Talent Acquisition

The Truth Behind Passive Candidates

In recruiting the Holy Grail, the golden egg, the [insert whatever metaphor you choose for greatness here] is the passive candidate. Speak to a majority of recruiters, head hunters, or HR folks and they will all tell you how great the passive candidate is, and I can’t really blame them.

When you find someone who doesn’t have their resume on the job boards that means they are usually doing well in their current job.

And ultimately who doesn’t want someone at the top of their game?

That isn’t to suggest that all resumes on Monster or CareerBuilder are hacks. I know things happen that are out of our control, from layoffs to ownership changes to being caught in the wrong situation. However, the typical thought process is that resumes on job boards just aren’t as attractive as traditionally “hunting” someone.

Why third party recruiters thrive:

One of the major reasons 3rd party recruiting thrives is that Hiring Managers and HR Individuals are looking for candidates they can’t locate on the job boards. As a 3rd party recruiter, I’ve had countless conversations that either started or ended with:

Why would I pay you when I can go on CareerBuilder myself?

This is a valid point, however, please do not trivialize my career like that assuming that is all I do. Sorry, that was a bit of a tangent I was about to go on.

Let’s stay on topic.

Passive candidates are best:

That all being said it brings me back to my main point: the passive candidate is the crème de la crème.

However, hiring is a two-way street. Too many times people assume the interviewee should be lucky to just get an offer from the employer. And while in some cases that may be true, that is a very selfish way to look at hiring. Your position should be just as attractive to the candidate as the candidate’s background is to you the employer. What I would like to discuss is the way a passive candidate should be handled, because regardless of the thought process they aren’t for everyone.

Mental aspect:

First off, we need to understand that there is very much a mental aspect to hiring. Candidates need to be mentally prepared to leave their current job. Put yourself in a candidate’s shoes and think about it. You’ve spent the past year, 2 or more cultivating and developing a way of life. From your morning routine to the friendships you’ve built to the weekly schedule you’ve gotten comfortable with both personally and professionally. By leaving this job you are about to shake all of that up and start all over. When you are actively looking for a new job you have mentally separated yourself from all of that. You realize the people you see on a regular basis are about to change and your normal routine is about to become a lot different. So if you receive a reasonable offer you have accepted the change and are ready to move forward.

As a passive candidate, this situation is a lot different. You’re happy with your routine, you think those work relationships you’ve built are going to last forever, and as far as you are concerned there is no reason to disturb all that. So it doesn’t just come down to dollars and cents, for you it is about a lot more.

So if you are sitting there with an open position and thinking you are going to be gunning for a passive candidate, your position better is worth it. If it isn’t at market value or you are working with outdated technology you aren’t even in the conversation with passive candidates.

I pride myself on working with passive candidates. I’m not the foremost expert on it. But based on my own numbers from last year 85% of the candidates I worked with were not actively looking for a position when I approached them. So I can tell you from experience how difficult it can be to hire one. I have been told it all. For example one of my candidates was offered an 11K increase in salary and (in their own words) “upward career mobility” but still declined the offer because, as they said to me, they “felt safe in their current job”.

What motivates passive candidates?

That’s what it comes down to: the candidate has to be mentally ready to make a move. And even if they are, your offer better is able to match their needs. Matching salary and a 401k just doesn’t do it for passive candidates. You need to really understand what motivates them.

That’s why any time I speak with someone, passive or not, I don’t ever reveal company information at first. When you do that you are setting the tone for them to only focus on this position and not what works best for them. So it is my thought that you talk about the candidate first and then determine if any of your current openings make sense for them. Here are a few simple questions that I always ask:

  • What would motivate you to leave your current role?
  • Why is it that you are willing to even discuss a new position?
  • What is your total yearly earning and what would you need in a new role?
  • Is commute a major deciding factor? If so what is ideal?
  • What would you need to see in an offer for you to fully consider a new position?
  • Have you been interviewing recently?

The last question may not seem it, but it is probably the most important to ask. The reason is that it goes back to being mentally prepared to leave your current role. Unless the offer blows the candidate out of the water, they will usually not take the first offer, because that is the first time they are giving real thought to leaving. And they just aren’t ready yet. So if someone says they haven’t interviewed anywhere, red flags should go up. They need to have already started thinking about making a career change in order to accept an offer.


Ultimately you should be learning all about what will motivate someone to make a move before even going over a job description. Anytime I have a passive candidate that has agreed to a phone call I will always ask them: there is a reason you took my call, what is it? When you get to the core of it, you will know what motivates that person to make a move.

That is why your position better is qualified to fit those needs. Your position needs to be an advancement for that candidate in some way. Whether it’s money, responsibilities or your company is that much more innovative than its competitors it has to be something. If not, you don’t even belong on the phone with passive candidates.

By Chadd Balbi

Chadd Balbi is a seasoned recruiting professional with extensive experience in full life cycle recruiting and business development in both Corporate and Staffing environments. His emphasis is on strong recruiting, business development and client relationship focus. Specializing in the IT staffing industry. Follow Chadd on Twitter @CFBRecruiter.