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Don't Stop Targeting Passive Candidates, But Do it More Intelligently

Finding, attracting, and hiring passive candidates who haven't actively applied to a job vacancy, but are highly suited, is a necessary part of recruiting in today's tight talent markets

Passive recruiting is a much used term in HR, and refers to finding employees at other companies and attracting them to take a job at yours when they are not actively looking for a new position. One contributor to Forbes recently took issue with the term “passive candidates.”

In a post billed as telling the “horrible truth” about this segment of the talent market, the writer gives corporate recruiting functions a partly-deserved slap on the wrist, but also presents a rather confused view of both passive candidates and the merits of a recruiting strategy premised on sourcing them. She begins by defining what a passive candidate is (and is not):

“‘Passive’ job candidates are all the rage among lots of employers these days. They want to find their own candidates rather than running job ads and talking with the job-seekers who respond to those ads. These days, employer representatives and in-house recruiters pick up the phone and call unsuspecting working people to say, “Want to come and work for our company?” nearly as often as third-party recruiters do.

“A ‘passive job seeker’ is anything but passive. They get up and go to work and take care of a million details every day the same way we all do. They are only passive from the employer’s point of view. You want to talk about passive? The standard recruiting process, the one that is showing its ineffectiveness in the new millennium, is the most passive business process anyone could imagine. Many employers run job ads and expect qualified applicants to flock to their door. That’s about as passive as you can get!”

Passive Activity and Getting Job Ads Right

The “passive” candidate is referred to in recruiting circles not as a slight on their productivity or their engagement with their employer (if that were the case, recruiters wouldn’t be interested in targeting them), but rather because they are not actively applying for the job a recruiter wants to fill. The Forbes writer, Liz Ryan is right about the standard recruiting process.

Posting a vacancy on job sites and hoping for qualified applicants to find them is largely ineffective, particularly in segments where individuals have multiple options. Ryan rightly calls out the content of job ads as an endemic failing:

“I have a message for my brothers and sisters in HR: Your recruiting problems spring from your broken recruiting process and mindset about talent. Your job ads are atrocious. They push away anyone with an ounce of self-esteem. Your job ads list the endless set of Essential Requirements you’ve concocted out of thin air mixed with fear and hubris. Your job ads don’t give a job-seeker a single good reason they should come and work for your company. Your job ads talk down to candidates. Why would you do that?”

Companies can do a lot to improve the content of their job ads and their employer brand messaging more broadly, including what is written and posted on careers sites as well as what said by recruiters and other employees in conversations. In fact, 80% of an individual’s decision whether or not to apply to a job is based on information from sources other than the employer, such as Glassdoor reviews, employees’ LinkedIn profiles, and word-of-mouth information from friends or professional contacts, according to CEB data.

The reason for this is that they do not get the information they want — what it is really like to work for a company — from the firm itself, which tends to depict its work environment as universally positive and appealing in its recruiting materials. The companies that are good at employer branding (making yourself attractive to employees) are keen to share the real, unvarnished view of the upsides and downsides of the jobs they are advertising. As a result, job candidates respond positively and these firms get better slates of interviewees and higher-quality hires.

The Power of the Passive

Identifying and engaging with passive candidates is increasingly important for companies because competition for certain skills is so high. CEB analysis of job postings from the S&P 100 last year showed that 40% of all job postings were for just 21 roles (including computer systems analysts, software developers, and marketing managers) and 90% or more of S&P 100 companies were recruiting for each of these 21 roles. Analysis of other indexes, like the FTSE 100, reveal a similar pattern.

This analysis reveals a convergence of skill requirements across industries that increases competition and skill shortages. To compete in this environment, organizations need to identify and engage with individuals who would not otherwise apply. And this is where Ryan misses the mark:

“Great companies large and small don’t have to call into other workplaces to fill their job openings. People hear good things about them and reach out to them. If your company isn’t sought after by fantastic candidates all the time (such that you’d never dream of having time to invest in passive-candidate-hunting) then something major is busted in your engine.”

If only this were the case. Unfortunately, the market for skilled talent is very tight, particularly in technical roles, and that problem isn’t solving itself as universities aren’t producing enough graduates in STEM fields with the skills to bridge the gap. As long as job openings in these high-demand roles outnumber qualified applicants, recruiters must pursue passive talent in order to compete.

Keep Looking for Passive Candidates

But how recruiters do this is incredibly important, however. Unfortunately, given the ubiquity of sourcing tools, passive candidates receive a lot of spam, which leads to frustration amongst would-be candidates who have had enough of unsolicited and poorly structured outreach.

The more forward-thinking recruiting functions formulate “market-driven” sourcing strategies that take a nuanced and lighter-touch approach. They carefully consider their competitive position, explore non-obvious and adjacent talent pools, and approach prospective candidates to talk to them about their careers, as opposed to giving them a hard sell on the job they are peddling.

Yes, many employers’ recruiting and sourcing strategies are due for a good shake-up, but to abandon the search for passive candidates would be to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Indeed, in an increasingly competitive talent market, companies need better strategies for attracting this group.


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