20 Top Tips to Recruit Passive Candidates
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Sometimes the best hires aren’t the ones actively looking for a job. Better known as “passive” candidates, these gainfully employed professionals are reasonably happy, but might be willing to consider a more attractive offer.

“Passive candidates are not really as passive as they say they are,” said Steve Guine (@IIT_Inc), National Director of Staffing at IIT. “Like active candidates, they are more than willing to listen. The big difference being, they are more selective.”

Recognize and appreciate great work! @angiehaugenFinding these potential hires requires recruiters to be more active in their pursuit, but it’s definitely worth the effort – passive candidates comprise 84% of the potential workforce, according to the Department of Labor.

How do you find these passive candidates, approach them, get your company on their radar, and ultimately recruit them? We asked experts in the field who have successfully recruited passive candidates for their advice.

Tip 1: Mine your applicant tracking system (ATS)

You already have a great database of passive candidates, said Matt Charney (@mattcharney), Senior Manager, Online and Social Media Brand for Cornerstone OnDemand. Just go back a couple of years in your ATS. Do a deep dive and cross reference what those old candidates are doing now via social networks and people search engines like pipl.

Ignoring your own ATS has been quite an epidemic in recruiting. Jennifer Hasche (@JenniferINTUIT), Lead Sourcer at Intuit, noted in a Dice interview last year that Intuit had 230 submissions for one position in their ATS, but no one had looked at them. Chances are good those candidates would have been worth considering – Sixty percent of recruiter-submitted applicants are already in a company’s ATS, said Sarah White (@imsosarah), author of the HRTechBlog.

“These candidates, even if they’re not looking, are almost always open to a conversation if they’ve previously applied,” said Charney. “Many times you’ll see that while they might not have been a right fit a couple years back, they are now as they’ve had the chance to gain the necessary skills and experience.”

Similarly, Dice has a Passive Candidates tab built into our TalentMatch search tool. When you search for tech candidates by tech skill, geographical area or any other criteria, you can isolate those coveted passives who have had their resume in the Dice database for 365+ days.

Tip 2: Start blogging

Help people with relevant information in a clear, concise and humorous way. Do that and they will stay and tell their friends.  @JimStroudWe’re not the first to advise “start a blog,” but there’s a reason you hear this repeatedly. People engage around content, and producing relevant content via a blog presents you as an authority in your field for others to follow.

“Don’t write about your company,” said Becky Carroll (@bcarroll7), Principal of the Petra Consulting Group. “Write about topics that people in your industry should be considering, even if they aren’t looking for a job right now.”

Jessica Miller-Merrell (@blogging4jobs) started Blogging4Jobs in 2007 solely to reach passive candidates, answer their job search questions, provide value, and build a reputation as someone who cares.

“[A blog] is the best method in which to build a reputation and recruit with the passive candidate in mind,” said Miller-Merrell.

If getting started seems intimidating, read “Blogging Advice for People Who Have ‘No Time to Blog.’”

Tip 3: Flatter passive candidates by simply recruiting them

Pick up the phone and ask the "A" players, "Who do you know!?" @SheriDresser“It’s a compliment to be pursued by a recruiter,” said Sam Friedlander (@sfriedla1), Senior Manager Pharmacy Data Warehousing at Kaiser Permanente. “It’s assurance that one is valuable to the marketplace, and it’s a boost to one’s ego. The pursuit could ignite a thought in the passive candidate to consider an opportunity that might be better.”

Recruiters can take advantage of making a great first impression, but remember to be genuine and honest, not spammy.

Tip 4: Be good to your employees and they’ll spread the word

Don't ignore your internal employee referrals!  Cam Mayfield“Treat employees as if you are recruiting them,” said Justin Sherratt (@justinsherratt), CEO of Sortbox.

If you want employees to speak positively about your company, they need to actually like working there. Although it’s often out of the recruiter’s hands, a good work environment and employee brand are critical to attracting passive candidates.

It’s also important that current employees know when and for what the company is hiring. As Sherratt said, “The company’s network is far greater than the recruiter’s network.”

In addition, a great venue to get your employees engaged with prospective hires is within a talent community.

“Let employees act as brand advocates – touting your company culture, and even referring their social connections into the community for your hiring consideration,” said Lauren Smith (@Laurn_Smth), Marketing Director for Ascendify Social Recruiting.

Tip 5: Inquire about specific talents, not job seekers

Great talent doesn't always fit the job you have. But they often fit the task you really need.  @DwaneLayAfter hearing lots of advice on getting referrals from people you know, we realized that successfully connecting with those referrals depends on how you approach the referral request.

“Instead of asking, ‘Who do you know that is looking?’,” said Shana Farnsworth (@ShanaRandstad), Delivery Manager for Randstad Technologies, “Ask, ‘Who do you know with the same skill set or XYZ skill set?’”

Tip 6: Approach recruiting like dating

“You have to think of recruiting long-term, and approach the conversation in a softer way,” said Paul McDonald (@BuildASignHires), Talent Acquisition Manager for BuildASign.com. “Think of it like dating. Let them know you like them and you enjoy connecting with them, and then you have to make sure you’re giving them a reason to be interested in you.”

One way to “get them to like you” that we heard from McDonald and many others is to simply be a resource of information (see: “Tip 2: Start blogging”).

“Helping or being helped are great ways to have relationships be sticky,” said Lorne Epstein (@LorneEpstein), author of “You’re Hired! Interview Skills to Get the Job.”

Tip 7: Build relationships with the best people you know

“When you meet someone and think, ‘Wow, I would hire this person,’ you need to make a note and add the individual to your pipeline,” said Kaitlin King, Communications Manager at WorkTraits.

You can start that list right now by asking yourself, “Who are the best people I’ve ever worked with?”

“If they’re flipping awesome you’re going to want to hire them at some point,” said Dan Arkind, CEO of the applicant tracking system Jobscore.com.

Tip 8: Study and listen to candidates’ real motivators

Listen! Listen! ListenAs we’ve reported before, money is often not the top motivator for job seekers, whether passive or active. Reasons for changing jobs can be rather varied.

“The reason a passive candidate may be interested in your position could be something as simple as training or being closer to home in order to pick up their children after school,” said IIT’s Guine.

“Passive candidates are passive not because they love their jobs, but because they have a set work/life balance that is comfortable and easy,” said Evan Lesser (@ClearanceJobs), Managing Director of ClearanceJobs.

The only way to discover those core motivating factors is to study candidates’ backgrounds and listen to them. Why did they move from one job to another? Asking questions about a gap in work or a change in industry helps builds rapport, said Guine, and gives you insight into what makes a person tick.

Tip 9: Keep presenting opportunities and let the response guide you

It would be great if candidates knew exactly what they wanted when you interviewed them, but often that’s only part of the story.

“Keep presenting them with opportunities and let their reaction and response guide you in understanding what they’re looking for,” said Casey Kott, Recruiter for Signature Consultants.

Even though you’re constantly pitching job opportunities, make it clear that you’re not making a hard sell.

“Let them know that you’re trying to understand their situation, and if you present a job that they are not thrilled about, to please tell you to pass on sending them,” said Randstad Technologies’ Farnsworth.

“Be patient,” said Joey V. Price (@JVPsaid), CEO of Jumpstart:HR. “Passive candidates have the ball in their court and won’t make the leap unless you can compel them to do so. Often times you will need to communicate a unique value proposition that scratches an itch that is not being met at the current employer.”

Tip 10: Invite people to events

Recruit in every social environment.The best way to build rapport is in person, but meeting for coffee requires the candidates to dedicate their time to the recruiter. Better to meet or invite them to events that are mutually beneficial, said Rosie Pongracz (@rosiepongracz), Founder of Pongracz Strategic Marketing.

For example, give them a heads-up on professional education and networking events within their background. Those opportunities present a low pressure yet valuable environment for conversation and relationship building.

Tip 11: Present yourself as a subject matter expert, not a recruiter

Know what you’re talking about!“In my experience, very few individuals who’d be considered top, truly passive talent are willing to engage or build relationships with recruiters,” said Cornerstone OnDemand’s Charney whose advice for recruiting passive candidates is to not treat them as passive candidates.

Top candidates want to maintain relationships with subject matter experts, not recruiters. That’s why aforementioned advice such as blogging and attending industry events to build presence and thought leadership are strong assets.

“Once that relationship is established,” said Charney, “It’s important to not be overly aggressive in trying to transform them into an applicant.”

Tip 12: Build a candidate referral network with other recruiters

You gotta give to get. @vlastelicaAn unforeseen benefit of Miller-Merrell’s popular blog, Blogging4Jobs, is that it’s become a hub for her to build a candidate referral network with other recruiters.

She forwards candidate inquiries to recruiters she has relationships with, and they return the favor, which further establishes her candidate referral network. Miller-Merrell claims that single emails to her network result in positions filled quickly, keeping active and passive candidates, along with her network of recruiters, working in harmony.

Tip 13: Build your employment brand with top industry talent

Recruitment/Employer branding is important. @sdechant“Ask the people in your office who the best people they know are,” said JobScore.com’s Arkind. “You want to turn them into an advocate for your company whether they work for you not.”

The goal of this effort is to build an employment brand with the best in the industry.

“Hiring decisions are not made in a vacuum,” said Arkind. “People ask their friends about jobs. You want to make sure their friends think you’re awesome.”

Tip 14: Follow online social engagements with in-person meetings

Take online conversations offline to create depth and dimension. @TheOneCrystalMultiple people told us how important it is to meet in person, whether it’s coffee, lunch or a networking event.

Pongracz has been on both sides of the recruiting equation and the “follow up” has been the divisive factor in her decision to work with someone.

“I can’t tell you how many peeps have lost opportunities with me by not following up. And conversely – others that did, we’ve worked together since,” said Pongracz.

Tip 15: Earn your social street cred

Connect with your candidates on the medium they live in: Facebook, phone, whatever! @AmandaFlutterByDo whatever you can to connect, retweet and interact with top talent via Facebook, Twitter, and other relevant social spaces.

“Drive attention to them and let them know you’re both their promoter and part of their audience,” said RJ Owen (@rjowen), Customer Insight and Design Research Lead for EffectiveUI. “After you’ve gotten a few replies to prove they’ve paid attention, then you can easily approach them with an opportunity that they’ll take seriously.”

“The more engagement you have with a potential candidate, the more likely you are to get their attention when you want it,” concurred Tiffany Jennings (@writingthesurf), Digital Zookeeper for Vitamin T.

In one such situation, Jennings developed an online then in-person relationship with a UX designer. Even though she knew he wasn’t on the market, she asked if she could send positions that were opening up around town. Thanks to the trust she had built with him, he sent several referrals her way, and ultimately she placed him in a position.

Tip 16: Embed recruiting messages in your marketing and sales efforts

Create a great ad and sell your company. Marc Hoppers (@hops), CEO of Cogent Company, doesn’t distinguish between business marketing and recruiting channels.

“We make sure our clients and prospects know that we are not only looking for business referrals, but we are looking for personnel referrals as well,” said Hoppers.

Tip 17: Emphasize an ongoing relationship with a recruitment agency

Be creative - Use word of mouth and networking sources!“The passive candidate has a big interest in keeping a great relationship with a recruitment agency,” said Adina Balauru, author of “Help Me Find a Job,” who argues that recruiters need to sell their value proposition over the long haul.

While passives may not be seeking a job today, they may be seeking one tomorrow, for themselves or for their company. Having a trusting relationship with a recruiting agency will be an ongoing benefit, said Balauru.

Tip 18: Engage passives in a non-public talent community

Optimize your social networks.One of the many reasons candidates may remain passive is they don’t want their employer to know they’re looking.

“Passive candidates can join [a talent community] without broadcasting to their entire social network,” said Smith whose company, Ascendify, offers such a closed social network. “Candidates don’t run the risk of their current employer finding out that they’re ‘keeping their options open.’ Only the members of that community can see them.”

Similarly, Dice has TechTalk, a network of talent communities that welcome like-minded techs to meet and talk with other professionals and employers around specific skill sets such as mobile development, security, and cloud computing.

Tip 19: Monitor online discussions for industry relevant conversations

Find them online!If you want to know who is hot in a specific industry, just listen.

“There are millions of passive candidates who participate in hundreds of thousands of groups online. These groups are ripe for recruiting,” said John Vlastelica (@vlastelica), Managing Director of Recruiting Toolbox.

That doesn’t mean you should just start soliciting leads, warned Vlastelica. Instead, monitor the group for a while, identify key contributors, see how other recruiters are being treated, and most importantly figure out how you can contribute to the conversation.

“Perhaps you can offer yourself up as an advisor on career decisions or share an interesting article or presentation given by one of your company’s leaders,” said Vlastelica. “The key is to give something of yourself before you expect to get anything.”

Tip 20: Apply Pareto’s 80/20 principle to recruiting

Maintain communication whether or not they are active candidates. Build trust! @txstrategichrPareto’s principle states that 80% of your results will come from 20% of your effort.

Pat Sharp (@patsharptalent), Founder of The Talent Architect, in a blog post entitled “Recruiting with Pareto’s Principle” on SmartRecruiting, advised that you should focus your hiring process similarly.

“Focusing on 80% of a disinterested labor pool is a waste of resources. It slows down the hiring process,” said Sharp. “I think smart companies will focus on finding the 20% of the talent that can make a difference to their organizations. They will invest in their visibility as an employer (a marketing activity) so that appropriate talent will think of them first when they feel dissatisfied at work.”

While Sharp spends 80% of her time working with existing employees to get referrals, her key 20% effort is calling the person who isn’t looking to sell them on making a move.

Conclusion: Pursuing passive candidates is hard work that pays off

All of this advice seems like a lot of work, and it is. But it’s key to realize that the work is cumulative. With a little effort and the right timing, the energy you put into recruiting passives today will likely pay off in the future.

Photos from the SHRM 2012 Annual Conference & Exposition. For more recruiting tips from the conference attendees, check out the Dice #SHRM12 collection on Flickr.

About David Spark

David Spark is a veteran tech journalist and founder of Spark Media Solutions, a brand journalism firm. For more, read Spark's blog at Spark Minute and follow on Twitter @dspark and Google +.

Comments

  1. BY Becky Carroll says:

    Thanks for including my tip on blogging in this very useful article, David! These are all great suggestions for recruiting passives as well as for relationship building. Great job.

  2. BY Tim Sanchez says:

    There is a lot of good material and ideas to consider. I already take part in talent community, South Florida recruiter network to share referral and follow-up with in-person meetings.

    The SME vs Recruiter suggestion is great….

  3. BY Richard says:

    Great read. Good reminder of the many ways and means to approach candidates.

  4. BY Tiffany says:

    Great article. Spot on tips!!

  5. BY Pamela says:

    Awesome information! Thanks for sharing.

  6. BY Sridharan says:

    Wonderful Article David. Great things to take from this post. Thanks for sharing:)

  7. Pingback: Integrate Facebook to your SharePoint Portal to Tap Passive Candidates | Portal Integrators

  8. BY Julie says:

    A passive candidate? Get real. What is this recruiting circa 1983? While there are some good tips here, this article is a little out of touch. Passive Candidates are often complacent and sometimes adverse to change. The labor force is global. It is heavily free agent. Nearly a third of the US workforce is contracted. Good candidates are always keeping their eyes and ears open to the job market. They are always surveying the land. Bad candidates (often passive) have their blinders on and are usually unemployed the longest. I see them everyday. They are often completely shocked when their “important position” is eliminated. Passive Candidate = Out of Touch Candidate.

  9. Pingback: How to Catch High Quality Passive Job Candidates | StaffNet Inc.

  10. Pingback: How to Recruit Passive Candidates

  11. BY Dhiraj says:

    always bring passive candidate into our confidence treat him/her like as our employee or friend.

  12. BY G Allen says:

    Good article for recruiters. The challenge in successfully putting these ideas into place can be the employer and/or req load. Unfortunately I’ve seen great recruiting practices and talented recruiters get smothered under the weight of the days to fill matrix which doesn’t account for a quality hire.

  13. BY Lawler says:

    One of the most important things is to tailor your services to the needs of the candidate. Very informative.

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  15. Pingback: 20 Top Tips to Recruit Passive Candidates | Houston Recruiter Spot

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  18. BY Allen Shepard says:

    Good stuff! Outsource recruitment can be very difficult at times, I must admit. Bringing in the right talent is easier said than done and these insights should help out a lot. Thank you so much.

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