Fool’s Gold… Passive Candidates

“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 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. A 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.

When we receive a resumé from a candidate, one of our first questions is “Why are you looking to leave your current employer?” [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, an external 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. 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 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.
  • You’re no longer a recruiter, you’re a salesperson. Which (might) mean that you will exaggerate the benefits of your company, hide some ugly truths, withhold some information, or make promises that may not be feasible. Sometimes, these are known as “lies.” Then, the real workday begins… oof.

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.


FOT Background Check

John Whitaker
“Whit” is an HR Business Strategist and Staffing Professional: he primarily works in the healthcare industry, because... healthcare. A Texan, he tends to amuse us (okay, he amuses himself) with colloquialisms and a cowboy’s view on our industry. John honed his HR chops at Alcon Laboratories and CVS Caremark before starting HR Hardball™ in 2010. He currently hangs his sombrero at DentalOne Partners where he has been fortunate enough to lead a world-class team of recruiting professionals. You can email Whit, find him on LinkedIn, or read more of his brain-droppings at


  1. Joel McLean says:

    It is ridiculous to rate active candidates lower than passive candidates for the simple reason that they actively looked for a new job. It’s shameful (and, as you point out, costly) to uphold a prejudice against people who are actively searching for a job.

    But… The reason why you should scare about scaling your talent attraction strategy in order to reach passive talent is simple: at any point in time, there are far more people who are not actively searching than those who are. And yet, research shows that nearly all of us (regardless of whether we are actively searching) are willing to listen.

    You need a strategy to take advantage of this dynamic, and not limit yourself to too narrow of an audience.

  2. I think of chasing passive candidates as more of a dream of widening the talent pool to infinity – wouldn’t that be nice to have _all_ the talent in the world as candidates for a current opening?

    That approach would also explain why do recruiters care to publish the positions at all when they perceive those reacting to it as not real talent.

    Moreover, applicants, if they smart enough, can trick the system and try to pretend to be passive candidates, even when they hate their current job and it only takes the one call to make them leave it.

    But, as you said it, going after passive candidates does make sense when it’s about a hard-to-fill position and it always will.

  3. Fred says:

    Passive is a word that can also translate to “fall off”
    The candidate was asleep when you woke them up and somehow convinced them to take a look at your opportunity. Then, you help them dust off the old resume (which if they are TRULY passive, will certainly need dusting off) (Right?)
    The next step for them, sitting there with their newly dust free resume, is to send it out to a few friends and acquaintances, who can blame them?
    The problems with a candidate who is asleep in their career is that they may just want to go back to sleep, because sleeping is the path of least resistance so… you get an offer, after all the work, meetings, negotiations, tears and suffering, only to have them say, “No, I think I will stay here, they offered me more money and I took it…” OR their old buddy get them and interview/ offer you were not told about… or worse yet: they take the job with your client, and go to sleep there, embarrassing everyone with a bad performance.
    We are in a world where the best people are the best people… and there are many factors to consider. We have to recruit from every source and eliminate based on the facts, and present based on the results.

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