Are passive candidates really the best?

Its a common held belief that if you want the best talent in the market, you need to tap into the “passive candidate market”.  A passive candidate is someone who is currently employed and not proactively searching for a role, but could be tempted for the right opportunity.  Recruitment agencies have jumped on to this as a justification for their services against standard job adverts.  And it is often true, but don’t just just assume that if someone is working that they must be the best in the market!


Passive recruiting is a difficult skill and often not one that is taught to agency recruiters.  It used to be called headhunting, but that term seems to have negative connotations, especially in the softly softly public sector market.  Too many agencies talk about targeting “passive” candidates but either don’t actually know how to do it effectively or get lazy and don’t really scrutinise their suitability for the particular role.  If they’re working, they must be good, right?

According to some Linkedin research, 75% of employees are “open” to a new opportunity, so its a huge pool to fish in.  This reflects the fact that this working generation (Gen Y and Z) is much more happy to work with many more companies than before (Baby Boomers and Gen X), and I discuss this in a previous blog here.  But does the fact that they are employed actually mean they are the best in the market?

Look around your office and you’ll no doubt see someone who is cruising, or not really that good at the role.  That might be because they are not engaged, or it might be that they are not right for that particular role.  If someone approaches them about a role, they will likely listen to the proposal, but are they the best option the market can offer? Probably not.  But to the “lazy” recruiter, they have got the holy grail- the passive candidate.  They will proudly produce them to their client and explain how clever they have been at tempting this person away from another company.  Truth be known, your competitor will be happy to be rid, and you’ll be burdened with this average employee.

So, if you get presented with a “passive candidate”, make sure you consider the following:

1. Look at their career path- if they have been with the same company, have they shown growth, ambition and have they hunted out new challenges, or have they sat in one role, comfortable and avoiding risk?

2. How difficult was it to tempt them away? If it was too easy, then ask why?  It could be that they have been “hiding” in their comfortable role, and been waiting for an opportunity to come knocking.  Again, that is probably a reflection of their drive and enthusiasm, or lack of it.  Are they the type of people to hunt out new challenges and drive your business forward?

3. Can you genuinely offer something different to their current situation?  If not, then you know for sure that you’ll end up in the same situation a year down the line, and they will likely have not brought too much value to the role.

4. Make sure they are genuinely interested, by constantly trying to put them off the role.  Lets be honest, its flattering to be approached- it makes you feel important, talented and is a boost to the ego.  So to get someone interested is easy.  However, the closer you get to an offer, the more real the whole situation becomes and passive candidates can get cold feet.  It is an agencies job to nurse people through the process and make sure that its the right move for both parties- revisiting this throughout the process.

5. If using an agency, ask how long they have known the candidate- the best passive candidates have likely been on their radar for a long time.  The best recruiters out there are pro-active and nurture their networks from day 1.  I have a number of people that I speak to regularly that I haven’t moved on to a different role yet.  However, I’d identified them as being exceptional in their roles, and although they are happy and focussed on their current roles/careers, they know that I am keeping an eye out for the “dream role” for them.  Sometimes this takes 6 months, sometimes it takes years, but I know that when that role comes up, they will be the ideal “passive candidate”.

6.  Have they moved around without really progressing their career?  This is a huge tell tale sign that they aren’t the best in the market.  They often talk a good game but often don’t deliver and then move on.

7.  And finally, are they genuinely better than the person who is not working and that applied for your role? Don’t just assume that because they are not working, that they are not the best out there- you may just be lucky that they are available when you need them.

There are too many people out there who are trying to over-complicate recruitment- trying to confuse their clients with buzzwords and snappy phrases that sound convincing, rather than focussing on ensuring they genuinely have the best product.  Test your recruiters by asking about the above to make sure you really do get the best in the market, be they passive or active!





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I manage a small Housing recruitment business (www.greenacre-recruitment) covering the Midlands and South West Regions. Outside of that, I'm a dad of 2, a keen rugby supporter (knees don't allow me to play anymore) and cyclist (the knees let me do that!)

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