Newsflash! There is no such thing as a ‘passive candidate’.

I have to admit I am sick and tired of hearing talk of ‘active’ and ‘passive’ candidates. Even though I admit to freely using the terms myself… until very recently.

But I am going to stop doing that.

People ramble on about ‘passive’ candidates, as if this is a totally fresh breed of human being, that only new-age, especially savvy recruiters know how to connect with. The ‘passive candidate’ has become a mystical ‘super-talent’, somehow superior and different to the bog-standard ‘active’ candidate, who has demeaned him or herself somehow, by actually sinking to the low of actively looking to change jobs.

Well here is a newsflash. There is no such thing as a passive candidate.

In the modern world of sustained talent shortages in niche areas, and evolving job-search behavior, today’s recruiters must think like this…

Everyone is a candidate, all the time.

What I am saying is that the only difference between an ‘active’ and a ‘passive’ job-seeker is a question of timing!

Everyone is ‘active’ if you convert them.

And therein lies the modern recruiting challenge. Yes, to identify and locate the talent with the skills we need. But then it’s up to us to convert them to ‘active’ status. That’s right, you “runner of job-board ads”, you “searcher of the tired old data-base”. It’s your challenge to find them, connect with them, seduce them… and in time, entice them to consider a new role.

So lets not talk about ‘passive’ anymore. It’s meaningless. All candidates are active… some just have to have their new job search ignited!

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About Greg Savage

Over a career spanning thirty years, Greg Savage has established himself as a global recruitment leader. Greg is a regular keynote speaker at staffing and recruitment conferences around the world.

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31 Responses to Newsflash! There is no such thing as a ‘passive candidate’.

  1. John Foss May 1, 2012 at 10:35 am #

    I agree that the terms are widely overused as a selling point to managers but I define it this way. If a candidate is posted on job boards, unemployed, or soon to be out of a job (finishing a contract/being laid off) then they are an “active” job seeker. If the person is in a permanent job, not terribly unhappy, and not marketing themselves or looking for new positions then they are “passive”. The key difference is that you the recruiter must find a way to make contact with candidates classified as passive and then act as a catalyst to make them actively involved in your position.

    The difference of timing does not make one candidate inherently better than the other, but it works in your favor to deal with candidates that are not fielding 50+ recruiting calls/day as many candidates posted on job boards do (at least in IT). However in one scenario you are “passively” recruiting, relying on timing to work in your favor and the stars to align. In the other you are much more “actively” recruiting to find hidden talent that others do not have access to unless they can reach them and elicit the same response.

    By attracting both active & passive job seekers you have more candidates to filter through and provide better talent with greater control on the timing of the market. In the long run seeking out these “passive” candidates will help build relationships in the market and break out of the dial for dollars cycle.

    • Greg Savage May 1, 2012 at 6:05 pm #

      John, your lat para sums up my feelings too. I suppose I am going one step further by saying “everyone is active if you make them so” but that may just be semantics :)
      Greg

  2. Daniel Wundersitz May 1, 2012 at 10:53 am #

    Agree 100% Greg. I believe the approach you take with each candidate determines the response you get. As you said its our job to ‘connect with them’ The number of times Ive spoken to candiates who say “another agency spoke to me about this previously, and I said not looking and not interested as it sounded like rubbish…youve explained it far better and Im interested” or “youre the first recruiter in a long time who actually took the time to call me and give me the background info and role info I required”.

    Now I dont believe Im some kind of amazing negotiator or incredible conversationlist, I just think speaking to someone and following some simple engagement guidelines for connecting with them and explaining a role and why they would be suitable works 99% of the time. It isnt rocket science and anyone can do it (if they try).

    I believe the art of verbal communication is starting to be a bit of a lost art in this day and age…it seems to be about over-reliance on job boards, emails/text messages and social media site posts to do the work rather than speaking to someone and engaging with them and connecting with them.

    Perhaps that is the subject of your next article…? ha ha

    Stay well, enjoying the articles thus far. Keep ’em coming!

    cheers

    Daniel

  3. A dear friend (45 years in recruitment) in the UK London area told me many years ago there is no such thing as a Passive or Active candidate/browser, whether contract or permanent .
    He feels that they are ALL potential candidates because as soon as they ENQUIRE then there is an element of interest and we should start working on them.
    It is up to the consultant to turn it around and make it happen.
    I now also see every candidate who make an enquiry through TEAM as potential and I have to use my skills and experience to make it work.
    I interpret Daniel as being correct with regard to just be a good conversationlist who can liaise with people and this i believe is the way to go.
    Listen. observe and act.
    Convince not persuade.
    Greg a very sound and constructive forum. Thank you
    Kind regards

    Alan

  4. Richard May 1, 2012 at 5:22 pm #

    I can’t say I agree with the sentiment of your blog here Greg. There’s nothing wrong with the term ‘passive candidate’ to my mind. Perhaps it’s becoming a little overused, but it still implies that the individual is a ‘candidate’ and therefore is stating that everyone is indeed a candidate all of the time.

    I’m surprised you feel the term is meaningless. It’s important to differentiate between those who’re actively looking and those who aren’t, as you need to take a different approach with them from the introductory stage (as you point out) right through to offer management and beyond. If a recruiter lumps everyone in together and treats them the same I think they’d quickly realise that there is a reason why the active/passive terms exist.

    It’s also important that your clients know you’re able to source talent from both pools, and hence it’s a term used frequently by recruiters who don’t want to be known as just job-board CV sifters.

    • Greg Savage May 1, 2012 at 6:09 pm #

      Fair enough Richard. You are right, the word is not “meaningless, and you are right, you most certainly DO need to approach these groups differently. Thanks for posting, best Greg

  5. jeroen May 1, 2012 at 7:01 pm #

    Not agreed woth Greg. good points but lacks a bit of nuance:

    Active candidates (those who are forced to get a new job, because they’re terribly unhappy or soon to be fired etc) are easier placeable when there is no competition, but the likeliness that there is competition is bigger. Also, they are less picky in which job to choose, everything seems good.

    Passive candidates are recruited for a role by you, the recruiter, and are enticed to go on interview. Their capability to choose between stay or go makes them less likely to make a forced decision, hence making it a better decision. Also smaller chance of competiion and drop-out after placement.

    Thus, there IS a difference between active and passive candidates.

    • Greg Savage May 1, 2012 at 10:02 pm #

      Jeroen, you are right, but only partially in my view. Sure there is a difference in EVERY single candidate, in terms of the nuance of their motivation. But candidates are not in two camps -active vs passive.Not all “active ” candidates are “forced” to get a new job, or “terribly unhappy”. That is clearly not true. Many are in fantastic jobs, well paid, and not unhappy. Just looking for the next step. And a “passive” candidates, once enticed on to the job market can be as highly motivated to move as anyone else. That is my point, its a matter of timing and degree..but EVERYONE is a candidate all the time. That is my message here, and what you say actually confirms that, I think
      Thanks very much or your post -appreciate it
      Regards
      Greg

  6. Susan Howstan May 1, 2012 at 8:00 pm #

    Good article and well said. I agree entirely. If I’m honest it’s not so much a question of potential candidates being passive as much as they are fatigued. People who find themselves in the skills shot categories are telling us that they are being called and e mailed several times a day by recruiters and hiring managers, so we have to come up with a winning argument as to why they should talk to us or else become lost amidst all the noise!
    .

  7. Jean Fagan May 1, 2012 at 10:38 pm #

    My favorite challenge is converting a passive candidate to a top class applicant. That’s our real value and skill as recruitment consultants. We know where to find the right talent for the job and then we set about making them realize how great the opportunity is for them. It’s a nice uncomplicated description. They are only active WHEN you can get them to see the value of the opportunity and they put their hand up for the job.

  8. Dorinda McDonald-Poper May 2, 2012 at 2:55 am #

    I think the term “passive candidate” can be somewhat self defeating- especially for less experienced recruiters. Greg’s comments are a good reminder that we should always be recruiting. EVERYONE is a prospect. They may not be looking for a new job, but if you can uncover their key motivators, then you can recruit them away from the competition.

    Bravo Greg.

  9. Emma May 2, 2012 at 11:27 am #

    I agree wholeheartedly with John Foss and Richard.

    Passive and active are hardly meaningless, they are quite simply used to reference a target market pool to the average client, typically a senior professional who will understand such terms of reference but are unlikely to have the same sense of irritation you and some others in the recruitment industry seem to have of the term as they will not be hearing it bandied around on a daily basis. The terms serve a purpose and any individual who is discussing hiring a role with a recruiter and who has a modicum of intelligence will understand them for what they mean.

    I’m afraid I feel this was rather a pointless and unnecessary blog.

    Far more irksome to me is recruiters who use the word ‘client’ to describe a company they are hiring for. Recruiters who are worth their salt should be seeing their own client relationships as a partnership and most certainly should be representing their clients as though they themselves were working for them. I cringe when I hear consultants saying to candidates “when you meet the client” or “my client this… my client that…”. To candidates our clients are simply potential employers and we should be portraying ourselves as extensions of the same.

    • Greg Savage May 2, 2012 at 7:33 pm #

      Thanks Emma

      Its great that you saw fit to write a longish reply to what was after all “a pointless and unnecessary blog”. Makes me wonder why you would bother?

      Nonetheless its clear to me you have totally and utterly missed the point of my message. No surprise you found it meaningless. You did not understand it. I appreciate you taking the time to explain what “active” and “passive” candidates actually means. I may have stumbled upon a “modicum of intelligence” because I think I get that.

      My point was not about how clients (oops sorry!) or other ‘senior’ professionals view these terms. My point was about how we, the recruitment industry views those candidates and potential candidates, and how we engage with them.

      Clients (oh no! I did it again) do not care where the talent comes from.They don’t care how we describe them. They care only that we find them.

      My blog was designed to assist recruiters think differently about that, so they may be more successful in tapping into fresh sources of talent

      That may not be ‘pointless and unnecessary’ to some

      best

      Greg

  10. John Butler May 3, 2012 at 1:43 am #

    Greg

    I agree with your post. Passive vs Active is overused.

    As you approach every potential candidate, you need to determine where they are in their career and their motivations.

    Also everyone needs to remember, once you start getting a “passive” candidate to express interest in changing jobs, they all become active and then start looking at all possible job opportunities, so they will work with your compettion where its other recruiters or just the job boards.

  11. Kevin May 3, 2012 at 2:15 am #

    I believe Acive and Passive candidate descriptions really only apply when selling staffing services to a CLIENT. It will be much tougher to get a “passive” candidate into a temp-hire position. That is how I look at it. Plain and simple. “Mr/Mrs. CLIENT ..If you are adoment about going the temp-hire route, we more than likely will not be able to market the position to a passive candidate because very few people will leave a permanent position for a temp to hire unless they are an active candidate who wants out of their current situation.”

  12. Emma May 3, 2012 at 10:02 am #

    Greg, if it is simply about the view of a recruiter differentiating their view of passive and active candidates and deeming the former to be a mystic and unattainable beast of legend and lore then I agree. If it is how recruiters discuss the candidate ‘market’ in reference to a specific hire with their client, then I do not.

    The reason I wanted to write a response was because I myself use the terms on a relatively regular basis – with clients. Not with my colleagues, or in fact anyone else.

    My point about the use of the word ‘client’ was purely pointed at those discussing a company with a candidate or in advertising a role, not in relation to recruitment professionals talking to each other.

    • Greg Savage May 3, 2012 at 6:41 pm #

      Fair enough Emma, what you say about how we frame communication with clients (or candidates for that matter) is key. I agree. My blog is largely aimed at recruiters however, as you know, and this particular piece was intended to shake up ‘old school thinking about candidate aquisition and sourcing. Most of the comments below, the 150 RTs on Twitter and the fact it was trending number 2 most popular article on LinkedIn globally this week, suggests that it hit that goal
      Accordingly, your rather harsh assessment …… “a pointless and unnecessary blog” cried out for a reply
      As it transpires it seems we agree in most respects on this anyway!
      Regards
      Greg

  13. Mitch Sullivan May 4, 2012 at 5:24 pm #

    I totally agree with Emma’s comments.

    I think it would be far more beneficial for recruiters to truly grasp the difference between a client and an ad-hoc customer. I also think companies need to understand that difference too – but that would require the recruiter to educate the company as to what that difference will mean to how well they recruit new staff.

    But then we’re getting into chicken and egg territory :)

  14. Adam Lucas May 4, 2012 at 5:24 pm #

    I believe that everyone is always open to better career opportunity.
    More money, better management, more flexible lifestyle, improved locality etc etc. But some candidates are happy where they are – but open to a better opportunity. These are my passive candidates, whom I have a great relationship with, and no-else knows they are ‘open to discuss’. Typically the highest performers in the market and always leaders in their industry. I work with them over an extended period of time to present the best roles.

    Then there are the active candidates, who may have lost a job or considering a move, so they are keen to interview asap and get the hell out.
    Two very different and easily defined job seekers.

  15. Nick Hines May 17, 2012 at 3:46 pm #

    The word candidate is over-used and mis-used. I could also go on about the mis-use of the word talent but that is not the topic here (talent should really be reserved for singers, dancers, actors and other performers, NOT professionals, executives and other personnel).

    Everyone is most certainly not a candidate. A candidate is an individual who is being considered for a specific job by the organisation in which the job is. In other words they are on the shortlist. Otherwise they are either a potential candidate, an applicant, a job-seeker or a target (search). Understanding which they are is important to ensure the appropriate approach is taken. A target should never know they are a target. In other words the search consultant should never directly ask them if they are interested, as it should not be inferred that the consultant is endorsing their candidacy. Rather, the target needs to become an applicant. So the search consultant should ask them if they know of anyone who might be interested. If the target is in fact interested then they can effectively apply. They will only become a candidate if the recommendation to include them on the shortlist is accepted by the hiring organisation.

    By and large, our 30 year experience in executive search and advertised recruitment indicates that the best people for the job are unlikely to be looking for a change. Regardless of the type of position, whether by search or well placed advertising, a comprehensive assignment by a professional, client focused consultant, ensuring discretion and confidentiality, is likely to produce the best possible shortlist.

  16. Alconcalcia May 20, 2012 at 8:07 pm #

    “the best people for the job are unlikely to be looking for a change” – That certainly always was the adage used when I worked in recruitment advertising agencies as an Account Director. Clients didn’t want to necessarily attract the people who were unhappy, disillusioned or washed up with what they were currently doing. They would far rather tempt someone who was good at what they did, quite happy and not even actively looking for another role. Hence the term ‘passive candidate’. Maybe the phrase isn’t spot on, just as to me ’employer branding’ is a misnomer, but the fact remains that there are still two sorts of people – those who are actively looking and those who aren’t. It’s getting your hands on the latter that clients will often thank you more for as they tend to be uninhibited by whatever has led to the other sort of candidate becoming unhappy with their lot in some way, shape or form. In the current climate however, I would concede that there are rather fewer passives than perhaps there were a few years ago, but the old theory still rings true.

  17. Gerry Crispin June 14, 2012 at 11:07 am #

    Lovely thread you’ve created Greg. I admire your enthusiasm for the subject and enjoyed the resulting comments immensely. After a few score years on nearly every side of this debate my observations are as follows:

    Words like Active, Passive, Candidate, Talent, Prospect, Client, etc. are powerful organizers many of us have come to use to visualize a set of strategies we’ve learned to employ. Unfortunately, dictionary definitions fail in the details and we as professionals in the space have never come to agreement about the meaning of any of these words. Therefore our meanings have evolved down many different paths and so its pretty natural for most folks to whine about how ‘others’ mis-use, over-use or simply don’t get it.

    Perhaps at some point we can standardize the language and its meanings but unless there is a consequence i.e. reward or failure clearly attached to one definition over another, I doubt it matters.

    Sadly, because I have my own notions on this subject, not a single person took the less traveled path I would have – to define the words from the perspective of the person whose career is at stake here.

    For example, the word ‘candidate’ was described differently several times in the paragraphs above – all recruiter-centric choices. I would submit that that every person examining career/job choices knows the exact moment he/she has become a candidate. And that moment is when he/she states his/her intention to compete for a specific position and then acts to submit their declaration of interest. Period. No one would describe themselves as a candidate before and no one would deny they were a candidate after.

    The point is that it is a much more powerful advantage to act on definitions of words that have some stability in the minds of the audience you want to deal with.

    To do otherwise is simply to flail about with no anchor in sight. Just sayin

    • Greg Savage June 14, 2012 at 11:22 am #

      Thnaks for your thoughtful reply and insights Gerry.

      I suppose I should ‘out’ myself and admit that its not the semantics I am concerned about or even whose perspective we view this from. The real underlying theme of my blog is simply that everyone is available for recruiting and placing, and that we should no longer pigeon hole people at all. Some recruiters see the world that way already..while many still view a “candidate” as someone who has actively “applied”

      Its been a good thought and conversation starter though!

      Thanks again

      Greg

  18. Leanne January 11, 2013 at 3:16 am #

    Looks like I’m joining the party 8 months too late, but heck – better late than never! Gregg, great article… I can see in the thread here there’s a bit of a debate amongst recruiters on the active / passive debacle so just wanted to add my two cents from a candidate / talent perspective (I’m not a recruiter, though i’m considering making the jump over to the other side… hence stumbling across this blog post during my research!).

    I remember the first time a recruiter reached out to me… I was happily settled as an Account Exec in an awesome digital agency in London, loved my job and hadn’t even considered leaving.

    Then I got the LinkedIn message.

    And it totally blew my mind that someone would be interested in approaching me with what I considered to be a pretty amazing opportunity (for a PR agency in Helsinki). After the final stage of interviews, I didn’t end up getting the job as they went with someone who had more experience than me… but from then on although I loved my job, I always had half an eye open to other options out there. Just because my first encounter with a recruiter planted a seed in my mind that amazing opportunities are out there all the time – and even when you’re super happy in a role with no active plans to leave it, there’s ALWAYS going to be come kind of temptation to give into. Obviously people are motivated by different things so for some it would be salary, others it would be the chance to work on a fantastic client (brand) or with a big name agency, etc. But you’re recruiters, so you already know all this.

    The point I’m trying to make is that from my own experience, I totally agree with Greg. I’ve never left a job because I was unhappy or making an effort to find a new one… it’s just that something came along that caught my attention. Even when I’m not actively looking for a new job and am loving a current role, I get a little twinge of excitement checking out the opportunities sent to me by recruiters JUST IN CASE it’s something even more incredible than what I have now.

    So in that sense, I’m technically always ‘active’ even when I’m officially ‘passive’.

    However just a thought… this is probably influenced by my personality type. If you take the 4 main types, I’d say three out of four probably share this trait. For these reasons:

    Competitive: always on the lookout for something bigger, better, more impressive sounding, higher salary

    Spontaneous: afraid of missing an opportunity, easily attracted to things that sound exciting and new

    Humanistic: willing to explore other options if the recruiter seems friendly and appears to have their interests at heart

    Methodical: probably not easily swayed… they make their decisions based on logic, facts and rational decisions. If they haven’t made the conscious decision to leave their current job and find a better one then it’s unlikely you could convince them otherwise (given that you have limited knowledge of their current situation, hence can’t provide them with logical reasons why they should give up their role for a new one).

    Anyway, thanks for a great post Greg – it’s been an interesting eye opener to the world of recruitment!

  19. Leanne January 11, 2013 at 3:33 am #

    Looks like I’m joining the party 8 months too late, but heck – better late than never! Greg, great article… I can see in the thread here there’s a bit of a debate amongst recruiters on the active / passive debacle so just wanted to add my two cents from a candidate / talent perspective (I’m not a recruiter, though i’m considering making the jump over to the other side… hence stumbling across this blog post during my research!).

    I remember the first time a recruiter reached out to me… I was happily settled as an Account Exec in an awesome digital agency in London, loved my job and hadn’t even considered leaving.

    Then I got the LinkedIn message.

    And it totally blew my mind that someone would be interested in approaching me with what I considered to be a pretty amazing opportunity (for a PR agency in Helsinki). After the final stage of interviews, I didn’t end up getting the job as they went with someone who had more experience than me… but from then on although I loved my job, I always had half an eye open to other options out there. Just because my first encounter with a recruiter planted a seed in my mind that amazing opportunities are out there all the time – and even when you’re super happy in a role with no active plans to leave it, there’s ALWAYS going to be come kind of temptation to give into. Obviously people are motivated by different things so for some it would be salary, others it would be the chance to work on a fantastic client (brand) or with a big name agency, etc. But you’re recruiters, so you already know all this.

    The point I’m trying to make is that from my own experience, I totally agree with Greg. I’ve never left a job because I was unhappy or making an effort to find a new one… it’s just that something came along that caught my attention. Even when I’m not actively looking for a new job and am loving a current role, I get a little twinge of excitement checking out the opportunities sent to me by recruiters JUST IN CASE it’s something even more incredible than what I have now.

    So in that sense, I’m technically always ‘active’ even when I’m officially ‘passive’.

    However just a thought… this is probably influenced by my personality type. If you take the 4 main types, I’d say three out of four probably share this trait. For these reasons:

    Competitive: always on the lookout for something bigger, better, more impressive sounding, higher salary

    Spontaneous: afraid of missing an opportunity, easily attracted to things that sound exciting and new

    Humanistic: willing to explore other options if the recruiter seems friendly and appears to have their interests at heart

    Methodical: probably not easily swayed… they make their decisions based on logic, facts and rational decisions. If they haven’t made the conscious decision to leave their current job and find a better one then it’s unlikely you could convince them otherwise (given that you have limited knowledge of their current situation, hence can’t provide them with logical reasons why they should give up their role for a new one).

    Anyway, thanks for a great post Greg – it’s been an interesting eye opener to the world of recruitment!

  20. Terence Verma June 7, 2014 at 11:53 pm #

    May I ask…if there is no passive then why talk about active? Everyone is a prospect and has a price, so to speak.

    • Greg Savage June 8, 2014 at 2:57 am #

      We talk about “active” Terence because what I am saying here is EVERYONE is active..thats the point of the article really. Maybe we need a different word altogether “Available”, maybe?

  21. Brendan June 13, 2014 at 5:19 pm #

    Your point that recruiters should think of all candidates as ‘potentially’ active is fair. Far too many recruiters depend on the easy approach of job boards and databases.

    I disagree though, on the distinction between active and passive for two reasons-

    1. High calibre candidates that aren’t making efforts to find a new job (passive), outnumber the high calibre candidates that are (active). Bigger pool, better place to look (if you are willing to do the work)

    2. These passive candidates, most often, have more meaningful reasons to consider a change (less likely to be- ‘get me outta here!’). People with meaningful reasons to consider another role make for more engaged and motivated employees. That’s what matters most to a client long term.

    So passive is a better candidate pool than active.

  22. Riku Malkki December 27, 2014 at 8:45 pm #

    Thanks for the great post! Workforce, talents or whichever we wish to call all the people in labour market are more or less willing to hear about new opportunities; who would say no to a question “would you like to hear about this exciting new director position we are searching a talent just like you are”?

    LinkedIn has made It possible for everybody to present themselves publicly as professionals, and hunters can go window shopping their “talent base” whenever the need arises. It is after that only about the persuation on catching the fish. Most people in LinkedIn are interested in new opportunities.

    I myself had a pretty decent job, with only too much stress. I was not looking for a new job, but as I got the call, ate lunch, and had a 2 hour chat session, I was sold.

    Be active, let the opportunities occur!

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