Passive Candidates


I See You Looking

The great white whale of talent acquisition, passive candidates can frustrate and elude even the most seasoned recruiters.  Many will argue is this even a valid term? Isn’t everyone a candidate?  Even if they make the move internally?  At the same time, in a candidate’s market, we have no choice but to try and engage qualified talent – including those who seem uninterested and unwilling to change.   This can and will take multiple messages, sourcing methods and hours of hard work and there’s no guarantee it will pay off.  Or will it?

It’s no surprise that passive recruiting elicits groans from many in the space. Countless headlines reflect this, exclaiming “How to Win Over Passive Candidates” or “The Mindsets that Will Cost You Passive Candidates,” even “The Problem with Passive Candidates,” barely covering the underlying feelings of contempt. Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you with absolute conviction that passive candidates are the best candidates because they are not.  They just aren’t on job boards actively or messaging you on Linkedin.  I’ve seen others make that claim before, and while there’s some truth that the best hires are often sourced from other competing positions, it’s not the entire point.  So what is the real upside? There’s got to be a silver lining, right?

Rise to the Challenge

Yes, passive candidates tend to be immensely qualified workers, which is why their current employers work so hard to retain them. That said, when you’re able to attract passive candidates, they offer you, the recruiter, a unique opportunity. You get the chance to learn what it takes to get their attention and with any luck, keep it. Maybe they’re looking for more money; maybe they’re looking for better work-life balance or the ability to work from home. Either way, there’s no one way to seal this type of deal, and you won’t know exactly what they want until you have that conversation. Plus, even if you don’t make a hire, you get to flex that recruiting muscle and grow stronger in the process.  The mere conversations you will have will grow you as a recruiter as you learn what motivates as well as un-motivates your target candidates.  

Master the Domain

Nine times out of ten, when you see an article about sourcing passive candidates, you’re also going to find the discussion of “tech.” That’s because, historically speaking, between a call for specialized skills and a shortage of qualified talent, the two remain inextricably linked. That works out for other recruiters, able to learn from tech and take on passive candidates in their area of expertise. There’s a wealth of material and years of learning at your fingertips, just ready and asking for you to apply it to your openings. And guess what? Once you do, you’ll start to become the expert, able to school your fellow recruiters in what it takes to hire passive candidates in a given industry. Just think of all the advice you can share after the previously hard-to-engage candidates start signing contracts and taking on your jobs.  Knowledge is value.

Paint A Picture

Speaking of flexing muscles and closing deals, passive outreach is a surefire way to use all that outside knowledge you have. This is where that common recruiting is marketing trope comes into play, and more than that, sales and advertising too. As I’m sure you already know, passive candidates don’t respond well to a barrage of InMails, no matter how perfect your req is for them. You need a more nuanced approach, one that lures passive candidates away from their lengthy to-do list and over to you.  Knowledge is power and if you can educate a prospect on the market and add value to their life, instead of just yours, everyone should win. Really, what you’re doing is leveraging what you know across multiple markets and companies to entice passive candidates and get them thinking about what a new job might do for them.  Paint a picture so they can see the value of what is out there.  

Nature and Nurture

Recruiting is rapidly approaching a crossroads. We’re more than ten years out from the Great Recession, with the looming specter of another downturn somewhere off in the distance. Further complicating matters is the rise of AI and automation, changing how and when candidates and recruiters interact. Even so, the humans prevail for now, especially when it comes to passive candidates who aren’t out there looking anyway. This is where we outshine technology, working to create relationships and develop new networks. Through each conversation, you’re demonstrating the value and importance of your function, whether the payoff is immediate or somewhere down the line. And that’s far from a problem.  Face to face is where AI shouldn’t win for a while at least.

Passive candidates keep the work interesting. Sure, the extra effort, continued chasing and patient waiting may push your time to placement buttons in the interim, but you didn’t take this job because you thought it would be easy, did you? I didn’t think so. It’s time to reframe the narrative and change our collective perspective – and see if the power of positive thinking helps us catch more candidates and improve outcomes. Who knows – it might just be the right bait.  Your role as an advisor, educator, and providing more value than you receive will reward you time and again.


Noel Cocca

CEO/Founder RecruitingDaily and avid skier, coach and avid father of two trying to keep up with my altruistic wife. Producing at the sweet spot talent acquisition to create great content for the living breathing human beings in recruiting and hiring. I try to ease the biggest to smallest problems from start-ups to enterprise. Founder of RecruitingDaily and our merry band of rabble-rousers.