Attracting the 'Passive Candidate'

Sep 16, 2005

David Bair

The passive candidate has long held a certain mystic among hiring managers; difficult to identify and even more difficult to recruit, these professionals are considered by many to be the “Holy Grail” of job candidates for two primary reasons:

  • Because they are happily employed, passive candidates are thought to be much more loyal and more stable than professionals who are employed but actively pursuing a new position.
  • Because they are not actively seeking a new position, the belief is that there will be less competition for the attentions of a passive candidate.

    Whether or not these beliefs are true, the fact is that passive candidates make up about 85% of the working population and an estimated 45% of the IT industry workforce. Particularly for IT, which has an estimated employee turnover rate of as high as 30%, the sheer number of passive candidates makes establishing a recruitment strategy for attracting these individuals worth a second look.

    The challenge, however, is that passive candidates (simply because they are passive) are unlikely to respond to traditional recruitment techniques: they don’t flock to job boards nor do they spend their Sundays picking through the help wanted ads.

    But “challenging” does not mean “impossible.” They may not be actively searching for a job, but passive candidates are proactively managing their careers. They aren’t adverse to change if the right opportunity presents itself. Therefore, with the right mix of strategies, it is possible to reach out and win over passive candidates.

    Laws of Attraction

    So what might turn a passive candidate’s head when it comes to recruitment? It could be a simple matter of timing — you catch them on a very bad day — or a change in circumstance such as a new manager or a geographic change that has impacted their quality of life.

    More often than not, however, it’s a matter of appealing to their long-term career goals. For example, if the passive candidate feels their ability to expand their skills is limited, or that they’ve hit the wall in terms of professional and/or financial growth with their current employer, it is more likely that they will be interested in exploring their options with other companies.

    Even in those circumstances, however, it is still highly unlikely that the passive candidate will launch an active job search in the traditional sense. Rather, they are more likely to take a second look at an opportunity they had heard about previously, explore opportunities with a company they admire, or turn to a group of trusted colleagues who may know of positions that meet their needs.

    Because traditional recruitment strategies aren’t effective at attracting the passive candidate, a creative approach is required, one designed to reach out to these professionals to pique their interest and establish relationships before their search turns from passive to active.

    In my experience, there are two primary strategies for successfully recruiting passive candidates: relationship building and direct contact.

    Relationship Building

    Relationship building typically starts with an introduction and progresses from there. This strategy is one in which leading professional recruitment firms excel. It often starts with a referral from another candidate with whom the recruiter has a successful relationship, or is an ongoing relationship with someone the recruiter has helped in the past.

    From there, the passive candidate and the recruiter establish a mutually beneficial relationship in which the recruiter is able to evaluate various opportunities as they come in, discarding those that don’t specifically meet the candidate’s expectations and passing along only those that do.

    This allows the candidate to focus only on those positions that are serious opportunities without having to send out resumes or participate in interviews for jobs that ultimately do not meet their requirements. Recruiters, in turn, can be confident that the candidate they are referring to their client company is not only qualified and serious about the position, but is also not collecting multiple offers that could force the hiring company to enter a bidding war to secure their top candidate.

    Direct Contact

    Direct contact involves getting out in the community, but in a more overt manner than relationship building. Trade shows, job fairs, etc., where recruiters are actively collecting contact information and resumes from potential candidates are good examples.

    However, because passive candidates are not actively seeking new positions, the traditional follow up to these events won’t be effective. A better follow-up strategy is to find a reason to stay in touch with the passive candidate that builds awareness of your organization over time.

    A few examples of this could include staying in contact with candidates through invitations to sign up for corporate newsletters or special industry reports and white papers. Other companies are setting up web blogs or message boards where professionals can seek advice or share industry or career information.

    “Cold” contacts can also be effective if handled appropriately. For example, a phone call or introductory email that explains how you heard about the individual and that includes a summary of opportunities, as well as solicits feedback on the level of personal interest and requests referrals to others who might be interested in the opportunity can be very effective as long as it’s not a “hard sell.”

    Finally, a good PR and marketing campaign designed to brand a company and educate potential candidates on the benefits of a particular organization is a good way to build top-of-mind awareness. For example, some companies have sponsored events designed to expose potential candidates to the organization without “selling” them on a position.

    This allows potential candidates to meet with company representatives and get a feel for the organizational culture, while recruiters are able to gather contact information and evaluate the various candidates on their potential.

    Clearly, recruiting passive candidates is neither fast nor inexpensive. It requires a separate strategy from that used to recruit active candidates and a long-term commitment to selling these professionals on the position and organization.

    Few companies can afford the time and budget it takes, which is why professional recruitment firms are still the most popular option in the hunt for the passive candidate. They have the contacts and the resources required to identify and cultivate potential candidates and the expertise to evaluate each opportunity to match the right candidate with the right position.

    For those organizations that prefer to keep recruitment in-house, the important thing to remember when developing and implementing a passive candidate recruitment strategy is to appeal to their long-term career goals, skip the hard sell tactics and find innovative ways to build awareness of your company.

    David Bair is vice president, Flex for Kforce Technology Staffing, a division of Kforce. Bair can be reached at


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