Your complete guide to recruiting passive candidates

Last updated:
December 17, 2021
December 22, 2021
min read
Bev Campling
Table of contents

Sourcing and hiring passive candidates has become a contentious issue in recent years with some hiring professionals being totally for and others completely against the practice.

The reality is that we need passive candidates if we’re going to make successful hires, and the idea of finding staff this way is as old as the concept of employment. Before broad-scale advertising opportunities were available companies found staff by word of mouth or referrals as we call it now.

Many referrals are not active job seekers and they wouldn’t have applied for the job had someone they trust not have told them about the opportunity.

Sourcing passive talent isn’t the solution to fill every vacancy, and hiring managers need to understand when to use this option and when not to. Many roles are quickly and successfully filled with active candidates.

Specific industries require specialized skills that are often difficult to find. Sourcing passive experienced specialists can be the only option to get the skills you need on board.

What is a passive candidate? 

A passive candidate is someone who is being considered for a role without actively searching for a role. They wouldn’t have applied for a position, neither are they searching for a new role. However, employers are interested in adding their talent to their team, making them a passive candidate

The difference between active and passive candidates

Active candidates surf job boards regularly, putting in job applications and keenly using social media to find opportunities. They’re either looking for better opportunities or are unemployed. Psychologically they’re either anxious, expectant or excited to find a new job depending on their circumstances and their approach to life.

When you connect with an active candidate, they’re receptive to approaches from recruiters and willing to chat. If they’re not immediately available to discuss your job opportunity, they’ll connect with you as soon as they can. Active candidates are putting themselves out there, and they’re hopeful of finding a good job opening.

However, passive candidates are in a completely different zone! Job boards don’t even cross their mind, and when they use social media, it has nothing to do with finding a new job. They mostly use career-related social media platforms to network within their industry, update their skills, and make relevant contacts.

When you approach a passive prospective candidate, you can expect a cool response and sometimes none at all.

Remember, they’re ordinary people, and a cold call from a recruiter will be met with the same scepticism as a cold call to buy an insurance policy. Most will cut your cold call within the first few seconds; they’re not interested, and they don’t want to know more.

What are passive candidates looking for? And what are they not looking for? 

Building rapport with a candidate before making verbal contact is critical to being able to hold a passive candidate’s attention. But how do you build a relationship with someone you didn’t know even existed until you sourced them somewhere?

That’s where having a strong employer brand comes in, as well as active use of an ATS to build a robust talent pool. With your employer brand comes a professional careers site, strong interactive social media presence and integration with job boards. These elements are fundamental, as they are what passive candidates look for. 

Still unsure of how this is going to make passive talent more receptive?

Simple. You don’t call someone who isn’t in the job market and expect them to take your call and have a long chat. It doesn’t happen that way! The best approach is via email or another message on a social platform so that they know about you before you make the all-the-more-official phone call.

Send a short, well-worded message with links to your company and say that you’d like to have a brief chat. If you get a “no thank you” reply, you need to respect it. If you get no reply or a “tell me more”, pick up the phone, introduce yourself and tell the candidate that you have a great opportunity that you’d like to discuss with them.

My initial call usually goes something like this “Hi Jo, it’s Bev from (company). I just sent you a message a short while ago about a great opportunity within our company/organization that I believe will greatly enhance your career. Can you spare me a few minutes to give you an outline?”

This way, you’re more likely to get a few minutes of air time. Plus, you’ve allowed the passive candidate time to absorb the possibility of changing jobs to a different company, and allowed them to feel flattered for being head-hunted. 

How to find passive candidates 

Sourcing passive candidates goes way beyond just finding them, but it’s an important place to start. After all, how are you meant to hire passive candidates if you don’t know where to look for them? Considering active candidates are more likely to come to you, they’re the ‘easier’ option. However, there are many benefits to going out of your way and sourcing passive candidates, (which we’ll get to shortly). 

Finding passive candidates means looking in the right places. So, here are 5 different methods you can use to seek out the best passive candidates to add to your team. 

1. Find passive candidates on social media

Social media is a great place to start. But the world of social media is wide and expansive, and it seems to be growing by the day. With so many platforms, including LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and more, you could spend all day looking on a platform to discover your best bet is using a different social media platform. Seeking passive candidates means going the extra mile to find the perfect fit. So, there’s no room for missing out on the best candidates for the role. 

With that in mind, you need to think carefully about which platform(s) you are going to look through. It may help to look at your company’s social media pages. If, for example, the company is most active on Instagram, starting there would be wise. Consider, too, the ideal candidate for the role. If qualities like ‘creative’, ‘confident’, and ‘modern’ are crucial, then perhaps platforms like Facebook may not be the best place to search. Instead, perhaps YouTube.

Also, utilize the tools social media hands you. Twitter, for example, has billions of active users. It also encourages the use of hashtags, which you can use to your advantage. 

Say, for example, you were seeking a new content creator to add to your team. It’s easy to simply type in ‘#contentcreator’ and other associated hashtags. Similarly, if you were looking for a new English tutor, using hashtags like ‘#englishteacher’ will help narrow down your search. Plus, it ensures the results show passive candidates who are qualified. 

You can use hashtags in a range of ways, but use them with intent and purpose. Some platforms allow you to ‘follow’ a certain hashtag, which means you’ll get notified when there’s a new post that uses this hashtag. 

Relevant: 10 social recruiting tips that attract top talent

2. Find passive candidates in person

Even though we live in a highly technological world, there’s still nothing that can beat meeting people IRL (that’s ‘in real life’ for those who haven’t yet embraced our new technological world!). Though this may seem impossible due to these candidates not actively seeking to be a candidate, there are certainly ways to meet them in person. 

Using websites like meetup.com, Eventbrite, and CitySocializer will help you find events that are happening near you. This is an exciting strategy, as you’re bound to find someone who runs on passion. Say, for example, you were looking to find a candidate for your sales team. You could then search for events that revolve around enhancing the sales techniques. Attending this would often guarantee finding dedicated passive candidates who are looking to improve and enhance their talent. 

Additionally, you have the option of hosting your own event which you can advertise on these sites. You’re likely to gain a mixture of active and passive candidates in response, but you’re harvesting talent which you can add to your talent pool. 

3. Find passive candidates through employee referrals 

Sometimes - in fact, many times - your best port of call are your current employees. The best additions to your team are often recommended by your existing team. Why? Because they know the company culture inside and out. Plus, recommending a ‘bad’ addition would reflect really poorly on them. Furthermore, there’s already an element of trust, as there’s a person who bridges the gap between the candidate and employer. 

As a result, these employees tend to perform better and stay in the role far longer. That’s what every recruiter and hiring manager is aiming for, right? 

So, use your current employees and ask them for recommendations. Send them a well-worded email, and if you want a nudge for your team to come up with their best recommendations, consider offering a referral reward. This is often a financial reward, but it doesn’t have to be. You could offer flexible hours, half a day off, a voucher - anything you want to offer. Often, people will make recommendations without the added nudge, but this raises the steaks and enhances the spirit of competition. 

In your email, it’s important to give your employees details about the role you are trying to fill. Consider the requirements carefully, and list clear hard and soft skills. The more specific you can be, the better. After all, how can they recommend a perfect fit if they don’t know what they’re recommending for

Relevant: Ultimate guide to employee referrals programs

4. Find passive candidates in your talent pool 

Have you rejected candidates in the past because you felt they weren’t quite right for the role but knew they’d make a great addition to the team? Take a look over your previous candidates by sifting through your Applicant Tracking System (ATS). Go through your talent pool and talent pipelines, looking at candidates that have been rejected in the final stages of your hiring process. 

While they may not have been the right match for that particular role, they could be the perfect solution to your open vacancy. 

Remember, though, that these candidates have been rejected by your company in the past. As such, it may be a slightly trickier experience to try and instill trust and a desire to work for the company once again. This stems from your candidate experience. The better it is, the easier it will be to close the gap. If candidates were pleased with how they were treated, even after being rejected, they will be more likely to want to work for your company in the future. However, if they were treated poorly, the chances of them wanting to hop aboard are less likely. 

5. Find passive candidates with online resume platforms 

Lastly, you can look for passive candidates by using online resume platforms. Monster’s SearchMonster tool is a paid method of ‘finding and engaging with the top-quality talent you need, when you need it.’ You’re able to filter through search results, allowing you to find the right fit for your vacancy. 

You can also use the Resume Search feature on Career Builder’s site to ‘source, contact, and hire the right person’. Again, this is a paid tool, but there are staggered pricing options that can help you pick a package that suits your budget. 

How to recruit passive candidates

As a recruiter, you have only a few seconds to make an impression on someone who doesn’t particularly want to speak to you. It’s vital that you have the full job description, remuneration package, benefits, and details of your company and employer brand at your fingertips. Ultimately, you’re trying to make a sale with this pitch, so you need to be prepared and know how to recruit a passive candidate. 

The first questions most people ask are around salary and level of responsibility. These answers will clinch a screening interview or end the call. Very few candidates will be willing to take a drop in pay or a few steps back on the career ladder, particularly if they’re not active candidates.

If the candidate earns more or is at a higher level, ask them if you can connect with them on social media just to keep connected. Most people are very open to this. They’ve made contact with you, and they’ll recognize you if you connect again. You’ve just added a valuable candidate to your talent pool.

(That’s why it’s important to keep your social media content interesting and interactive. If you’re just going to post open jobs, quality candidates will soon unfollow or disconnect with you. Make a point of regularly posting interesting information on social media that will be of value to your followers.)

If the candidate is curious about the opportunity, you’ll want to hold their interest. The application process must be pared down and made as easy as possible. Firstly, send them the job description, remuneration package, benefits, and career prospects right away (make sure your email displays your company brand too). Don’t allow there to be a massive delay in sending this. You need to make sure it’s received during or almost immediately after the call. Don’t allow momentum to drop. 

While they’re still on the line, suggest a meeting once they’ve had a chance to read through the details. If a meeting isn’t possible, suggest a video chat. Don’t be pushy, but try to get an appointment set before you end the call. Suggesting a time and date will persuade a ‘yes’ more than simply asking whether a video call is a possibility. 

How to engage passive candidates

Don’t expect the candidate to come to you for an interview like an active candidate would.

You have to go to the candidate to conduct the initial interview. And don’t expect them to complete loads of forms and supply all kinds of documents early in the process. Leave that until later on.

You can suggest a short meeting over a cup of coffee at lunchtime or after work somewhere that suits them. If weekdays are out, suggest a light weekend lunch somewhere close to where the candidate lives.

If you arrange a meet-up, please settle the full bill yourself; don’t accept any contribution from the candidate, even if they insist.

If you agree to a video chat, you need to be willing to accommodate the candidate after hours or on the weekend. At this stage, you’re more interested in them than they are in you or your job opportunity. It’s important that your actions reflect this and make the candidate feel valued. These strategies will ensure your passive candidate is engaged and ready to move to the next stage. 

When is a passive candidate the best option?

Passive candidates are best for highly skilled positions where there’s a skills shortage, critical positions where a bad hiring decision can have dire consequences, and executive roles.

Considering that 70% of candidates are passive candidates, you can’t afford to ignore such a vast source of talent if you’re battling to fill vital vacancies. Decide upfront whether your search is going to take the active or passive search route.

Never source and connect with potential candidates who are not looking for work while advertising to active candidates as well. From the passive candidates’ perspective, they’ll view your efforts as intentionally wasting their time, and that can do your employer brand some real damage.

If you have a hard-to-fill vacancy that’s been through a series of interview processes with active candidates and you decide to look at passive talent, you have to first wipe the slate clean. All active candidates that were interviewed and considered must be eliminated and regretted. Ensure that the job is taken off your careers site and all job boards. Make sure, too, that it’s no longer advertised on social media.

Then you can start approaching quality potential candidates. Remember, these people aren’t looking for another job; you’ve enticed them with an opportunity to enhance their careers. You owe them a fair and transparent interview process, free of the clutter of active candidates that were potentially good enough but not made an offer for whatever reason.

Never source candidates that are passive job seekers to make comparisons to active candidates you have in your talent pipeline. That’s not only unfair, but it’s unethical! Your employer and company brand can suffer tremendous damage within your industry if word gets out that your hiring practices are dodgy.

How to find passive candidates on LinkedIn

While we’ve already touched on using social media to source passive candidates, LinkedIn opens up many opportunities that other platforms do not. And, when used correctly, there are methods that can enhance, quicken, and reduce the effort required should LinkedIn be used. 

As with other social platforms and online searches, make good use of keywords. Think carefully about the type of content you’re looking for and pinpoint the keywords used in the title of what you’re searching for. For example, if you were searching for a content writer, searching for an article about the best SEO practices would help you discover someone skilled in search engine optimization. You’d then pinpoint the keywords that would appear in this article and search for them. 

The search function uses this principle for both articles and profiles, so be sure to select your keywords carefully. Search for specific job titles and locations (should this be important to your company). 

Use your brand’s LinkedIn page to ‘sell’ your company to any visitors. Refine your profile using your company’s voice and tone, conveying the brand’s ethos and benefits to working there. Plus, it may even be worth adding what possibilities there are for growth within the company. Any facts, quotes, or statistics you can add to show credibility will be beneficial in your profile. 

Finally, make sure to use the #OpentoWork tool. This was built for the purpose of connection, allowing recruiters and potential candidates to connect and discover new opportunities. Recruiters can use the search tool in Recruiter on LinkedIn and select the ‘Open to new Opportunities’ option at the top of the page. You’re also able to search using the ‘Open to Relocate’ option, which, depending on your company, may be important to you. 

What to include in an email to a passive candidate 

When writing an email to a passive candidate, you need to perfect your method of communication. Remember, these candidates aren’t ‘warmed up’ the same way an active candidate would be. As such, it’s crucial that your email is strong, telling, and positive. 

First, you’ll need a clear, concise, and compelling job description. Make sure it’s all factually correct, from the job requirements to the salary.  

Then, consider the recipient. The passive candidate you’re emailing is on your short-list for a reason. It’s important that they feel valued, and they know that you’ve done your homework. Go beyond simply scrolling through their latest posts on social media. Do your research and get to know them, and ensure the email explains why you feel they are such a good match to the role and company as a whole. 

Next, your employee value proposition. This is an important part of your communication tactic. The EVP is how you determine what worth the company brings to a potential candidate. When you email passive candidates, they typically aren’t looking for a new opportunity. This means you need to go above and beyond to show the candidate why the position you’re recruiting for is a better opportunity than the one he or she already has. Focus on unique values that are more likely to have a positive impact on the candidate. While this value typically focuses on more money, better benefits, or a higher chance of career advancement, don’t discount other factors as well.

Remember, an increasing number of people are focused on the work environment, such as more recognition and better work-life balance, and company culture, including social and community responsibility, over simply making more money.

Also. the candidates need to know all aspects of communication as well. Do your teams use conference call software to keep in touch, or do they prefer communicating on a platform like Slack? It's important to know how you'll be expected to talk to the people you work with, so this is something a candidate will want to be aware of.

Finally, ensure you’re sending an email with a striking, compelling subject line. Often, emails are deleted if the recipient doesn’t recognize the sender. With so much spam being sent daily, it’s unsurprising. However, this makes your job a little harder. Your subject line needs to shine. 

This is where your personalization pays off. After all, if it isn’t right, the candidate won’t even open your email. Use a short phrase as the subject line, focusing on something that shows the candidate your email is specific to him or her. Research shows that using the candidate’s name in the subject line increases the chances of him or her opening it by 20%. Only do this if it feels natural, though. Otherwise, it could end up reading like spam. One recruiter was simply honest. He used his subject line to identify himself as a recruiter and make a joke about being one. Having a sense of humor can draw people in who might otherwise have passed over your message.

Are passive candidates worth it?

Yes, definitely! Especially if your industry is prone to skills shortages. But learning how to attract passive talent takes time, foresight, and practice. Attracting passive talent is a long-term investment in your recruitment process and not a quick fix when you’re in a crisis to fill a crucial position.

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