admit it or not, the fact is that top performers are found and then “shopped around” by executive recruiters, whereas average performers must shop themselves by applying through typical channels. The Recruiter’s Paradox: The “Easy Ones” Are Not the Ones You Want Unfortunately, when you examine the approaches that most recruiters use to find their perfect candidate, you learn that the typical recruiter’s strategy attracts the exact opposite of what managers really want. Instead of attracting employed top performers, they are actually attracting active lookers. I call that the recruiter’s paradox. Active lookers (both employed and unemployed) are the easiest people to source (most times they will find you), but they are the exact opposite of what managers want! It’s easy to see why recruiters focus on the active job seeker. Recruiting budget cuts and the “fill requisitions at the lowest cost per hire” mentality at most firms push recruiters to take the easy road. Putting “butts in chairs” is certainly easier than sourcing and convincing employed top performers who are content in their current job&nbsp:ó just like how recruiting an average golfer for your golf team is always much easier (but less rewarding) than recruiting Tiger Woods! Conclusion Executive search professionals have focused on employed non-lookers for years, while in direct contrast, most corporate recruiters are satisfied to sift through the thousands of active lookers. Some of this difference may be because of the significantly higher rewards offered to executive search professionals, but there must be other reasons. Unfortunately, all my experience and research has failed to come up with any logical reason other than recruiters’ laziness or a tradition of searching for active candidates. Almost without exception, over 90% of the time and budget in corporate recruiting is spent (or misspent) on the active job seeker. It’s time for that to stop.

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact 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.

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