The Passive Candidate Conundrum – Skill vs Luck

Get a room full of recruiters and inevitably the subject of “passive versus active candidates” will come up. Active candidates are the ones who apply – the ones pursuing open roles by completing online applications and such. Passive, on the other hand, are talented folks who would NEVER consider a role if not for some savvy recruiter presenting hidden opportunities in just such a way that our hapless targets are spellbound by our presentation.


Don’t get me wrong, clearly there is a benefit to being the one to bring forward an opportunity to someone not looking. The chance to close a candidate for OUR role, and setting up a relationship early (before other recruiters start calling) can pay off. Can we truly say, though, that the hotshot engineer we just called hasn’t received 14 phone calls from recruiters this week alone? Ahh, that’s where skill comes in to play. See a good, no GREAT, recruiter knows how to finesse a pitch. No canned scripts, no fluffy generalizations; just real, hard hitting, why this role is awesome. Set the hook, reel ‘em in. This is a delicate dance that requires skill and cajones – we may have to make this call multiple times to a long list of targets before we finally get the yes. I still find myself wondering – if this is such a tough skill to master, why are there so many mediocre recruiters making a decent living?

Luck. Pure, dumb luck. The kind of luck that the fresh faced 22 yr old coed at ginormous agencies experience when dialing that developer for the 17th time and he says YES. The kind of luck that the failed agency sellout sitting at corporate experiences when sending yet another templated inmail to that senior marketing manager and she says YES. Because on that day my friends, both developer and marketing manager have HAD IT. Maybe it was a bad commute, or a fight with the missus. Maybe a passed over promotion or a craptastic boss. Maybe their neighbor just got a cool new job and all of a sudden, the idea of changing roles looks appealing. For whatever reason, the outreach was made to the right person at the right time. That’s it. Oh sure, that’s the first step down a windy road fraught with peril to make it to a placement, but I would guess at least half of “yesses” we get have more to do with timing than any real skill on our part. So why do we focus on flipping passive candidates? It’s a constant topic of debate – even the moniker “passive” causes some people headaches (I’m one of those people).

In my not so humble opinion? One reason - it strokes our ego to find the unfindable. Recruit the unrecruitable.

Hell, a lot of recruiters use that as their pitch. That’s definitely a viable business model for some – retained only, exclusivity to pry that chief exec straight out of my competitor. Awesome. I genuinely have mad respect for people who can do this well. And since everyone knows statistics are made up, I’ll go ahead and say that accounts for 7% of all placements made, EVER. Where are the other 93%? If had to do guess, I’d say a good chunk of those are made by anything BUT passive candidates. They come from referrals, direct applicants, and (oh the humanity) maybe even a job board or two. My personal favorite hunting ground is my very own ATS – tapping candidates who’ve likely applied to other roles (what’s this? You like MY COMPANY?) yet for whatever reason don’t work here yet.

Some purist might scoff and say this makes me a lazy, reactive recruiter. I like to think it makes me a smart, effective one who can afford to take nice vacations and weekends off. To those who still insist that dragging “passive candidates” out from under rocks kicking and screaming is the only way to really recruit? I have just one thing to say – good luck.

Views: 1317

Comment by Derdiver on April 4, 2015 at 2:30pm

I remember the OH so many battles I had with managers over this topic. Great read as always!

Comment by Doug Munro on April 5, 2015 at 8:59am

Absolutely awesome! Summed up the whole thing in a few paragraphs. Every tool - ATS, job boards, active sourcing - has a place in the toolbox. You eloquently summed up that timing is everything. Keep hunting, keep calling (along with every other tool you can utilize), and eventually the stars align a few times.

Comment by Amy Ala Miller on April 6, 2015 at 2:39pm

thanks guys :) totally agree with you Doug, it takes a little of everything with a dash of luck really... I gave up searching for the magic formula years ago and just dabble in various things that work. ;)

Comment by Mitch Sullivan on April 7, 2015 at 7:00am

I agree.  

I've only work retained for about 14 years now, most of them on salaries under 50K, and around 80% of those assignments have been filled simply by running job ads and searching databases.  If you take proper briefs and produce great ads, you invariably don't have to go looking for candidates looking for a sideways move - and lets be honest here, that's the most common behavioural characteristic that so-called "passive candidates" share.

Here's some more on the same subject:

Comment by Kasia Borowicz on April 7, 2015 at 8:58am

"In my not so humble opinion? One reason - it strokes our ego to find the unfindable" - it would be ok if that was actually what most recruiters did. But the truth is there's a lot of recruiters out there calling themselves headhunters just because it sounds cooler. You check how they really find candidates - job boards (including LinkedIn - sorry, but sending a mass email through LI means you're just using it as a job board), adverts... They would just prefer to pretend they are doing something extraordinary. So very much agreed on the ego thing.

Comment by Nicholas Meyler on April 7, 2015 at 4:54pm

Nothing succeeds like success.  The hard-working recruiter who has a broad variety of tools in his/her kit is the one who wins.  Hard work and skill make luck happen more often.

Comment by Amy Ala Miller on April 7, 2015 at 5:17pm

funny how the harder you work the luckier you are... well not all the time but yeah it happens. :) Thanks everyone for commenting - REALLY surprised I haven't pissed anyone off with this but those that are commenting seem to know where I'm coming from so that's a positive. :)

Comment by Bob Waldo on April 9, 2015 at 3:05pm

I've been a longtime opponent of misconception that the "passive candidate" is somehow far superior to those who are active. I think we can all attest to working alongside people at our jobs, whose resumes are nowhere to be found online, and may not even have a presence in Social Media. Some of these people are TERRIBLE employees, and just because someone sources them and they aren't active on the job market doesn't magically turn them from duds into superstars. the best candidate for the job? The one you placed, regardless of how you found them!

Comment by Jo Rowbotham on April 14, 2015 at 8:26am

Great article which resonates well the need to build a candidate pool, both recruiters and job boards have to show a value added service to internal recruiters by giving access to those candidates which they have exclusivity over.  Simply providing the active candidates which every other job board or recruiter has is no longer enough, the internal recruiters will likely source those active candidates themselves.  


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