Active or Passive Candidate—Does the Label Matter?

By Roy Maurer Aug 17, 2016
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Matt Rivera, vice president, marketing and communications for Yoh

When developing recruitment strategy, talent acquisition professionals stress the need to distinguish between passive candidates—typically defined as being employed and not looking for a new job—and active job seekers.

But does it really matter where the qualified leads come from or whether or not they're employed? The goal is to fill open jobs with qualified people, whether a sourcer found them at another company or they actively sought out their dream job. Any recruitment strategy, therefore, must appeal to a wide gamut of candidates with varying levels of interest in a new position.

SHRM Online talked with Matt Rivera, vice president of marketing and communications for Yoh, about labeling passive candidates, redefining the term, and attracting and recruiting different types of talent.

Yoh is a recruitment process outsourcing and staffing firm based in Philadelphia.

SHRM Online: Do the passive and active candidate labels really matter?

Rivera: The labels "passive" and "active" don't matter when it comes to good recruiting. Candidates don't label themselves. Recruiters really don't label them either. A good recruiter who really understands the position, the company and the right person needed to fill that position, just recruits. It doesn't matter to them how that candidate is technically labeled. If they are doing their job, they find the best candidate, regardless of the candidate's current status. In the end, it's really outside observers who try to label job seekers for generalizing statistics and trends. And it's good to understand when demand outpaces supply. But good recruiters find a way to fill any position, regardless of trends, labels, or supply and demand.

SHRM Online: Why do some recruiters think passive candidates are superior to active candidates?

Rivera: If someone is already working and not really looking for another job, especially in a highly technical or highly skilled area, being considered qualified and able before a higher level of scrutiny takes place is attractive. However, the main reason I believe [recruiters think this is so] is because hiring managers have a belief that passive candidates are better, and so recruiters tend to focus on this. It can be as simple as that.

SHRM Online: What are the pros and cons of both active and passive candidates from a recruiting perspective?

Rivera: The pros with active candidates are that they are usually motivated and eager to respond and engage. The cons for active candidates are that they can be seen as jumping around and not reliable, or if they have been unemployed for a while, that can be seen as a negative. For passive candidates, one pro is if they are working they are seen as generally more qualified because it is assumed they have been vetted and are working productively. That's not always the case, of course. The con is that they often must be sold on a job or recruited away and the process of doing that may allow for rash decisions on both sides, for example, a higher salary offer than is warranted or moving to a job just for the money.

SHRM Online: With recent research showing that most employees are open to change—if not actively seeking new employment—is it time to redefine what qualifies as a passive candidate?

Rivera: Yes. I believe that in general, most people are passive job seekers. Really, everyone. It just depends on the [hiring] company, the opportunity and where [candidates] are in their life. A month ago I may not have even thought about it, but now I may be ready to leave or at least listen. It's a moving target. That's one of the reasons the passive job seeker is so elusive. That's why it's also important to note that it's not just about passive job seekers or how they are labeled at any one time. It's not going to be enough in some areas to just look for passive candidates. There simply aren't enough in some areas. It's also important to look for passive and active candidates in adjacent markets or with similar, applicable skills. We find that when clients are open to this, a new pool of candidates can open up.

SHRM Online: How do you attract and recruit those passive candidates who are employed but open to new opportunities?

Rivera: The best way to engage and recruit any candidates is to understand their skills, abilities, experience and career aspirations. It's about the right fit. Sourcing is finding them, but recruiting is matching them to the right position at the right time. Many companies confuse sourcing with recruiting. You need to have both and efficient processes to take the sourced candidates and match them with the right position. In the case of passive candidates it's extremely critical to have the right processes. You can spend a lot of time trying to find and then recruit them, only to have them turn down the position. Whether they are active or passive, if you have the right opportunity, an efficient process and can communicate how they fit the position, you will have more success with both.

SHRM Online: What about super-passives—the ones who are employed but not open to changing jobs?

Rivera: I think that's changed with the amount of information available to workers today. You can see where people are moving to new jobs on LinkedIn every day. Employees can get a much better idea of where their salary should be from job sites. They can easily research companies. Some of the work of convincing those who are employed is already done for us. The key is to understand where they are in their lives and careers and how the position you have for them addresses that. People will usually listen when money is involved, but to be truly compelling it has to make sense. Also, I would add that companies need to be careful and thoroughly evaluate incoming passive candidates who must be convinced to take a job. Some are brought in too high just because they are seen as "better" or "more qualified." Standards and processes should not be circumvented for a passive hire.

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