What’s So Great About Passive Candidates?

Groucho Marx once said, “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have someone like me as a member.” Some recruiters feel similarly about candidates. They don’t want anyone who shows the least interest in joining an organization like theirs. They reject these applicants out of hand while searching out the true gems. These recruiters bypass “active candidates” while concentrating on those ever sought after, much-prized “passive candidates.” The question I have to ask is, what’s so great about passive candidates?

We spend so much time pursuing the passive candidates that we overlook the ones knocking on our door. Something about the stigma of someone who’s out there looking. But in this time when literally tens of thousands of people are losing their jobs, it’s crazy to assume that everyone who is out there looking for a job is “damaged goods.”

Some people I’ve met even look for reasons to devalue the candidacy of active candidates who are still employed. I’ve heard recruiters question why people are responding to ads while they still have a job. This train of thought goes something like, “In this day and age if you have a job, why would you be considering making a move? Are you about to be fired or laid off?” What is it that makes us question the motives of people looking for jobs? Aren’t we making our jobs harder by only looking for the flaws in active candidates? I’m all for screening applicants, but lately I’ve seen recruiters time after time shooting themselves in the foot.

Are we back in high school playing “hard to get”? As Todd Raphael put it when we were discussing this topic, “It’s a silly game where a candidate is supposed to be pretending they’re not looking.”

And what makes someone a passive candidate anyway?

The same person can be both a passive and an active candidate. If you find someone on LinkedIn and it says they’re “open to new opportunities,” is that person active or passive? Some might say that if they are employed they are passive, and if they are not then they are active. But it’s the same person you found when you were searching a person with that skill set. What difference does it make if they are unemployed if they’ve got what your organization needs!

If you call someone in your network talking about your current search and he says, “I know this guy named Peter; you should call him, he’d be perfect” — is Peter a passive or active candidate? If Peter happens to have his resume on Monster and CareerBuilder, does that mean he’s less valuable because he needs or wants to find a new job? Maybe you overlooked Peter’s resume because he has experience in a different industry, but now that he has been recommended by a trusted source you’re willing to ignore that deficit in his experience. You may have disregarded a perfectly viable candidate because you were intent on finding so-called passive candidates.

We also make our jobs harder because right now lots of passive candidates are less likely to take your calls or consider a move. People are trying to ride out the storm. I have yet to meet the recruiter who says they need to make their job more difficult.

There are all kinds of reasons that people are actively looking for work, and most of them do not cast a pall on the applicant. What if I need to find a job because my wife is being transferred to Chicago? What if I need a job because my company is going out of business or laying people off? What if my company just merged and I’m being proactive in positioning myself on the market before the company starts making up their RIF lists or transferring departments and people to other states? These are all attributes that make the person a more, not less, desirable candidate. The man who is looking because his wife transferred has shown that he is a good team player who can support others. The person who’s lost a job due to a business folding has learned valuable skills about how to survive in a difficult environment. The woman staying ahead of the curve by looking before the merger RIF’s hit has demonstrated a keen business sense and the ability to be proactive and in control. We may find ourselves ignoring proactive, experienced team players with solid business experience just because they are actively looking for a job. Since when did looking for a better job become the mark of Cain?

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Many of us assume that the passive candidate is better because these are the people who are currently employed and therefore, employable. They are doing a good job for someone. Why do we assume that they’re doing a good job? Because they are not out there looking. How circular is that logic? Unless you have access to their personnel file and can review their last three performance evaluations, how do you know this person is doing a good job? If you use only one metric — employed — to validate their candidacy, you may be putting too much weight on a flawed criteria. Most successful recruiters use multiple metrics to determine the viability of a candidate.

The recruiting landscape has changed once again. We need to change our thinking about candidates. There are Boomers who thought they were going to retire looking to extend their careers; there have been a flood of layoffs; companies are closing their doors. There are going to be a lot of candidates, good candidates, available to us. Very active candidates who need our jobs and are anxious to fill them. We ignore active candidates at our own peril.

And don’t forget, passive candidates often cost more to attract, to recruit, and to retain. If you want to find good candidates less expensively and more quickly, open your doors to active candidates. They will be grateful for the opportunity; anxious to show they can do the work and just may be the keys to solving your staffing problems.

Ronald Katz
Ronald M. Katz, SPHR is the president of Penguin Human Resource Consulting, LLC and a speaker at the 2012 ERE Expo in San Diego. Penguin HR helps organizations to achieve their business goals by showing them how to manage and motivate staff so that they give their best efforts to the enterprise. Ron has delivered training to human resource staff and line managers of a wide variety of industries. He provides consulting in interviewing skills, performance management, diversity, and sexual harassment. He is an accomplished public speaker and has spoken nationally on human resources issues.