Active & Passive Candidates - What Are They?

There are no such things as active or passive candidates in the recruitment market, there are only good candidates and the rest. OK, I know that at any one time there are people out there who are actively scouring the market for a new job, and many more who are not. But the point is that this is a candidate perspective, not a recruiter one. Where recruiters can go wrong is in looking for sources of new candidates who are not looking for a new role or may be unavailable to their competitors, i.e 'passive candidates', but can still be delivered to them as if they were 'active'. 


I can understand the problem.  I worked for an exec-level job board where much of our early growth came from companies looking to us as a different candidate pool.  They and all their competitors used the same job boards and came up with the same candidates for the same jobs, for which of course they were all in competition. If we were successful for one agency, it was not long before the competition turned up in force.  Good for us, but the same problem for the recruiter.


But looking for active or passive candidates is missing the point.  And it's lazy recruiting practice. Recruiters get paid to find the right candidate. Sometimes it will be possible to find the right candidates from a job posting, as at any one time some, but by no means all of the most eligible candidates will be looking to change jobs. But to be consistently identifying the best available candidates  means getting of your butt and approaching the people your client would want you to be talking to. You cannot expect a 'passive' candidate to come to you. To find the right candidate you need more than one string to your sourcing bow, and with the wealth of information online there has never been an easier time to do this.  Recruiters - get out there and engage!

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Comment by Maureen Sharib on June 22, 2011 at 11:01am
I don't agree. I think there is a truly "passive" candidate and I believe there is much misunderstanding in the industry who is what.  A past job board registrant?  No, not a passive candidate.  Someone on LinkedIn?  No, not passive either.  I'd like to hear the definitions given to active and passive candidates from the audience.  It's as good a time as any to have this discussion AGAIN.
Comment by Amber on June 22, 2011 at 11:19am

If you find (and place) the right candidate for a position, does it matter what label they have or where they came from?

Comment by Brian Keith on June 23, 2011 at 12:23pm

I think about candidates like this:

20% actively looking. This includes those who, if they accepted a position yesterday they'd entertain a opportunity today, the unemployed, the unemployable, and the chronically dissatisfied.


20% are never looking. They're happy with their current role, growth, compensation etc. They include superstars (highly valued by their company-tangibly and intangibly), loyalists (they have stock in the company's kool-aid supply), founders/plank owners (those who have been there from the very beginning and will likely stay until the very end). Folks that have too much invested or at risk to leave. If these people make a move they will ordinarily pick up the phone and go where they want and get what they want.


60% are not actively looking but are open to make a change if the timing is right AND the opportunity is compelling and meets or exceed their expectations/selection criteria. THIS is the sweet spot of passive candidates.


Don't get me wrong, there are clearly exceptions to these definitions but by-and-large its my observation that most folks fit into the above categories. 

Comment by Alan on June 23, 2011 at 12:28pm

A passive candididate has a job and looking for one is farthest from their mind; like sitting by the pool and a winning lottery ticket dropped out of the sky into their lap. Who wouldn't take the time to get the numbers checked out?

Comment by Scott Pugh on June 23, 2011 at 12:32pm

They are real and are more likely to be placeable. But it's also a marketing term. For example, CareerBuilder sales people claim to be giving you access to passive candidates with their database product.


Similarly, Chilean sea bass, is a marketing term for the Patagonian toothfish and portobello is actually the mature form of the more familiar brown button mushroom.



Comment by Eric Smith on June 23, 2011 at 1:07pm
Excellent post!
Comment by bill josephson on June 23, 2011 at 1:31pm

Ian, I'm a 31 year recruiter.  Maureen Sharib is exactly right.  I'll elaborate.


The best candidate may well be on a job board.  I won't look there.  Why?  Because all my clients subscribe to the job boards and there's a 90% likelihood they have access to the person already.  I'm in business by providing candidates my clients otherwise wouldn't have found.  So my job is really to compete with my client's HR department whereby they're looking on the Internet for aggressive/visible candidates on boards, google searches, or others and I'm cold calling/networking over the phone for people who weren't looking for a job (passive candidates) and people whose resumes aren't posted on the Internet (invisible candidates).


It's a race.  Candidates I find are generally superior.  But will I have enough time to locate them before my client or competition?  The purpose is to fill the job.  My limitation is I have to find candidates my clients can't find and they won't work with me if I'm trying to beat them to Internet candidates 5 minutes before they find them.


Comment by Sandra McCartt on June 23, 2011 at 1:36pm

A passive candidate is one who has not yet been contacted by a recruiter with a good enough deal.

All of us can be bought, some of us are just more expensive than others.  Even the majority stockholder will sell if somebody makes him an offer that he thinks he can't refuse.


If somebody says no it simply means your deal is not good enough.  Most people won't sell their kids or their best horse or their spouse ....most of the time.

Comment by Alan on June 23, 2011 at 1:39pm
Brian describes the workforce well. I've never placed a passive candidate ... at some point every candidate sells themselves into the role unless a family member tells the junior member to show up. I had that happen, the CEO's son showed up unshaven, black jeans etc. the recruiter sent him home and told him to cleanup and get with the program. He came back and became what his father hoped his son would become a productive asset but it took the riot act to be delivered to motivate him. Everyone becomes motivated at sometime or the process doens't proceed. A recruiters role is to discover what  will spark the motivation. So maybe we should call them unmotivated instead of passive.  
Comment by bill josephson on June 23, 2011 at 1:40pm
True for the candidate, but my clients will only be mercenary to a point and if at any point in the process they believe money is the sole candidate motivating factor my experience is they lose interest


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