The other day I received a call from an HR consulting firm that’s been charged with helping a client build a passive candidate recruiter capability. They asked me a number of questions focusing on the why and the how. Here are some of the answers I gave them:

Why? Are passive candidates better than active candidates?

Yes and no, I said. Since qualified passive candidates outnumber qualified active candidates by a factor of 10-15, there are more of them. So for this reason alone they’re worth targeting. Equally important, there are far less top-performing people who have an economic reason to change jobs AND are fully-qualified AND are willing to take a lateral transfer AND are willing to be demeaned in the process. This is the definition of an active candidate and the reason why a passive candidate recruiting program is essential.

How? What’s the difference between recruiting active and passive candidates?

Everything. The strategy, tactics, process used, recruiter’s skills, role of the hiring manager, technology, and, most important, how job descriptions are written.

Could you give us a quick explanation of what you mean?


Have an Appropriate Talent Strategy.

The best passive candidates aren’t looking for lateral transfers, they’re looking for career moves. So if your talent strategy is based on finding lots of people and weeding out those who don’t meet some contrived skills and experiences requirement, you won’t find many top people. Whether active or passive, a surplus strategy won’t work when a surplus of top people doesn’t exist. In this case, you need to proactively target and attract the best people by emphasizing bigger and better jobs and upside opportunity.

Benchmark Best Practices.

There are two components of this. One: figuring out how the best passive candidates find their jobs, and two: finding out how the best recruiters find and recruit the best passive candidates. These two approaches then need to be integrated to create a formal passive candidate recruiting process. Then the process needs to be controlled and managed with the metrics that best predict how the best people will be found and hired most efficiently.

The Sourcing Process: Emphasize Acquaintances over Strangers.

A recent survey indicated that over 90% of the best people find their jobs through some connection, either a former co-worker, trusted recruiter or via networking. There are some interesting aspects to the process behind this. These people were sought out based on their track record of past performance and future potential, not their years of experience and quantity or depth of skills and experiences. And the jobs they were offered represented career moves, not lateral transfers. The recruiters who make the most placements with the best people understand this and emphasize getting highly-qualified referrals rather than just cold calling a bunch of strangers.

Develop or Hire Great Passive Candidate Recruiters.

You can’t hire great talent without great recruiters. Here’s the post I suggested the consulting team read before their next recruiter hire: the 12 attributes of great recruiters. The most important attributes of a great passive candidate recruiter are: know the job, partner with the hiring manager, get 6-8 pre-qualified referrals per day, and don’t take no for an answer until the candidate fully understands the career opportunity. (Recruiters can also rank themselves on the 12 factors).

Get Hiring Managers Fully Engaged in a Discovery-Based Recruiting Process.

Since by definition, passive candidates are not looking, they need to be enticed to explore career opportunities in a series of discovery steps. The big one is to arrange exploratory conversations with prospects and hiring managers early in the process. Managers need to be willing to have these 30-40 minute conversations, discuss the job, find out about the person and determine if there is mutual interest in proceeding. If so, then the person needs to be converted into a more active candidate. Here’s a post describing this passive candidate recruiting funnel process and the conversion metrics that need to be tracked. While getting great referrals in to the top of the funnel is essential, getting them hired within budget takes strong recruiters who partner with their hiring managers every step of the way.

When you peel away the grandiose statements about the importance of hiring great people, most companies are more interested in avoiding mistakes and filling positions with people like they’ve always hired. This represents a lost opportunity. A successful passive candidate recruiting strategy raises the talent bar of every single person hired, providing the company a huge and continuous competitive advantage. Achieving it instantly converts recruiting from an overhead department into a strategic asset. It starts by simply benchmarking how the best people get hired and then building a recruiting process that gets them hired that way. This is what being strategic means.