The Sourcing Sweet Spot: How to Find the Best Without Really Trying

While there are only three types of candidates in the world, there’s a world of difference in how you find and hire each type. If you’re not seeing enough good candidates, it’s possible you’re using the wrong tactic to find the right candidate. First, for the sake of simplicity let’s assign all candidates into one of these three broad classifications:

  1. Active candidates. These are candidates who need another job and will do whatever it takes to find one. They are the very aggressive job-hunters who look on every board, attend every networking event, and finagle their way onto every employee referral list. At any given time they represents about 10-15% of the total labor pool. This is the easiest group to attract. Just post an ad, rank-order the incoming resumes, call them in, and get them hired. Right? This is what we were promised in 1995. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons things didn’t quite work out this way. Primarily this is because the best employees are underrepresented in the active candidate pool. While there are a few great people in this pool, it’s difficult to separate them from everyone else.
  2. Semi-active candidates. These are those currently employed people who want another job, but don’t have too much time to look. This group is filled with people who tend to look for jobs every now and then in the hope that something better will come along. These people are currently employed, but feel unappreciated, overworked, or underpaid. They actively search for a new opportunity whenever job demands become overwhelming or whenever they get the urge. For a few hours they then become active candidates, but using a different approach than the active candidates. There are many great people in this group, but as a rule they won’t spend too much time applying for a job unless it’s immediately obvious that the new job opportunity is significantly better than the one they now have. This group is huge! It probably represents 30-40% of the labor pool, although at any one time only a small percent are looking. (It would be nice to know how many unique visitors Monster gets each month to gain a sense of the enormous size of this pool.) This is the sourcing “sweet spot.” If you design your sourcing processes correctly, this is where you can find the best candidates at the lowest cost in the shortest period of time. More about this in a moment.
  3. Passive candidates. These are those currently employed people who don’t know they want another job. These are all of those people who are gainfully employed and like their jobs well enough that they don’t ever need to look. While these people are not actively or even semi-actively looking, about 80% would be open to exploring a new opportunity if some recruiter or hiring manager called them directly with such an offer. The best employees are fully represented in this group; that’s why everyone thinks this is the group they need to target to find top people. This is a fallacy. Finding these people, contacting them, making them an offer to explore, and then doing everything else necessary to interview and hire them is very costly. Although it’s worth the effort if you’re successful, the cost in time, money, and management resources is high. It also requires skilled recruiters and top-notch managers to make the process work consistently. An employer of choice has things a little easier when going after this group, but someone still needs to personally contact the candidate to gain and maintain interest.

My suggestion is to always optimize a lower-cost channel before going after the passive candidate. If you can’t find a top person this way, then it’s appropriate to spend a fee using a top-notch headhunter. The Sweet Spot In my opinion, sourcing programs should be designed around the needs of the semi-active candidate. This is the sourcing “sweet spot.” There are a high percentage of great candidates in this group. In fact, I suspect that just about everybody looks for a new job now and then, just to check things out. So if you want to attract these people you must design your recruiting advertising and hiring process around this group’s needs ó not around the needs of active candidates. Time is a precious commodity for the semi-active candidate, so take advantage of this critical variable in everything you do. Remember the adage, “Treat your candidates as customers.” This doesn’t mean just be nice, it means meet their needs. One is saving their time. Leverage this in everything you do. Here are a few suggestions:

Article Continues Below
  1. Design your recruitment advertising to meet their needs, not yours. Since they don’t have enough time to look, make it easy to find the ad. To pull decent volumes of good candidates, an ad must be on the first page of every job heading, and near the top of the list. This costs a little more, but the trade-off in quality is worth it.
  2. Make sure your ad titles are fun and exciting. Top performers want a better job, not another job. This is a fundamental difference between the active and semi-active candidate pools, so take advantage of this fact. “Become an American Idol at Acme Plumbing” has a more compelling ring than “Field Sales Rep.” The longer title also pulls in more candidates since it stands out.
  3. Don’t worry about the number of clicks. Instead, consider the time to find the actual ad and the job description. Thirty seconds to a minute is about right, so don’t require people to fill in anything to see a job description. Make sure these ads are quick and easy to find. Most aren’t, so you have a big opportunity here.
  4. Don’t use your ads to filter candidates out; use your ads to attract them in. When candidates read your ads, make sure the copy describes opportunities instead of listing requirements. The best don’t want another year of experience. Active candidates do, since their fundamental need is just another job. To attract the semi-active candidate you need to offer a better job, not the same job. So make sure your ad copy describes what they’ll be doing in a fun and exciting way. Don’t emphasize skills, experiences, and other “must haves.” It’s much better to describe requirements dynamically ó for example, “Use your CPA to create our new internal reporting system.”
  5. The job description should be easy to find and more descriptive than the ad. In the description describe what the candidate will learn, do, and become. Tie these projects to a theme, vision, or new company strategy. A phrase like, “Be part of the launch of our new high-growth product line!” makes the job even more exciting. These need to be sophisticated messages designed to meet the needs of a top performer, not soft and generic.
  6. The application process should be quick and simple. You’ll buy some time with a great ad and great job, but don’t put up too many hurdles at this next critical step. Forget the simple-minded tests. Check your opt-in ratios at this point to see how many people you lose. Use sophisticated filtering that is as benign as possible to the candidate.
  7. Get in contact with the best candidates within hours after applying. This requires rank-ordered resumes based on performance, not skill words. An email is okay, a personal call from a strong recruiter is better.

Semi-active candidates offer a vast untapped pool of top performers. As the economy recovers this pool will grow rapidly as currently employed people begin looking for better jobs. With the seemingly endless slowdown employee dissatisfaction has increased. This pent-up demand is about to be unleashed. Take advantage of this upcoming opportunity to hire some outstanding people. You’ll need them soon, but you’ll need to implement the steps described above ahead of time. This won’t be easy. It will take hard work, new tools, and added resources. But it will be worth it. Don’t wait. (Note: As many of you know, I host a series of monthly online discussion groups on corporate metrics and developing new recruiting techniques. As you can tell from my articles these tend to be free-wheeling discussions that cover the gamut from strategies to practical advice. The Corporate Metrics Group is restricted to those in corporate recruiting management. The Recruiting Techniques is open to everyone. Email me at if you’d like to join one of these groups. If you’ve already joined you’ll be getting the next agenda shortly.)

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).