There’s an old adage that you should treat candidates as customers. Somehow this has been long forgotten in the recent era of high unemployment and slow job growth. However, as this recent jobs report indicates, this is all about to change.

I’m going to reframe this idea and suggest that if you want to hire the best people possible, treat all candidates as if they are passive candidates. This is vital for candidates who actually are passive candidates. More important, treating everyone with the respect they deserve, including those who are active candidates, will fundamentally improve the overall quality of people you hire.

Here’s why:

For one thing, by treating everyone with respect they’ll all feel positive about your company’s selection process and your company. As a result, they’ll tell everyone in their network and post it on before the day is over. This is just commonsense, and common courtesy.

Another important reason for treating all candidates with this type of respect is to increase assessment accuracy. Let’s be frank: the negative bias of being active or unemployed is hard to overcome, especially for hiring managers. The problem is that there are some very good people in these groups who would be outstanding hires if they were objectively assessed.

While the feel-good idea of treating candidates as customers makes for good marketing jargon, most hiring managers just don’t know how to do it. That’s why some company-level direction can help. Here are some ideas that are essential if you want to hire passive candidates, but there’s no reason they shouldn’t be applied to all candidates regardless of their job-hunting status.

A 6-Step Program for Hiring More Top People

  1. Offer compelling career opportunities, not lateral transfers. If you want to hire top-notch passive candidates you need to foster a culture of performance and opportunity that’s obvious and relevant. This means people are going to be challenged and pushed, and if successful, provided opportunities to take on bigger roles. This needs to start by replacing traditional skills-laden job descriptions with performance profiles that define success in terms of performance objectives.
  2. Go fast, slowly. Go slow enough to ensure the candidate has enough information to make a strategic decision in comparison to other opportunities being considered. As part of this, go fast enough to ensure you don’t lose the person for lack of attention. Fully-employed passive candidates need time to evaluate your opening as a true career move. Leaving a good situation is not an easy decision to make. Going just slow enough ensures the candidate has the opportunity to collect all of the needed information to make the best personal decision.
  3. Treat the person as a consultant, not a vendor. Why not start the interview process by assuming the person is competent rather than assuming the person isn’t? If you treat the person as a knowledgeable consultant and expert in his or her field, the conversation is more open, more honest, more relevant, and more accurate. Passive candidates demand this respect. Active candidates deserve it.
  4. Use the one-question interview to describe the job and determine job fit. Stop the 20-minute introductory sales pitch. Instead, cut this down to a two-minute overview of the job. During the interview describe a critical performance objective and ask the candidate to describe his or her most comparable accomplishment. If you do the same thing for all of the remaining performance objectives, by the end of the interview you’ll know if the person is a great fit for the job, whether active or passive. The candidate will also know if the job offers a career move or not.
  5. Use the interview to establish the job as a career move. There is more to the interview than assessing competency and motivation. As you conduct the one-question interview described above, look for areas where the candidate is a bit light (i.e., span of control, impact, job complexity, skills, etc.). If you find 4-5 factors like this and the gap isn’t too wide, you can then position your job as a means for the candidate to quickly grow and develop in these areas. Collectively, these gaps represent a career move. This is much better than over-selling or using generic boilerplate and hyperbole.
  6. Put the compensation in the parking lot. Too many recruiters filter candidates on their salary requirements. Likewise, too many candidates want to know the salary range before they’ll discuss the opportunity. This is equivalent to making a major purchase and negotiating the terms before you even know what’s being bought or sold. You’ll never hire a single passive candidate if you can’t get past this hurdle, and you shouldn’t make active candidates jump over it before you talk with them. Here’s how to overcome this common challenge.

The key idea behind all of this is to treat everyone as if they’re top-notch, whether they’re active or passive. Job-hunting status should not be part of the assessment. Making these changes will allow you to not only see and hire more talented people, you’ll also make everyone who has been through your assessment process feel they’ve been assessed professionally and treated fairly. We all treat our customers with respect. All candidates should be offered the same courtesy.


Lou Adler (@LouA) is the CEO of The Adler Group, a consulting and training firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring. He's also a regular columnist for Inc. Magazine and BusinessInsider. His latest book, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013), provides hands-on advice for job-seekers, hiring managers and recruiters on how to find the best job and hire the best people. You can continue the conversation on LinkedIn's Essential Guide for Hiring Discussion Group.

Photo: stavos / Flickr