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Recruiting active vs. passive candidates

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When I started looking for a job last year, it was the first time I’d done so in more than five years, and I was overwhelmed. Thinking about new routines, new commute, new people, new coffee machine, new set of work passwords. It was daunting. I’m what we at PI call a Controller pattern, a key trait of this pattern being the desire for structure, which can make change difficult. 

In my day-to-day recruiting world, I try to remember that uneasy feeling of change, and create a tailored candidate experience around that and an interview process that recognizes that job searching is A LOT. It’s exciting and uncomfortable and imperfect, and because you’re trying to figure out people, it’s complex and alchemical and sometimes hard to turn into a simple pro/con list.

difference between active vs. passive recruiting.pngWhen I started thinking about my next role and leaving the organization I was at, I wasn’t losing sleep over being there, I wasn’t being mistreated. My job had no growth potential, my team was turning over, and I began to lose my connection to what had made me so engaged for so long. I wasn’t quite ready to send out resumés but was open to exploring a new opportunity.

A 2017 Gallup poll shows only 32% of employees are “engaged” in their work. But even some folks who Gallup considers engaged are ripe for passive recruitment, as in they don’t go on job boards or scour Indeed, but if a trusted colleague or friend reaches out with an opportunity, they’re open to a conversation.

Passive recruitment acknowledges that a lot of high performers are game-changers for their current companies and may not be happy, but they’re happy enough. 

Diagnosing in hindsight, I was a “tipoer,” sitting on the fence between an active candidate and a passive one. It’s a position more and more people find themselves.

Passive recruiting

Passive recruitment can be powerful. It’s often conducted via social networks, virtual or otherwise. It taps into something that can’t (yet) be automated, and leverages relationships to look for proactive solutions to future talent needs. And with the average millennial in the workforce changing jobs approximately once every three years, the best talent is going to be on the market, albeit on their tiptoes, more often.

“Great employees are usually working, and engaged, and even happy,” says Jackie Dube, PI’s VP of People Operations. “You have to find them and intrigue them on the most important question: Why you?”

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For some of us, the choice to have a LinkedIn is a nod towards very, very low-level passive candidacy. Most days, you’ll notice one or two colleagues starting new jobs or sharing insight, but maybe, just maybe, one day you see that a favorite boss, or the best recruiter you’ve ever worked with, are starting a company, and it’ll be time to re-connect over coffee.

Passive recruitment acknowledges that a lot of high performers are game-changers for their current companies and may not be happy, but they’re happy enough. They would only ever leave if opportunity knocked. And a good passive recruitment strategy knocks at just the right time.

If you’re not careful, active recruitment will have you juggling with both hands.

Drawbacks of passive recruiting

Passive candidates generally don’t have a sharpened resume, and you may have to manage a search largely through less formal communication systems instead of your applicant tracking system. You can invest time and energy in an interview process, only to have a candidate decide that they want or need the stability of their current role. Searches may take longer; someone with a full-time job has to be more strategic about taking time away from work to interview, especially if they think they might ultimately be happy staying with their current employer. And for recruiters who are process-oriented (I’m raising my hand here), it can be frustrating if you haven’t officially opened the job and are unsure exactly what you’re assessing, or you’re building an interview team on the fly for a role you hadn’t planned on filling until 2019.

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Active recruiting

So should you put all your eggs in the active recruitment basket? Not quite. Active recruitment is, in most cases, reactive recruitment. Yes, life can be easier with the job visible on your website, and being able to manage the day-to-day within your applicant tracking system (ATS). But by the time the majority of roles open, the hiring manager is already feeling the pain of not having enough talent to get everything done. It raises the risk of hiring the right now person instead of the right person. And it means quantity, for better or worse—Lots of everything: candidates, application review, phone screens, pipeline management. If you’re not careful, active recruitment will have you juggling with both hands.

That said, active candidates are always going to make up the majority of job-seekers. And they tend to be more willing to fully commit to a search, which can be make-or-break if your interview process has time-intensive asks like work exercises, long interview days, or multiple site visits. Active recruitment, especially if planned-for ahead of time on strategic roadmaps, means fewer hair-on-fire moments for recruiters, less chance your assessment of fit has a moving target, and the chance to be as objective as possible.

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Active vs. passive: Which is better?

The best recruitment strategy is creative, and meets your organization’s capacity and needs. If you’ve just got one staff recruiter, then you’re unlikely to have time for a full-fledged passive outreach strategy with info interviews. But you can work with talent strategy and recruiting organizations, who can absorb some of those low-yield hours doing boolean LinkedIn searches and outreach, and allow you to only talk to candidates who have already been assessed for job and/or cultural fit.

So, as you plan for those next quarter hires or create your talent roadmap for the duration of the year, it’s worthwhile to pause and do an assessment of your passive and active recruitment strategies, respectively. Figure out what’s already working for you, what’s possible in the short-term, and what ends up on the “blue sky” list. There’s not a right answer, but talent, like any market, will ultimately benefit those who diversify. And when in doubt, err on the side of what allows you to deliver quality hires and great candidate experience. You can never go wrong with high standards, and treating people excellently, no matter your strategy.


Thad is a senior marketing director at PI.

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