Active vs. Passive Job Candidates


I am the LinkedIn committee chairman for a local Northern Colorado professional networking group called NoCoNet. Each week I present a tip about using the on-line networking website called LinkedIn. Sometimes I will write up the these tips and post them to my blog so that when I invite new members to the NoCoNet-LinkedIn group, they can read through previous LinkedIn tips. It saves me from having to repeat myself and allows me to expand a little on the single slide that I present at the meeting. I volunteered for this position because I wanted to get better at networking and using LinkedIn and found that there’s no better way to learn something than to offer to teach it. As a result of this role, I pay closer attention to information about using LinkedIn. One of the best sources of information I’ve found on LinkedIn is a podcast called The Connections Show by Stan Relihan. Stan is an executive recruiter based in Australia. I credit Stan’s podcast with helping me better understand the needs of the talent search specialists who use LinkedIn.

I am contacted by recruiters as a result of them finding my LinkedIn profile. I used to get solicited frequently for my interest in various positions that would have required a relocation. It slowed down when I mentioned in my profile that I’m interested in staying in Northern Colorado. Whenever recruiters contact me, I always try be helpful, promptly returning their calls and offering to publicize the position if they think that would be of help.

One of the topics Stan regularly discusses in his podcasts is that of the ‘passive candidate’. Simply stated, a passive candidate is someone who is not actively looking for a new position. When I first heard the term ‘passive candidate’, it made me think of the term ‘poaching’ which means to steal people from one employer and place them at another, not infrequently with a competitor. It seemed a bit devious to me. Focusing on passive candidates at the expense of those actively seeking employment also seemed a bit unfair, almost as if the latter category didn’t deserve the same consideration as the former.

It’s not uncommon to hear people who are seeking marriage partners to lament that ‘all the good ones are already taken’ and I couldn’t help feel that chasing after passive candidates while overlooking active candidates followed a similar sentiment. I suppose part of the logic could be that if a person is unemployed, he may be unemployed for good reason. If he is looking for a job while employed, then he may appear to be disgruntled or disloyal. So active candidates automatically have a few negative stereotypes working against them that passive candidates do not.

After listening to Stan’s podcasts for a while, a new view of the passive candidate began to emerge. As Stan is quick to point out, an executive recruiter is hired to find people for jobs, not jobs for people. The distinction is subtle but important. It may explain why when you talk to a recruiter about a position that turns out not to be a great fit for you, he won’t automatically start looking for positions that are a better fit for you. A recruiter’s value is in finding potential candidates for employers who are exact matches for the positions they are trying to fill. Sometimes the best way to do this is by searching for candidates who may not be looking for a job and thus don’t realize they are exact matches. When an unemployed candidate is seeking a new position, there’s a chance that he may be so desperate to find work that virtually any job looks appealing and appears to be an exact match for his skills and talents. He may even modify his resume to better match the position, which is a job tip you’ll often hear given by career consultants. The last thing that a recruiter wants to do is to place a candidate who takes a position simply because he is desperate to have any job. Recruiters want to place people who are the best candidates they can find and who will be a success in that position and reflect well on the recruiter’s skills. A person who desperately needs to make a house payment is probably not going to be an impartial judge about whether or not he is an exact fit for a job. After he lands the job and a catches up on house payments he may begin to think rationally again and decide the position doesn’t look so appealing anymore. Placing the wrong candidate in a job can be a recruiter’s worst nightmare. If you do that one too many times, you may not get called upon to help fill a client’s future openings.

A passive candidate is someone who may be interested in changing careers but hasn’t got the time or inclination to launch a formal job search. As such, he needs to be sought out and actively recruited. There are plenty of reasons that people would be in this category. A full time job usually leaves little time to be searching for greener pastures, and some may feel disloyal to be out searching for their next job, particularly if it may involve moving to a competitor. You can’t easily recruit a candidate away who is being well compensated and is satisfied with his current employer. But if a person feels underpaid, underemployed, or is worried about his future with his current employer, then he’d most certainly qualify as a passive candidate. Passive candidates are actually a much larger category than those who are actively seeking employment. They’re just harder to find. Passive candidates are less likely to have just taken a new position, which is a problem when your list of candidates only includes active job seekers. Resumes from active job seekers get stale in a hurry and it’s not unusual to call someone whose resume is a few weeks old only to find that he has just taken a new position. Someone who has just taken a position usually doesn’t want to burn bridges by jumping ship too quickly, no matter how attractive a position you might present to him. Also, if a candidate is actively seeking a position, he may be considering several offers and that can make him too expensive for the recruiter’s client. So these are yet a few more downsides of being an active candidate as viewed from the perspective of a recruiter.

So, how can a job seeker have the desirable characteristics of a passive candidate even though he may be actively seeking a new position? The best way I can think of is to never be desperate for a job, even if you are unemployed. Also, make sure to do some evaluation to assess your career goals, strengths, and talents so you’ll be able to better recognize a job that fits you when you see it. Knowing your strengths will make you a much better judge of whether a position and a prospective employer will be a good fit for you, rather than depending on someone divining it from a keyword search. A good book for this kind of self-evaluation is “Now, Discover Your Strengths” by Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton. The book includes an on-line test that will help you to identify your top 5 strengths from a list of 34 areas. Be aware that used copies of this book will likely have an expired password, so if you want to take the test, make sure to purchase a new copy. The test would likely help you better decide whether a position is a match for you. If a position doesn’t play to your strengths, it’s unlikely you’ll be successful at it.

You should also be cognizant of a recruiter’s needs. When you establish a relationship with a recruiter, you should think of it more like planting a seed rather than trying to harvest a job. Don’t come across as needy. The best recruiters keep track of thousands of potential candidates, and you should plan to be among them if you’d like
to be considered when an opportunity arises.

To make sure you are never desperate for a job, try to live within your means so that loss of a job won’t require you to get another one right away. If you have a working spouse, try to adjust your expenses to live on one salary. If you can arrange part time or temporary work to help pay the bills, that may be an option too because it will leave some time to search for a job and won’t give an employer the mistaken impression that you intend to stick around for the long term. Employers have temporary needs too, so this can be a win-win for both of you. If the temporary job is a good a match, it may even evolve into a full-time position.

With some temporary source of income, you won’t fall prey to the feeling that every job that comes along looks like it’s an exact match for you. Best of all, it will help give you the aura of a highly desirable passive candidate.