Why Are We So Crazy About Finding “Passive” Job Candidates?

Editor’s Note: Readers sometimes ask about past TLNT articles, so every Friday we republish a Classic TLNT post.

I know what it is to be a “passive” job candidate.

OK, so maybe I wasn’t really all that passive if you get right down to it. But twice, I was recruited by a search firm for a job when I wasn’t exactly out on the market and actively looking. And, it was really flattering to have somebody reach out to me about some great new opportunity.

So, that’s why the whole crazy mania about the search for “passive” job candidates today leaves me scratching my head.

Yes, there have always been companies and search firms out there looking for good candidates who aren’t really looking, and there have always been candidates who aren’t really looking but are open to possibilities, but why has today’s focus on passive candidates seem to have turned obsessive and at the expense of so many good, solid, “active” candidates out in the job market?

The latest corporate mania?

It’s a great question, and one that a great HR thinker like Liz Ryan zeroed in on recently.

Liz writes frequently over at Bloomberg Businessweek, and I always find that she seems to not only have uncommonly good common sense, but, that she has  the knack of a veteran HR pro to cut through the BS and zero in on the heart of an issue — as she did recently with the obsession everyone seems to have for “passive” candidates.

Here’s what she said in The Latest Corporate Mania: Snagging ‘Passive’ Job Candidates:

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When I was a human relations leader, we believed that people who followed your company, used your products, stopped by your booth at trade shows, and kept up with your goings-on were valuable friends of the organization. We’d be quicker to hire someone who already knew and liked our company than a stranger pulled out of the mist. But today, the fact that a person has never heard of you, isn’t job hunting to begin with, and doesn’t know your company from Adam is considered the mark of a first-rate candidate. We call them passive candidates, and we pursue them as if they were Moby Dick.

In the bizarre world that corporate recruiting has devolved into, people who approach your company for jobs are second-tier applicants. People who aren’t working are devalued — as though most working people over 40 haven’t been caught up in a layoff at some point in their careers. People sitting at their desks in other companies are the rare birds companies are dying to attract. What message does it send to job seekers — or, for that matter, to your company’s own employees — when we find people at their desks and say, “Hey, wanna come and work with us?” If I got a call like that, my first question would be, “If your company is so awesome, how come your employees and suppliers aren’t keeping your talent pipeline full?

It’s about knowledge, skills and experience

Yes, why is it that recruiters seem to have a Melville-like obsession with passive candidates, especially when there are so many honest-to-goodness, real-life active candidates out there looking for somebody to hire them?

I know, I know; I’ve heard all the overblown rhetoric about the lack of skills and all that, but we’re also in this environment where organizations don’t seem to want to spend much on training and development, or to take a modest chance with someone who has most of what they’re looking for and can perhaps grow into the job fairly quickly.

As Gerry Crispin of Career XRoads recently said about the passive candidate phenomenon, “It’s knowledge, skills, and experience that predicts future performance, not the status of employment.”

Gerry knows of what he speaks. It IS about skills, and knowledge and experience, and not whether you are “active” or “passive” as a job candidate, that is truly important.

A “talent-repelling recruiting method”

So, maybe it’s time we stopped obsessing with this silly notion that “passive” candidates are the be all and end all in the recruiting game. I know that’s what Liz Ryan thinks, because she closed her Businessweek article with this:

Calling unsuspecting people at their desks and pitching them on your opportunities doesn’t make a company hipper or improve its employer brand, any more than an armful of Silly Bands enhances a fourth-grader’s social standing or a Bro Tank turns a high school dude into a chick magnet, badly as he might wish it.

If companies truly value talent, they’ll revise or dismantle this talent-repelling recruiting method and leave the headhunting to the pros.”

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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