published October 7, 2019

Is the Best Candidate the One Who’s Not Even Looking? How to Find Passive Candidates

Is the Best Candidate the One Who’s Not Even Looking? How to Find Passive Candidates
  • You’re looking for the best talent. Everyone is. Place an ad to the job boards, like everyone else, and you tap into the active candidate market. What else can you do to dig deeper and find the rarer talent?
  • Passive candidates aren’t wading through job boards and thousands of postings to find you. They’re fine where they are. If you’re going to entice them, you need to stand out. There are ways of doing that.
  • Passive candidates are a different kind of animal and they require a different kind of strategy. This article explores the ways to tap this harder to find pool of extraordinary talent.
Looking for Talent in All the Wrong Places?

Active Candidates vs. Passive Candidates

What if your best job candidate is the one who isn’t even looking for a job?

Active candidates you already know; they’re the ones beating down your door. Their résumés are updated and they’ll be the eager first responders to your job postings. Passive candidates are those that aren’t deliberately—or actively—looking. But they could be if enticed by the right kind of favorable opportunity.

They may already have a job and may be relatively satisfied with their situation. They have none of the urgency of the typical active candidate. Even so, they might be willing to make a change if presented with the right circumstances. As job seekers, this passive population represents 75% of all global candidates.

Think of them as active, but they just may not know that yet.

Maybe the best passive candidate recruiting definition, and the reason they’re so valued in the market, is this: Often, the best candidates are the ones that don’t need a job. As a result, these are diamonds that need to be mined; they’re not on the surface waiting to be picked up.

And many HR experts agree: they suggest that the way to raise the quality of your hires is to reach out to these reluctant candidates—especially if the position you’re trying to fill is difficult to fill. Passive candidate recruiting requires an entirely different approach. So, instead of posting your position and—passively—hoping that the universe will oblige, you’ll need to coax, wheedle, and cajole these highly qualified candidates—or better yet, convince them this is a career-making opportunity they’ll want to consider. Make them an offer they can’t refuse—or at least, make them a better one.

And, yes, this does sounds a lot like a time-honored tradition used in other industries: i.e. poaching.

But if you’re looking for top talent, truly, poaching in itself won’t be enough:

Abundance and scarcity and why you’re doing it wrong

The increased demand to attract passive candidates also represents a reality of the market that many companies and hiring managers have yet to appreciate: because of the constant demand for top talent, companies find themselves in a talent scarcity situation. Job seekers are in abundance. And yet while supply is at a surplus the demand for the type of talent you’re looking for far exceeds supply. And so, the dilemma: when companies seek talent, they use a methodology of searching for prospects using a talent surplus process. But a talent scarcity strategy requires a different approach—one designed to attract and nurture the best in the field. Instead of posting positions, you should be sourcing them: this is not a waiting game for the ideal applicant.

Sourced candidates are pre-screened and identified as quality first before they’re proactively recruited. This isn’t a wide net. This is a refined, targeted approach. This should be your new sourcing strategy.

But: This type of candidate is already in high demand. Unless by some off chance that this passive candidate is unhappy in their current situation, the idea of making a simple lateral transfer may not be enough. For this target, this is not the right strategy.

How to recruit passive candidates? Not like active ones and yet this is exactly the model most often used, and it is one doomed to fail. Passive candidates are generally not motivated to take a risk on a new position for modest compensation gains. A lateral move into a slightly higher tax bracket isn’t enough.

By using a scarcity strategy, your process will need to be centered on offering candidates a career with more upside potential than a few thousand in a salary bump. In fact, the bigger the career move, the less dazzling salary will be. Far better bait would be an offer for a next level career jump. If your company is working with a recruiter, this kind of nuanced approach can make the process more complicated. You may need to have some deeper consultations to clarify the job requirements and assess if the job being offered the candidate does indeed represent a substantive career move.

You’re attempting to raise the talent bar here; in order to do that, you’d better be prepared to come to the table with something: To get something you’ve to give something. Your hiring team, including HR and outside recruiters, will need to determine if the job represents a true career move for the candidate and, if not, what can or will be done to make it so.

Recruiting Passive Candidates for Dummies

First, describe your ideal candidate

You can’t get what you want until you know what you want. Foremost among your passive candidate recruiting strategies should be: Put it into words—what does that ideal candidate look like? Create a job profile that lists the skills, years of experience, education, and other qualifiers for the position you want. Describe the biggest challenges of the job and why the job is important. If you’re going to entice someone who already has a job, you’ll need to show why yours is better—how it compares favorably to the one they already have. Show them an “opportunity gap” between the two and be prepared to describe how your position will be the bridge to the other side.

LinkedIn is good, in-house is better, and other ideas

Of course, LinkedIn would be the apparent first logical step to begin pursuing passive candidates. Its search features allow you to find prospects in your geographical area that may also have appropriate skills, experience, education, and other qualifications. But if the candidates you seek are competitive for a position like yours, other companies may be reaching out to them too.

You can refine your search by going to a company’s LinkedIn page where you’ll be directed to a list of the staff. From there, it’ll be easy to find the person with the right job title and description. From there you can pitch them your opportunity and tailor it accordingly.

Employee referrals

Here’s why employee referrals are an even more effective recruiting strategy than LinkedIn.

In-house referrals are the top source of quality hires at almost half of all hires—that’s more than third party websites and even more than online job boards with applicant tracking systems. Companies are now developing programs to tap into this resource given that referred employees are faster to hire, perform better, and stay longer in the company.

And yet, it seems to be the industry’s best kept secret. Despite claims of recruiters that employee referrals are the top source of quality hires, very little of company budgets get allocated to referral programs. The bulk of spending goes to traditional methods like postings on job boards and staffing agencies.

Employer branding, underappreciated and overlooked

Most companies, generally, don’t value and spend little on employer branding. And yet, 80% of business leaders believe in its crucial importance. Many companies have up to five people managing their employer brand. One reason companies tend to overlook its value is that data is hard to come by. Employer branding ROI is difficult to measure and most companies can’t show a direct correlation between a stronger candidate pipeline and their branding efforts.

Like referrals, employer branding is often neglected when it comes to development and spending. It’s often described as one of the most important trends for, among other things, finding and retaining talent and yet it’s often the last place companies will invest.

What does branding look like? According to both candidates and recruiters, company culture is crucial for a company to stand out from their competitors. It’s also an area of interest for candidates who value a company’s long-term vision and perks over its reputation.

Beyond LinkedIn

Here are few more sources to check out when searching for passive candidates:
  • Professional communities and associations, school alumni associations: Most of these sources also have online communities where people may chat, seek and share information. While they can be good sources they can also be accessed by people around the world.
  • Social media: Particularly Twitter is a great social network for locating professionals passionate about their profession. Tools like Followerwonk allow you to search for people in your area with certain keywords in their bio.
  • Professional networking events: This is a little more involved but if your company has a hiring manager or in-house recruiters you can send them to industry conferences or local events to network.

Don’t add to the noise: tailor your outreach message to be read

Assume that if you find the candidate highly talented and competitive, others will too. They’ll also be reaching out to them. If you want your messages to be seen, don’t go boilerplate. If you’re using a template, customize it.
  • You’re not like anybody else: Recruiters say differentiating themselves from the competition is a top concern. You company is fighting for hires from the same shallow talent resource pool as everyone else and the competition can be intense. Focus on ways to stand apart with a dynamic and effective employer brand. Then, craft your messages to be the right blend of what your target candidates are looking for, your unique value proposition, and the synergy you and the candidate will be able to create together.
  • Flattery; it always works: Catch your prospect’s eye by referencing aspects of their background that were most impressive, be it past projects they were involved with or even the work the company itself does.
  • Share how you first became aware of them: Was it at an event or through social media. Did they have something to say that was compelling or interesting or even funny? People tend to feel more comfortable if they already know you, your company, or someone from your company and will be more likely to respond.
  • Think long-term: If a prospect responds to your first message, that could mean you made the right kind of pitch and they could well be interested in the opportunity. Keep in mind that while possible, this isn’t most likely. You may need to follow up a few times so gauge your responses. Persistence quickly becomes annoying or, worse, seen as pushy and desperate. If your first message elicits no reply, let a week or so go by before checking in again. One more follow up after is fine but any more than that is probably a bad idea.
  • Patience: A candidate’s reluctance may be because of the timing. Maybe they’re happy with things at their job as they are for the moment or have other life matters that are occupying their attention. If they’re indeed an impressive candidate, it may be worthwhile to check back in six months or so to see if their circumstances have changed. It’ll also show them you’re taking them seriously as a prospect and haven’t forgotten about them.

The art of poaching and prospecting

As you create your job profile, look to the companies that impress you. If you work with hiring managers or recruiters, ask them too. You can reach out to the people who perform similar roles at those companies

Suggestions for when you do find some interest
  • Shift the conversation to a career-based discussion: Most passive candidates aren’t particularly interested in a short-term job change; their interest is in potential career moves. “Would you be interested if the situation could take you to a long-term, next-level career move?”
  • Think of your approach as “permission marketing”: Approach carefully; don’t start pitching from the get-go. This is a dance. It sounds cagey and, yes, this is transactional process—you’re trying to make a sale. All parties know this. Developing trust requires time and care. One HR Manager suggests that once the potential candidate agrees that they’re “open to explore” a situation, you’ve about 5-10 minutes to make you pitch that the job is worth another discussion. In a sense, you’re moving ahead only with consent. This is essential for the successful recruiting of passive candidates.
  • Slow your roll: While the passive candidate may be open to discussing better opportunities, pushing the process may only lead the candidate to feel the pace is uncomfortably quick. And if that’s the case, you may be sabotaging an otherwise excellent hire. A great way to slow the process is to sell the next step and not the job. If this is happening over a few exploratory phone calls, your goal is to always keep the candidate open to the opportunity.
  • Offer more than cash value: Explain the position as a career opportunity with a minimum 30% non-monetary increase—a job stretch, more satisfying work with more impact, and a higher rate of growth. You can map this out over a few phone calls together.
  • Prepare an elevator pitch: A job seeker’s LinkedIn page is their version of an elevator pitch. Be able to provide a one-minute overview of the position in return. You can then compare the two and see if the components can be found for a 30% career move. To do this you must understand your positions performance objectives and upside potential to determine if such an increase is even possible.
  • Table the salary discussion: When the candidate asks about the compensation, the better answer may be, “Why don’t we first see if it’s a worthy career move. Then we’ll see if the pay is commensurate.” If the job is a career move, the pay will be negotiable.
  • Dig and fill in the gaps: From their LinkedIn page you may be able to determine the gaps in the person’s background that allow them a significant job stretch. Speak of these gaps as concerns you may have. If the person finds your situation compelling, they’ll try to convince you of their value for the role.

Hear the difference between heroes and zeros

Talent often doesn’t hide well. You can see it in a dancer or a musician almost immediately. You’ll recognize in a few seconds what’s to come. Talent can be faked to an extent, like charm and social skills, but soon the fraud will out itself. They always do.

It’s said the difference between genius and other people is the depth of the output, a maximization of potential. It’s the same with high-productivity talent. Put simply: Talent tries harder.

When you ask routine questions and you hear routine answers, that’s probably not the vessel you’re looking for. Why did they do what they did in that way? Are they passionate when they answer? If so, that’s encouraging. How did they overcome challenges and what did they learn? How did it make an impact on the company? Now you’re getting somewhere. What do they do when they’re not working? The dynamism and energy in their answers will tell you more than the content. This is the voice of talent, not potential.

Also, what of their career progression? Do they show an entrepreneurial approach to their work?

This is how you recognize talent. This is also how you turn a formerly passive candidate into an active one.

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