5 Ideas on How to Jump to the Front of the Job-Seeker Line

While candidates are frustrated by the impersonal nature of job boards, it’s no different for the recruiters looking at the 99% of the resumes of unqualified people who apply to these jobs. As far as I’m concerned posting and applying to jobs on any job board is a wasted effort for everyone involved. My instant advice for job seekers is that unless you’re a perfect match on the skills listed, do not apply. (The video below provides more actionable advice.)

However, if you think you are qualified, do something different instead of applying. On a recent search for an inside sales manager a woman contacted me directly via email and told me why she was worth considering for other opportunities within the company. Of the 250 people who applied to the opening she was the only one who did something different. More important she was clearly the most talented. I now have her on my shortlist for future opportunities. This is an example of using the backdoor to find better jobs in the hidden job market.

Regardless of why a job is available, it's critical to note that rarely is the job posted as soon as it becomes available. After tracking this information for 40+ years it’s clear that about 60% of jobs are filled before they’re ever posted. As important, only about 10-15% of the posted jobs are actually filled by someone applying directly. The reason: People who apply directly to a job posting are the last candidates considered for any important job. Here’s what happens before companies look at the people who apply.

How Jobs are Actually Filled

Long Before Day 0. Hiring managers often know they have approval to hire someone long before the job is officially approved and posted. This could be days, weeks or months ahead. This is the best time for savvy job-seekers to sneak to the front of line since the skills and experience requirements haven't yet been fully spec'd out.

Days 0-5. Within hours or days of an opening becoming available and often before it's officially posted, hiring managers first consider people they already know. Sometimes the job is created with a specific person in mind. Not only is this quicker but the person’s performance is also highly predictable. In this early stage the job is rarely posted and there is a lot of opportunity to modify the position to better fit the needs and skills of the person selected.

Days 3-10. After a few days the hiring manager attempts to get referrals from some trusted sources. Typically these are from current and previous co-workers or business advisors. Getting high-quality referrals from a known source is a great way to instantly expand a person’s personal network. Hiring someone from this source not only increases candidate quality but it also reduces the risk the person won’t work out.

Days 5-15. Often recruiters are aware of the job before it’s officially opened. This allows the hiring manager to modify the job and compensation package based on the person being hired rather than being too pigeon-holed. Whether officially posted or not, recruiters immediately begin searching for candidates on LinkedIn and their own internal databases to find people who meet the major requirements. Based on this, an outbound emailing process begins to generate interest.

Days 5-60. After a week or so, if the job isn’t likely to be filled by a known or highly referred person, the job description is approved and posted on the company’s career site and to all of the job boards. Algorithms do most of the heavy lifting separating the less than 1% highly qualified from the 99% who aren’t. Only the 1% get more than a 30-second review.

Days 10-20. After a week or two referrals start emerging plus some employee referrals. Regardless of their source or when they appear, they go to the head of the line.

Now for those of you who don’t want to be the last person in line, you need to reengineer your job seeking efforts to get in the front. Here’s how:

  • Never apply to a job posting. Instead use the job posting as a lead and find someone in the company you can contact directly. Here’s how to hack-a-job this way.
  • Be different. Customized cover letters are important. In them describe your accomplishments, add a link to a video or include a sample of your work. Use the cover letter to arrange an exploratory meeting with a department head.
  • Follow and be found. LinkedIn pushes people who are following a company to the top of their list. As part of this make sure your LinkedIn profile has enough achiever terms to be found when recruiters begin their direct sourcing.
  • Become a networker of note. Recognize that networking isn’t meeting as many people as possible. It’s meeting a few people who can vouch for your performance to a few other people who are aware of open jobs at their companies. This is how you learn about jobs in the hidden job market.

Recognize it takes work to get to the top of the candidate list. However, it’s not only worth it, it’s also far better than complaining.

Improving Quality of Hire Requires Better Jobs, Better Recruiters and Better Hiring Managers

When everyone has the same tools, uses the same job boards and has access to the same candidates, everyone will get average results. I contend this is the underlying reason for LinkedIn's recent dramatic price drop. On top of this, consider that despite all of the new hiring tools developed in the past 10-20 years, overall quality of hire has not improved. Under conditions of universal sameness, the determinates of which company hires the strongest people will be driven by the skill of their recruiters, the quality of the positions being offered and the engagement level of the hiring managers involved in the process.

The big problem in all of this is that too many companies focus on hiring only active candidates who are skills and experienced qualified. At best this represents 10-20% of the total talent market. Yet these same companies contend their quality problems will end by hiring move passive candidates. However, to reach the passive talent market you can't use the same processes as are used to attract and hire active candidates. I refer to this dilemma as the Staffing Catch-22 Spiral of Doom. To recruit passive candidates you need to convince someone who's not looking that what you have to offer is better than what he/she is doing now. This is not easy to do.

Hiring passive candidates starts by recognizing these fundamental differences:

Passive Candidates are Not Interested in Lateral Transfers

To attract passive candidates you first need to fully understand the work that needs to be performed since the best passive candidates are not interested in considering poorly designed jobs. The passive candidate pool can be dramatically expanded by shifting to a performance qualified attraction and assessment process. This is what esteemed Harvard Professor Todd Rose describes in his new best-selling book, The End of Average, as the key difference between hiring average people and hiring remarkable ones.

Passive Candidates Need to be Recruited, Not Just Identified

The best passive candidates need to be identified, attracted, performance qualified, wooed and nurtured. The best way to find these people is to get referrals. This way you only need a short list of strong prospects to start with to find 4-5 strong finalists. The key to this is overcoming their initial concerns and then convincing them that the job you're offering represents a career move (see below). This is how you improve quality of hire.

This is an entirely different process than sourcing active candidates. In this case a wide net is used to find as many skills and experience qualified people as possible. The weakest are then screened out, the rest are filtered on compensation and the remaining few are urged to accept an ill-defined lateral transfer. If this doesn't work the net is expanded and the process repeated until a hiring manager reluctantly agrees to hire someone. This is why quality of hire doesn't improve.

Creating the Career Move Requires a Consultative Process

The short definition of a career move is a job that offers more satisfaction than the compensation. To make this case, recruiters need to convince passive candidates that their opening offers a 30% non-monetary increase. This is a combination of a bigger job, faster job growth and increased job satisfaction and requires a consultative recruiting process similar to the one used to sell complex custom products. This takes time, a few hours spread over a few weeks, but it's how you improve performance, satisfaction and retention.

Hiring active candidates is more transactional and commodity-like with speed and cost being the drivers of success. This is how you hire good people for ill-defined lateral transfers and wonder why they become disengaged within months after starting.

Technology is Just a Starting Point, Not the End Game

Obtaining prequalified referrals is at the core of passive candidate recruiting. A strong full-cycle recruiter only needs a starting list of 15-20 people like this to generate 4-5 high-quality serious candidates in a few days. LinkedIn Recruiter is a key part of this, especially when viewed as a network of 400 million people rather than just a database of names. All the recruiter needs to do is proactively search on his or her connection's connections to find some top people. Then get the referral. All that's left is to convince these people your opportunity represents a true career move. Too many talent leaders think technology is the solution for better hiring. It's not. It's just a starting point.

Make Sure You Have the Right Talent Strategy

Being more efficient doing the wrong things is why quality of hire has not improved. Reversing the trend starts by recognizing you can't use a talent strategy designed to weed out the below average to attract and hire the above average. As Prof. Todd Rose says, you need one designed to maximize individual performance.

A Hiring Manager's Do-It-Yourself Guide to Recruiting

The Uberizing of the hiring process has arrived. Forget about using recruiters if you're hiring only a few people per year. With LinkedIn, hiring managers can now do their own sourcing and recruiting. Unless the recruiter is deeply networked in the field, managers will likely do a much better job by going solo. Here's how to get started.

1. Define the work to be done, not the skills needed to do it.

To attract top people looking for career moves, you'll need to define the job as a series of four or five major performance objectives. For example, it's better to say "build a team of six engineers to launch the new ABC project" than "Must have a BSEE, 10+ years of experience in servo valves, and 3-4 years in a supervisory role."

2. Conduct a supply vs. demand analysis to determine if you can do it yourself.

You'll need to use LinkedIn to do this. I'd suggest starting with a premium account and if it doesn't give you access to enough people, upgrade to LinkedIn Recruiter Lite. To determine if there are enough candidates to choose from, divide the total number of possible candidates you have access to by the number of similar open jobs. If the ratio if greater than 4:1, you can probably do it yourself.

3. Use Achiever search terms to bring top performers to the top of your search list.

As you use LinkedIn's powerful search tools, add terms that match what top people in your field would likely include on their LinkedIn profile. For example, a top math person would likely be a member of the Pi Mu Epsilon honor society, a top sales rep would include such words as quota, club, or 100% in his/her profile, and a strong team player would likely have the terms like coach or mentor listed. By adding more of these Achiever terms, you'll be able to quickly develop a list of 20 to 30 strong local prospects to email and call.

4. Tap into your co-workers' connections.

LinkedIn is a network of 400 million people--not just a database of them. Your co-workers or former associates likely know some top people who could fill your role. Don't ask, "Who's looking?" Instead ask, "Who's the best person you know doing _____?" Then ask them to call the person to see if he/she would be open to a short exploratory call.

5. Determine the Employee Value Proposition (EVP).

If you don't know why a top person would want your job in terms of the impact he/she can make and the growth opportunity inherent in the job, you won't attract or hire any. The EVP needs to lead your voice mails, emails, and job postings.

6. Focus on job branding over employer branding.

Tie the job to some company project or mission to demonstrate its importance. This is called job branding. It's a critical component of how top people compare opportunities and how you customize the job to better tie to the person's intrinsic motivators.

7. Use emails to tell stories.

You'll be sending out 20 to 30 emails to the best people you've found on LinkedIn. Aside from a creative subject line, describe why the job is important, what the person will be learning and doing, and where the job could lead if the person is successful.

8. Don't sell the job, sell a short chat.

Forget about having candidates apply directly. Instead, in your email mention that the first step in your process is a short 10- to 15-minute exploratory phone conversation to determine if the job offers the possibility of a significant career move. By slowing the process down, you'll dramatically increase your response rate since most people are always open to building stronger networks.

9. Offer a potential 30 percent non-monetary increase.

The purpose of the phone screen is to determine if your position offers a combined 30 percent increase in job stretch, job growth, and satisfying work. If it does, describe why and suggest that the next step is a more detailed phone interview.

10. Conduct a 45-minute phone-based interview.

Describe some of your big challenges and have the person describe some of his/her most significant comparable accomplishments. Using the most significant accomplishment question, you can assess most of the factors on our Performance-based Hiring Job Index. If the person is a contender and interested, either meet the person for coffee or invite the person onsite.

While there's more to finding, recruiting, and hiring the best passive candidates, these steps form the foundation of the process. Most important, when hiring managers do it themselves, they'll be able to restructure the job on the fly, more likely to pursue a high-potential person with less experience, and less likely to exclude a great person on factors that are negotiable. Collectively, this is why I believe the Uberizing of the hiring process offers a great opportunity for hiring managers who want to be sure they see and hire the best person available, not just the best person who applies.

The 5 Most Important Passive Candidate Recruiting Rules

In a recent LinkedIn Recruiter training course, I suggested that recruiters must follow these five core passive candidate recruiting networking rules at all times:

  1. Only deal with the top 25%.
  2. Sell the discussion, not the job.
  3. Put the compensation in the parking lot during the first call.
  4. Recruit first, network second.
  5. Follow the 5:1 networking rule.

I then read this blog post that disagreed with me and called out that compensation should be a driver of the conversation with passive candidates. With that in mind, I want to use this post to set the record straight and show you how following the 5 steps outlined above (including NOT leading with compensation) is the best approach to engaging with passive candidates:

Only work with the top 25%

You don’t have enough time to screen every passive candidate, but you do have time to network with the top 25%. So when you ask a top 25% person (begin with your highly ranked co-workers), “Who’s the best person you have ever worked with who does (name the job you need filled)?” you’ll get another top 25% person. In parallel, search on Achieverterms to get another list of top 25% people who you can email.

Sell the discussion and the next step, not the job

Passive candidates don’t care about your “amazing” job. It’s presumptuous and ill-advised to begin a conversation with generic hyperbole. Instead, ask the person if he/she would be open to having a short conversation about if one of your open positions represented a clear career opportunity. Most people will say yes. They’ll all say yes if you can mention the person who referred them to you.

Getting the “yes” is called permission marketing. The person has given you five minutes to make your case that one of your jobs offers a career move. Start by asking discovery questions as a means to better understand the candidate’s current situation rather than talk about your job. If your job represents a career move, describe why and suggest a more detailed conversation.

Put the compensation in the parking lot during the first call

If a candidate asks what the compensation is too soon, suggest it doesn’t matter if the job isn’t a career move. Then say, “Let’s discuss the job first and if it is a career move we can then figure out if the compensation package fits. Worst case we can network.”

As part of the conversation I define a career move as a minimum 30% non-monetary increase consisting of a more impactful job, faster growth, and/or a richer mix of more satisfying work. I then ask discovery questions about the person’s background to see if the open position offers this type of increase.

Recruit first, network second

There are three primary purposes of the first call with a passive candidate. First, develop a relationship. Second, determine if the person is qualified and, if so, recruit him/her based on the 30% solution idea. Third, get at least two top 25% referrals if the person is not a viable candidate for the open role.

The best way to develop a relationship is to demonstrate that the recruiter is a subject matter expert. And the best way to prove this is to recruit the person first using the tools mentioned above. If the candidate is not appropriate for the position, connect with the person on LinkedIn and proactively search on his/her connections for some top 25% referrals.

Follow the 5:1 networking rule

Not every passive prospect you call will wind up being a strong candidate for one of your open roles but if you do a great job of networking and getting referrals, every person you call will be a top 25% person.

Typically it takes five targeted calls to get one highly qualified prospect to present to the hiring managers. For most searches you’ll need 4-5 passive candidates to get one person hired. Doing the math, it means you’ll need to generate a list of 20-25 strong prospects to make one hire. However, as long as you follow all of the above techniques 80% of these people will have been referred.

When it comes to passive candidate recruiting, getting referrals is the name of the game. That’s how you increase both efficiency and quality of hire. But to achieve both you must work exclusively with the top 25%, use permission marketing, put compensation in the parking lot and conduct discovery on the first call, create the career move if the person is qualified and get two more great referrals if the person is not appropriate for one of your current openings. I refer to this process as the passive candidate recruiting machine. After two or three great placements, you’ll call it commonsense.

The New Competency Model for Passive Candidate Recruiting

Your Checklist for Becoming a Passive Candidate Recruiting Expert...

With the death of transactional recruiting, recruiters need to rapidly become passive candidate recruiting experts. The following are the prerequisites. And, you can take this online survey as you review the details to see where you stand.

1. Use a Performance-qualified Selection System vs. Skills-qualified System to attract 100% of the talent market

Passive candidates aren’t looking for lateral transfers; they’re looking for growth opportunities. A performance-based job description defines the work a person needs to accomplish in order to be considered successful.

You need to answer a strong yes to these questions to play in the passive candidate recruiting game:

  • Can you influence your hiring manager to use performance objectives rather than a list of skills and experiences to define job success?
  • Can you confidently answer this question the best passive candidates always ask first, “Can you tell me about the hiring manager, why the job is important, what some of the big challenges are, what the compensation is and why it’s a good career move?”

2. Establish a strong recruiter and hiring manager partnership

The recruiter needs to be an influential partner in the process to ensure the best person is being hired. As a result, the recruiter needs to answer a strong yes on these factors:

  • The hiring manager will agree to phone interview 100% of the candidates I present.
  • I’m often asked to lead panel interviews.
  • I’m often asked to lead debriefing sessions.
  • I can defend my candidates from superficial or incorrect assessments.

3. Prepare the “ideal candidate persona” as part of a dual-track sourcing program

The preparation of a candidate persona is part of a complete passive candidate recruiting effort, since it uncovers all possible prospects.

Some of these people will be found and contacted directly. The others will be found using the networking power of LinkedIn Recruiter. You need to prepare the profile and do both to score a five on this factor.

4. Build a great pool of top performing passive candidates

To be considered an outstanding passive candidate recruiter, you need to do all of the following:

  • Be a clever Boolean expert using performance traits to identify the top 25%.
  • Prepare great messages that tap into the candidate’s intrinsic motivators.
  • Achieve best in class passive candidate response rates (>50%).
  • Spend at least 50% of the time getting and calling high quality referrals.

5. Implement a consultative recruiting approach to become a true career advisor

Getting the names of passive candidates is easy. Getting them to talk with you is harder. Recruiting them is tougher still, but getting them hired within budget requires sophisticated recruiting skills.

You need to answer yes to all of the following to earn your master consultative recruiting certificate.

  • I can get at least 80% of the passive candidates I talk with on the phone to engage in a 10-15 minute exploratory conversation.
  • I know how to shift the conversation right away to the three dimensions of career growth over compensation maximization.
  • I can smoothly overcome typical passive candidate concerns, like location, title, compensation and lack of interest.  

6. Be recognized as an outstanding interviewer

You need to have a track record of accurately assessing candidates validated by the person’s on-the-job performance. This is why hiring managers will see all of your candidates and ask you to lead the hiring team’s debriefing sessions.

7. Maximize and manage the passive candidate recruiting process

To get five stars on this factor, you rarely need to present more than four candidates to get one person hired and 2-3 of these are either passive or highly referred candidates.

In our LinkedIn Recruiter Master Course, we describe the skills needed to achieve this mix. But, the big idea is to use a sequence of designed steps to keep the best prospects engaged throughout the recruiting process.

8. Be great at recruiting and closing on growth, not compensation

None of the above matters if you’re not hiring high quality passive candidates within your compensation range. The key to this is moving slowly, selling the discussion instead of the job, not letting passive candidates opt-out until they have a full set of information, converting your jobs into career moves, getting the passive candidate to sell you instead of you selling the candidate, and testing all offers to ensure 100% acceptance thereby preventing competing offers.

To be considered a top-notch passive candidate recruiter, the last factor is the most important. But you can’t get there unless you score high on all of the rest. That’s why you need to master the art of consultative recruiting. Based on the latest hiring trends, the time to get started is now.