How To Communicate Effectively With Passive Candidates

If you’ve ever served as an interviewer, you may be familiar with the following scenario: you invite a candidate for an interview, expecting them to be vibrant and enthusiastic, but they’re listless and quiet instead. You may be puzzled by their approach, or even frustrated at their apparent refusal or inability to engage with the opportunity you’ve given them — either way, you’re not at all sure how to proceed.

You could give up, sure. Bring things to a close, offer some polite words, say you’ll let them know, and quickly consign their résumé to the rejection pile. But it would be a major waste, and you’d be falling into the trap that sees great candidates wasted on an all-too-frequent basis. You need to move ahead, and to do that you need to adapt.

In this piece, we’re going to take a look at some tips for communicating effectively with passive candidates. Not everyone is going to be a top talent, but it’s important that you try your hardest to find out before you cast someone aside — let’s get started.

Reasons why candidates can be passive

If you’re going to be making an effort to communicate with passive candidates, you need to be aware of the numerous reasons why someone might be passive. Context is essential if you’re going to get a meaningful idea of someone’s character. Here are some possible causes:

  • They’re nervous. Everyone is affected differently by interview nerves. Some people turn into motormouths and will sell themselves relentlessly, while others clam up and find it hard to get words out. And if someone really wants the job, it could even make it more difficult for them to articulate anything.

  • They’re worn down. The candidate in question might have been through interview after interview after interview for months or even years, consistently being rejected for reasons they might find nonsensical — some can weather this, but some can’t. If you’re tired and struggling to believe that anything you say will make a difference, it can be easy to think it’s better to stay quiet.

  • They’re desperate. If someone is in dire straits and desperately needs the job (whether they need any job or that job in particular), they might worry that talking would reveal that eagerness, and choose to keep still in the hope of seeming relaxed.

  • They’re lacking in confidence. Despite what some tend to think, this doesn’t necessarily mean someone has no self-esteem — they may simply have major concerns about how others (in this case, you, the interviewer) will view them.

  • They’re intimidated. Depending on the circumstances of the interview, they may be uncomfortable as a result of being intimidated. This is more likely to be the case when being interviewed by someone very clearly judging them harshly.

The notion that being passive in an interview means someone is a bad candidate, or even passive in general, is as pervasive as it is presumptuous. Yes, there may be a correlation, but that’s all. As we’ll touch upon next, the employment world still has some major issues when it comes to assessing candidate value.

The prevalence of the sales value model

Often feeding into the anxiety that can produce further interview passivity, it’s frustratingly common for interviewers to be quick to write off candidates that don’t conform to an old-fashioned idea of what a candidate should be. For whatever reason, huge portions of the working world have come to adopt a model that is only consistently relevant to the sales industry. I’ll elaborate:

The objective of a salesperson is to convince someone to pay for so... The higher the price, the greater the challenge, and while the buyer certainly will benefit from the deal, it’s taken as implied that the salesperson (and the company they work for) will benefit to a greater extent. This is reflected in the classic structure of the reluctant prospective customer and the pushy salesperson — if the deal were truly even, it wouldn’t feel so lopsided.

And the interview structure that has been around for decades now closely apes this format. In an interview, the candidate essentially assumes the role of the salesperson trying to convince the reluctant shopper (the interviewer) to buy what they’re selling. Since passive salespeople never get anywhere, the passive candidate is considered to have failed monumentally in their task of selling themselves. Their “product” goes unwanted.

Why the sales value model is flawed

The enormous problems with this practice only start with the fact that the sales model it uses is woefully out of date and reflects very poorly on the shoppers who rely on it. The savvy shopper doesn’t rely on the guidance of salespeople — they do their own research. They compare stats, prices, and features. They might listen to a sales pitch, but they’ll reach their own conclusion. The traditional salesperson, after all, has a vested interest in th.... Their argument is biased, as is any candidate’s argument for why they in particular should be hired.

Perhaps a bigger issue is the somehow-overlooked truth that someone interviewing for a non-sales position does not necessarily need sales skills. They might be utterly hopeless at giving you a compelling reason to hire them, yet entirely brilliant at doing the job for which you’re supposed to be considering them.

Despite all of this, the model stubbornly persists, largely because of this pattern:

  • Numerous people are hired as a result of this interview model.

  • One of said people eventually reaches a managerial position.

  • When invited to carry out an interview, they favor the assessment process that led to them being hired originally — after all, it’s clearly great because it got them hired.

It’s important to find a way to move past this dynamic, because it doesn’t consistently benefit the right people. We need to find a way to stop viewing it as a transactional process and start looking at it as finding the right fit for both parties. And we certainly need to stop overvaluing cocky candidates who immediately want to play hardball, boast about how in-demand they are (just because they understand the advantages of using a countdown timer from a psychological standpoint), and wrap things up by asking for more money.

So an aggressive candidate might be terrible, and a passive candidate might be great — but you still need to connect with the latter to find out, so let’s look at how to do that.

How to deal with passive candidates

There’s no bulletproof formula for this, but I’m going to set out a sequence to follow that should go some way towards making the atmosphere a little more productive:

  • State that experience and knowledge levels aren’t deal-breakers. This is absolutely something you should open with because it could be a major concern for them, and in very few circumstances should these things actually be deal-breakers. Someone with no experience in a field can still excel in it, just as someone with years of experience can still be incompetent. If you’re looking to the future with your hires, act like it — pick the best prospect, not the person who seems the safest on paper. The latter approach is how some mediocre workers bounce from position to position. Decide for yourself.

  • Review the essential work of the role. To reinforce this, cover in detail what the role will practically involve on a daily basis. This will help them think past the artificial confines of the interview and get into the mindset of what it might be like to have the job. You may find that this starts to loosen them up.

  • Tell them something you liked about their application. A little bit of reassurance could go a long way. You clearly invited them to interview for a reason, so tell them what that interview is. Being reminded that they are actually wanted there might help to overcome any issues with discomfort or nerves.

  • Ask them about their preferred communication style. Some people are fairly quiet and relaxed, even when working — and for many jobs, that makes no difference. A web developer, for instance, only requires basic communication skills. Most of the time they’ll be sequestered somewhere with their computer and a pair of headphones. If they say they’re not usually quiet, you can factor that in — and if they are, you can let them know if you think that’s likely to be an issue.

  • Follow up by pursuing their references. All too often these days, requested references go unused. I contend that this is often a mistake, and when you’ve made it through an interview without feeling that you’ve gleaned a solid idea of what that candidate is like to work with, you should speak to their references. Whether they’re former colleagues, friends, or even family members, they can tell you more about what that person is like when they’re not in an interview. You might just discover that they’re usually very warm and personable.

In the end, what I want you to take away from this is that an interview is a contrived scenario and not a reflection of the real world. While you might want to make your decision easier by determining that anyone who doesn’t conform to the classic interview expectations is clearly not competent or dedicated enough to be a good employee, that’s the attitude that gets promising employees passed over time and time again.

If you forget about convention and form your own opinions, though, you can communicate more effectively with passive candidates — and you might just find your next batch of hires. Try it.

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