How to Recruit Candidates with Passive Interest

April 2nd, 2018

Jon-Mark Sabel

Recruiting Teams

This post was recently updated on August 5, 2022 for comprehensiveness and accuracy.

Employers and hiring managers know that finding the right candidate for a position requires more than a review of applications from active job seekers. Yet, the most talented potential candidates in any industry typically already have fulfilling, well-paying positions.

Many factors have made this year the perfect time for employers to seek these passive candidates. A slowing economy has forced some companies to downsize drastically or close their doors entirely, which has made more high-quality talent available. Growing worker dissatisfaction with cost of living, physical safety and wages has also made passive candidates more open to recruiting efforts.

Read on to learn more about recruiting passive candidates:

1. What is a passive candidate in recruitment?

A passive candidate is anyone not actively seeking work who an employer thinks would be perfect for an open position. A passive candidate typically feels extremely content and happy in their current role, which means they're not actively searching because their employer is meeting or exceeding their employment, wage and other related needs. That said, they can also feel discontent in their current position. They might simply not feel enough of it to actively search for a new job.

2. How can I recruit passive candidates?

Passive candidate sourcing isn't difficult. Employers effortlessly find passive candidates in-house by offering an employee referral bonus program. Employees refer on-site and external candidates and receive a bonus if someone they refer is hired by the company. Employers can also find passive candidates by searching business networking and social media sites where they connect and communicate with talent and industry-specific workers who can provide referrals. Additionally, some companies look to recent merger and acquisition news and reach out to top talent at companies where long-term employment uncertainty exists.

3. What is a passive job seeker?

A passive job seeker is anyone who isn't currently searching for a job in an active fashion. They're typically open to listening to recruitment pitches, but they're not actively searching. They might be attending school, working in a non-career position or taking time off. They might have an enjoyable career but casually mention to coworkers or on their social media profile that they're interested in switching careers or open to new opportunities. They might have even set up a business networking or job search website to send them notifications about openings for certain positions without performing any real followup other than to review the list to better understand potential future opportunities.

4. Is passive recruitment better than traditional recruitment?

Few downsides exist with this type of recruitment. An employer might have difficulty finding up-to-date contact information and spend weeks or months trying to connect with a passive candidate. If the candidate decides to listen to their sales pitch, they might still need to offer a higher-than-normal salary or other benefits to convince the candidate to leave their current position. On the other hand, they don't have to review applications from unqualified job seekers who fail to have the right skills or misrepresent their backgrounds. They can narrow their search to the most-qualified candidates who have proven knowledge, skills and hands-on experience, which means they can save a lot of time and money related to training.

What Makes Employees Want to Leave?

There are any number of reasons an employee at another organization would want to leave and join yours. Many of them - bad management, uncompetitive salary, long commute times - are outside of your control.

We’re going to focus on the things you can control - or at least take advantage of. Generally speaking, you can conceptualize passive job seekers as falling into one of two buckets:

  1. Passive candidates who are perfectly content at their current job.
  2. Passive candidates who are unhappy with their current work situation.

Intriguing Perfectly Content Passive Candidates

These candidates aren’t doing any new-job research whatsoever.

Recruiting content passive candidates requires specific, direct outreach. (Unlike discontent passive candidates, which we’ll look at in a bit).

1) Referrals

Referrals are consistently rated the best source of high quality hires. With record unemployment, they will be more important than ever.

Sites like LinkedIn make it easy to find employees in your organization who are already connected with the people you want to hire. If possible, ask them to reach out and open up lines of communication.

This becomes even easier if your company has a referral bonus program in place.

2) Look at Nearby M&A Activity

If your organization has access to a service like Pitchbook or LexisNexis, you can track mergers and acquisitions in your area. Any M&A comes with some degree of uncertainty; it’s the perfect time to intrigue perfectly content high performers at these companies.

Employees at organizations undergoing a merger or acquisition are much more likely to consider a new role, even if they were previously very content at their current company.

3) Strong Mission & Value Proposition

At any given time, only 33% of employees are engaged at work. This means at least 66% of employees should hear you out.

There’s a big difference between a content employee and a fulfilled employee. All other factors being equal (compensation, benefits, etc), a strong company mission and value proposition will intrigue passive candidates who aren’t totally engaged at work.

Show that it’s more rewarding to work for you with a formal value proposition that advertises what sets you apart. This might include:

  • Opportunities for personal growth;
  • Opportunities for professional advancement;
  • Your unique emphasis on teamwork;
  • A dedication to forward-thinking management;
  • Ongoing employee recognition programs;
  • Community service programs;

Anything else that makes your organization unique.

According to a study by Universum, 67% of organizations with 10,000+ employees have a formalized employer value proposition. Articulating that value proposition is key to intriguing content, passive candidates. Your focus should be different depending on what candidate persona you’re trying to attract.

Helping Discontent Passive Candidates Find You

Discontent passive candidates are a little different.

Whereas attracting content passive candidates usually requires targeted outreach, discontent passive candidates can be brought into the funnel with a more “inbound” approach.

In other words: you can recruit these passive candidates passively.

4) Automated Sourcing Tech

There are numerous technologies that automate a great degree of the sourcing process. Tools like Entelo and hiQ pull data from social networks like LinkedIn to identify potential applicants and automate outreach.

Potential applicants are identified by a number of factors, like how well their work experience meets the position’s requirements and how likely they are to leave their current role.

5) Optimize for SEO

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the art and science of ranking highly in search engine results (usually Google).

There’s a ton you can optimize here to ensure passive candidates find you:

  1. Site speed. How fast your website loads is one of the factors Google takes into account when ranking webpages. Use Google’s free PageSpeed tool to evaluate your site speed and troubleshoot any issues that could be slowing it down.
  2. Mobile optimization. If your career pages are not optimized for smartphones, they will probably be penalized in search.
  3. Create career page video content. Videos aren’t just a great way to introduce potential applicants to your brand, they also keep visitors on your website longer. This is another factor Google takes into account when ranking webpages.
  4. Determine the right Keywords and utilize Schema Markup tools. Google has recently rolled out a search function called, “Google for Jobs” where your job listing and much of it’s relevant information can appear right in Google’s search results. Our SEO for job postings tutorial walks you through a variety of listing optimization methods.

We put together a huge guide around optimizing your job posts for Google for Jobs - find it here.

6) Essential for Both: Decrease the Effort Required to Get into Your Hiring Funnel

What do gas stations, clothing stores, and Amazon have in common? They make it easy to buy on impulse.

Make it easy for passive candidates to apply on impulse. Maybe they find your job posting after a particularly frustrating day of work, or just received one of the aforementioned automated outreach emails. Just like a clothing store has a limited time to convince you that an impulse buy is justified, you might have a limited timeframe to convince a potential applicant that applying is worth it.

In the Talent Board’s survey of over 200,000 candidates, only 20% said their application took less than 15 minutes to complete. How many impulse buys would Amazon facilitate if buyers needed to complete a 30 minute survey before seeing the product?

Depending on your ATS, there may not be a whole lot of wiggle room to customize and refine your job application. Adding a solution like HireVue's AI recruiting can help candidates quickly find the best jobs and even start the application process via chat or text.

In these cases you can also lower the barrier to entry by moving a recorded video introduction to the front of the hiring process. Rather than complete a long application, job seekers can introduce themselves, their skills & abilities, and why they are interested in working for you with a short video introduction. Your recruiters can then point them in the direction of the right application - by this point they should be more invested in you as a potential employer.

Recognize Where Efforts Overlap

Realistically, there’s some overlap here. While the most effective recruiting approaches for each type of passive candidate might be different, there is some crossover in their application.

For instance, automated sourcing tools will also reach out to content passive candidates - the outreach is just more likely to be ignored. Depending on your goals (time to hire, quality of hire, etc) and resources (number of recruiters actively sourcing, budget for recruiting tech, etc), the most effective combination of approaches will vary.

Understanding what type of passive candidate you want to prioritize is key to developing the right strategy to target them.

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