Question
By Gemma Morris
23rd October 2013

Given the competitiveness of the job market currently, a job advert can attract hundreds of CVs from active job seekers. But what if the best candidates for the role aren’t even looking? Maybe the key question is not ‘Who is looking for a job?’ but ‘Who would be perfect for this job?’ – then reaching out to them. That’s why we sometimes will seek out the ‘passive candidate’.

‘Passive’ candidates can be a rich and often untapped resource. They are usually already employed and not actively searching for new work, but could offer just the right mix of skills and experience that would make them an ideal fit for the position you’re trying to fill. We often find that proactively searching for passive candidates can be an effective strategy for when we’re not seeing enough qualified active candidates or are searching for a person with extremely rare or niche skills.

So what are some of the strategies for locating a promising – but passive – candidate? Our first line of enquiry is to seek recommendations from our extensive network of industry contacts. In our experience, candidates who come to us from referrals tend to be strong contenders – after all, someone else is willing to vouch for their skills and relevance for the role. Social media can be useful too, if used ethically to conduct a highly targeted search for very specific skills.

However, there are both benefits and drawbacks to recruiting a passive candidate.

Pros

If we’re considering a passive candidate, it’s because we feel they have exactly the right skills and experience. This is the primary draw, of course, but deliberately targeting someone can also offer other benefits. Firstly, the passive candidate is nearly always already employed and most probably happy, focused and gaining experience – all of which speaks to an appealing level of maturity and professionalism. And because they're not  actively looking for work, the passive candidate isn’t interviewing elsewhere and won’t drop out of the process because they've had another job offer. Additionally, if we’re making contact based on a referral and tell the candidate that someone they know has recommended them, they will usually be flattered – leading them to view your company and the job in a positive light, and may even result in stronger job performance.

Cons

On the other hand, recruiting a passive candidate past the initial contact stage can be a bit tricky if not handled properly, so there are a few things to be aware of. You must be prepared to put in extra effort to convince someone that you have the job ‘they never knew they wanted.’ Of course, your recruitment agency will put in most of the upfront legwork for you, but at the interview and offer stages, the balance of power shifts and you’ll need to sell the role, as well as your employer brand.

You may have to go beyond your salary limits to secure someone, especially where there is a scarcity of talent for the type of role you’re trying to fill (but be wary of the candidate who tries to leverage your interest into a counter-offer from their existing employer). Finally, it may take longer to contact passive candidates, who often haven’t got an up to date CV ready, so you might also need to be patient or accept an alternative such as a LinkedIn profile.

One of our recruiters told me about contacting a candidate via LinkedIn who had a particular niche technical skill our client was looking for. Because the recruiter didn’t have any contact details for this candidate other than the LinkedIn profile, it took him four months to hear back from the candidate, who wasn’t looking for work and wasn’t particularly active on LinkedIn. But because we had mentioned the niche skill in the message, he did respond eventually and was placed in the job a month later. Although he wasn’t seeking a new job, he knew that not many opportunities crop up with that particular technology, so his interest was piqued, once we got his attention.

The upshot is that hiring managers may have to be willing to put in the extra time to search, but the results can be worth it. Start by talking to your recruiter who can help you find exactly the person you’ve been looking for – but never knew was out there. 

Have you recruited passive candidates in the past? We would love to hear your experience in the comments below.

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