“Passive recruiting” has been a buzzword in the Talent Acquisition world for as long as I’ve been in the industry. Not only is it described as the gold standard of a “strategic” Recruiting team, but “passive recruiting” started appearing as a job requirement for positions outside of the Human Resources organization. It’s hip, it’s now, it’s a term with caché, baby.

Which begs the question… why?

Who Are Those Guys, Anyway?

Let’s start here: What qualifies you as a “passive” candidate? Well, the single most obvious characteristic is that a passive candidate is not looking for a new job, and that’s where this gets tricky. Why? Because a prevalent perception has been developed over the years that has two basic tenets:

  1. People who are actively seeking a new job are suspicious.
  2. “Passive” candidates are the “real” talent ~ So unobtainable, so beautiful, so completely immune to our advances, rare and precious, like the mythical unicorn label we like to borrow (George Costanza actually had a great quote about this mindset.)

When we receive a resumé from a candidate, one of our first questions is “Why are you looking to leave your current employer?” [or God forbid they aren’t currently employed; then they immediately go to the bottom of the pile, conveniently located inside the shredder.] We ask this question why? Because it’s important, right?

Well yeah, but… until we’re trying to pry them away from their employer. Then it’s not so important why they leave—we just want them to leave.

Is it me, or is that just a touch hypocritical?

We look at these things with our own lens, so indulge me a minute: I was a “passive candidate” at one point, and I can’t help but think my experience was more typical than we’d like to admit. Successful and tenured at my (then) employer, I was happy. I didn’t know that what I really wanted was a new opportunity. Thankfully, a recruiter alerted me to that non-conscious desire. Not his fault—that’s what we do for a living, yes?

And who was I, exactly? I was a guy who knew how to get things done at my present employer. I knew every back-channel, informal handshake method to TCB. I had a track record. I had a history. I had favors owed, favors due, secrets kept… and that’s what made me a great employee—for my present employer.

And then for the receiving company, here’s the reality of recruiting this passive candidate.

  • I didn’t really want to go. It took 3 offers before I bit. You know why?
    • It was a tough job to fill. Not many people had that specific skill set, and those who did wanted no part of the role. You don’t go after passive candidates for easy-to-fill jobs; this one was tough and my resumé matched.
    • Leaving a good job is hard. It’s an emotional decision – you’re not running from the company, you just answered the phone one day & felt wanted. But leaving? Leaving is difficult.
  • It cost them a sh*t-ton of money. Why else would I go? Scope of responsibility? Cool. Title? Even cooler. But it eventually came down to a fat check. I’m not above saying they overpaid, because they did. That creates a few fun situations for your precious unicorn – they will be at the high end of your internal equity. Maybe the very high end. Maybe at the very stupid high end. That fact will be a secret for about 2 days.
  • You have to walk the talk. All those benefits of your company, wonderful culture, flexibility, limitless resources, and advancement opportunities – better be legitimate. Maybe you had to hide some ugly truths, withhold some information, or make promises that may not be feasible (in the recruiting world, these are known as “lies.”) That won’t make for a very happy unicorn, as they paw the dirt & carelessly waive their narwhalian horn around in anger.

Obviously, this doesn’t hold true for everyone who has been hired, but it should remind everyone in recruiting about the importance of level-setting on “active” vs. “passive” recruiting, and the merits of each respectively. Why we have convinced ourselves that a candidate wanting to join our company is less appealing than the unknown is really the question that needs to be addressed. It’s no different than the dopey-eyed cows straining to eat grass on the other side of the fence.

There will always be a place for passive recruiting, especially for those hard-to-find positions. But buyer beware when you take the route of “pulling” instead of receiving. People are successful for many reasons, including their ability to navigate the organization where they currently reside. How much of that ability translates to the new job is debatable, but you can bet that it won’t be an immediate transition.

And that’s the rub, yes? Instead of poring through candidates who have actively positioned themselves for an opportunity with your company, we go looking for that which we do not have.

Moo.