Lure Passive Talent with Strategic Sourcing, Nurturing

By Roy Maurer Oct 20, 2015

In a candidate-driven labor market, even people who aren’t looking for new jobs can be enticed to join your organization when employees, recruiters and hiring managers are all enabled to sell the company’s employer value proposition to these passive candidates.

Scarcity is the new reality, said Jennifer Johnston, head of global employer branding and recruitment marketing at Salesforce, a cloud-computing firm based in San Francisco. “Many of the people we want to hire are already employed. We have to spend a lot of time and energy in prying them loose. The candidate is firmly in the driver’s seat.”

Passive candidates have become a focal point in most talent acquisition functions, said Maury Hanigan, a recruiting strategist and founder and CEO of Sparc, an HR technology firm that helps companies engage passive candidates with a video-based job marketing platform. “Employers want to recruit the best qualified candidate, not just the individual who is most interested in getting the job. Passive candidates are desirable because they are succeeding in their current job, but that’s also what makes them difficult to recruit,” she explained.

Laura Mazzullo, an HR recruiter at East Side Staffing, based in New York City, agreed that it’s not easy to convince passive candidates to join a new company. “These passive candidates are not exactly interested in changing jobs,” she said.

Hanigan says the challenges of recruiting passive candidates are threefold: identifying them, engaging them and convincing them to accept. She described the difficulties: “They don’t make themselves known, they rarely respond to recruiters’ outreach, and they are uninterested in moving to a job that is comparable to their current position.”

According to Johnston, recruiting passive talent includes optimizing employee referrals and talent data to target leads, prioritizing those leads into good prospects, nurturing prospects, and delivering an amazing candidate experience.

Targeting Leads

Identifying passive talent is accomplished through strategic sourcing, Hanigan said. “A recruiter can search LinkedIn for candidates that fit a broad range of criteria, but, depending on the function or seniority of the position, there are limitations.”

The hardest part is actually creating the pool of passive leads, Mazzullo said. “You have to identify where they are and if they’re really ready to make a move. The main thing that remains consistent is the need to identify individuals who are truly open to considering change.”

Mazzullo said the biggest mistake people make is pressuring individuals to leave their job before they are truly ready. “Timing must be right for the passive candidate. Sure, they may not have begun an active search, but they should have begun envisioning change in their mind.”

Referrals are the No. 1 source of targeted leads at Salesforce, Johnston said. “The people we want to hire are generally in our employees’ networks,” she said. Salesforce employees use an app to submit and track their referrals and to see what is happening with their employee referral payouts.

The company also administers an online employee referral community through a manager who “points people to resources, answers their questions and helps them refer in real time”; holds referral contests to keep the program top of mind; and stages referral clinics. “This is where we sit with employees to go through their networks with them and see who we might want to target,” Johnston said.

The results have been good—at Salesforce, 50 percent of employees participate in the program, she said.

Johnston credits the use of talent data to target advertising and understand what skills and experiences people need to be successful in certain roles as key to more-effective recruiting. “Using data for recruiting is a real greenfield area,” she said. “We like to look at competitive intelligence, to see where we are gaining and losing talent. We look at layoffs, acquisitions, other companies moving into the market and total addressable markets. We look at the common traits of our top 100 salespeople, for example, which can widen out our addressable market and give us a better chance at hitting our numbers.”

Qualifying and Nurturing Prospects

Once you have a pool of leads, they need to be sifted through and placed into buckets, with the goal being to drive interest only from people with a high probability of hire.

It’s important to remember that not all passive candidates are alike, Hanigan reminded. “You have individuals who are locked into their current position by financial ties or personal circumstances. These individuals are generally unmovable. The other passive candidates are recruitable if the timing and opportunity [are] right.”

A happily employed individual may be open to a new position for a variety of reasons. For example, he or she may want more responsibility, may want to expand his or her expertise or experience, may be frustrated with some aspect of the company strategy, may not get along with his or her boss, or may anticipate a sale of the company or division, Hanigan said.

Readiness to jump is the most important thing to identify when sifting through passive talent, Mazzullo said. “It takes way too much effort to convince someone to leave a job if they’re 100 percent happy and satisfied there.”

Sourcers and recruiters also need to think creatively. “If you become too narrow and stringent around requirements, you may overlook top talent,” Mazzullo said. “Know the must-haves for the role, but certainly consider folks from different industries [and with] different levels of experience; otherwise, you’ll be limiting yourself and waiting entirely too long to find the ideal person. You want to be selective and discerning but also efficient and flexible when sourcing.”

For those who don’t meet the profile for a certain role or cultural fit, “we want to be respectful of their time and our recruiting team’s time and [turn them away] in a respectful way,” Johnston said. Those that make the cut receive special attention. “We’re looking to build relationships with people that we would hire, at least on paper. We want to make sure we keep them warm,” she said.

Such nurturing tactics include the following:

  • Sending out recruitment marketing content to prequalified prospects. “This keeps prospects warm, but it also provides us with intelligence. We find out who opens our blast and what they click on. Also, we know who doesn’t open a message or who unsubscribes, which lets us know who may not be a good prospect,” Johnston said.
  • Holding functions such as networking sessions, happy hours, brunches, and day-in-the-office events, where prospects mingle with employees and hear about what it’s like to work at the company firsthand. Day-in-the-office events are like a “huge informational interview” that’s still fun for prospects, Johnston said. “They learn more about you in a nonthreatening way, and we get to see how they interact with our team and how they will fit in our culture.”

Passive candidates want to understand how the role is different from the one they’re currently in. “This is where marketing and recruitment work in tandem,” Mazzullo said. “Without knowing the specifics of why your role, firm or team [are] better than your competitors’, it will be nearly impossible to entice today’s discerning passive candidate.”

This is why the nurturing component is so important. “When our prospect has that day—when they’ve had enough of where they currently work—they have our number, [and] we have a relationship with them. It pays off, but you have to be in it for the long haul,” Johnston said.

Improving Candidate Experience

Johnston said Salesforce has implemented a few new ideas to improve candidate experience, specifically at the hiring manager level. “This is a weak link in our chain and our area of focus in the next few months,” she said. “We want to make every hiring manager a hiring magnet. We want to train this army to help us close more candidate.”

Keys areas to home in on include training managers to assess candidates for fit and to sell the company. To do this, Salesforce has trained hiring managers on how to conduct competency interviews to find the right types of skills that make someone successful in particular roles and how to pitch the company. This training is extended to others beyond just those making hiring decisions. “We make sure all of our employees can talk about our culture,” Johnston said.

Another critical area is understanding how to treat passive candidates. “We have a pre-interview team briefing to educate hiring managers on etiquette,” Johnston said.

Experts advise that recruiters and HR:

  • Be on time for the interview. “Respect the time constraints of the candidate who has a demanding career and potentially little flexibility to schedule interviews and phone calls,” Hanigan said.
  • Be prepared by having read the resume.
  • Keep candidates informed of their movement in the hiring process.
  • Allow candidates to meet hiring managers. “Passive candidates prefer to talk directly to the person who would be their direct boss,” Mazzullo said. “They want to build that rapport early on, and it’s that relationship that will close them on your offer. This means, as recruiters, we have to encourage managers to have more-frequent communications with passive candidates so they feel valued and courted not just by us but by the person who will manage them.”

Hanigan added that employers wishing to lure passive talent should understand why the candidate is willing to explore the opportunity and emphasize the aspects of the job or company that meet that need. Further, “be prepared to discuss not just the current position, but the career path that will be at least as strong as the one the candidate is leaving.”

There are some things employers seeking to recruit passive talent should not do:

  • Don’t drill them as though they are actively seeking a change in employment. “Do not ask them ‘Why are you here?’ or ‘Why should I hire you?’ Johnston said. “That passive candidate is thinking, ‘Hey you called me.’ It’s a huge disconnect and sours the process right out of the gate.”
  • Don’t expect the candidate to conduct extensive research on your company or to prepare for an interview the way an active candidate would, Hanigan said.
  • Don’t put them through a demanding process. “I’ve seen passive candidates pull out of interview processes if they feel it’s becoming too demanding, time-consuming or tedious,” Mazzullo said. "Make yourself available for them. The best firms are doing just that: They are meeting candidates for meals wherever is convenient to conduct interviews or are using Skype or Face Time to accommodate candidates.”
  • Don’t try to lure passive talent with a similar job. “If they are currently an HR generalist at your competitor, why would they want to come do the same job for you?” Mazzullo asked. “They may only be interested in joining your firm if you can offer them something they can’t get where they are now.”
  • Don’t assume your organization’s prestige is enough to persuade a passive candidate to move. “Individuals change jobs because they believe that the new job is a good career move and a better opportunity than their current job. Very rarely do individuals move because they perceive that a company is better than their current company,” Hanigan said. “When reaching out to candidates, it is more important to entice them with the specifics of the job than it is to promote the company. Job-specific information is the most compelling.”

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

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