We Are Not All Passive Candidates

I’ve recently blogged the findings of some Jobsite research which shows that the most important factor in a happy working life is having a good relationship with our work colleagues. Most surprising were the relatively healthy numbers (there were some age and gender differences) who would reject a move with a pay rise in favour of staying with colleagues that they respect and get on with.

I found it particularly interesting as I’ve always considered the belief that all employees are either an active or passive candidate to be a myth. The thought that anyone will change jobs for a pay rise, a promotion, a new challenge or because someone thinks they are headhuntable is daft. It ignores the complex range of motivations, relationships and emotions that make up the human race…in favour of the vision of recruiter as powerful kingmaker who can sell anybody anything.

A few years ago I worked in a business that had a small team placing senior sales people within a niche industry. All the roles were retained – third on target list, third on shortlist interviews and balance on acceptance – yet the team rarely ever billed the last third. They identified the best candidates and got them to final interview…yet few deals were closed. The individuals were all good recruiters but the candidates could not be closed. The client would offer, take them out to dinner with their partners, yet still not seal the deal.

Because the final decision for the candidate was about much more than a new title, an extra £5k or a bigger car. It was about stability, lifestyle, and family security…loyalties, friendships and relationships built in the current company. Some colleagues were golf partners; some had children at the same school as the candidate’s and some had wives or husbands who had also become social friends.

It wasn’t about a lack of vision or confidence but about doing the right thing for everyone.

I have debated this long and hard in the past. I respect the view that the right opportunity will encourage someone to think about moving jobs, but don’t agree that a move will inevitably follow. From my experience it’s not just about the ‘right’ opportunity… security and stability, particularly during tough times, are often overlooked as key drivers for many employees.

The three component model of engagement looks at commitment to an organization as a psychological state, and has three distinct components that affect how employees feel about the organisation that they work for:

  • Affection for your job (strong emotional attachment to the company and the work you do…identification with goals and values)
  • Fear of loss (the loss one may experience by leaving is greater than the benefit they might gain in a new role)
  • Sense of obligation to stay (because it’s the ‘right’ thing to do, maybe because of an investment made in you, or through a moral/familial view of loyalty)

It suits recruiters (agency and corporate) to perpetuate the belief that everyone is either active or open to looking but it isn’t the case. Average length in a job is often used to support this but it’s a random statistic and an unreliable measure as different levels and seniorities will have different tenures. An average won’t take into account trainee roles that only last 1 or 2 years, nor general wastage as people choose to relocate, re-train or generally try something new.

It’s widely thought that most people in the workforce falling under the ‘Gen X’ or lower end ‘Baby Boomer’ categories may probably average 10 jobs in a career…but this isn’t because they are all high achievers who jump ship every 2/3 years when a new opportunity is floated in front of them.

The truth is that there are many committed, engaged, passionate and loyal people out there who believe in what they are doing and who they do it for…and more often than not they are the ones that recruiters want to reach. But they usually remain out of reach.

And do businesses really want passive candidates if they can be reached?

When CareerXroads did some research in the US they found that whilst passive candidates may be the fashionable way to go, the new black if you like, most hires were of active candidates after all.

As Gerry Crispin found in the research “There is a tendency by recruiters and hiring managers to believe that passive candidates are better but they’re hiring a mix that’s mostly the active candidates who come to the career site or (apply) through job boards.”

(Plug : If you have colleagues that you value, respect or just plain like then don’t forget to enter a snap of them in the Jobsite 9-to-5 Buddies competition! You can win £250 of drinks to share with them!)

8 thoughts on “We Are Not All Passive Candidates

  1. I’ve seen this argument before between you recruiter types. The thing is, it isn’t an “on/off” situation. If you want to define it as passive/active then I’d say that they are part of a continuum and as humans, we find ourselves constantly changing our position on that continuum as the circumstances of our work and life change.

    An employee who previously wouldn’t consider moving from their company, might listen to an approach because of a number of factors. Similarly, someone who was open to a move might then decide that the time isn’t right.

    Trying to simplify the arguments into a rather bipolar view of the world seems to me typical of many in the recruitment industry, who would have a fight with themselves if there was no-one else in the pub. They’re probably better off sticking to filling out forms and updating databases rather than trying to unpick the complexities of human motivation.

  2. Beg to differ Merv – everyone (well nearly everyone) is a passive candidate (maybe non-active is better). Everyone has a ‘price’, whether that be salary package, location, particular company, type of role etc
    If a good recruiter (and that is the difference with positioning roles to non-active in the job hunt), approaches you with a role that ticks one or more of the above, at the right time, you WILL listen and you WILL become less passive and more interested in what they have to say.

    I accept that this is less often than people would like to think in our industry, but it happens every day to unsuspecting ‘passive’ candidates.

  3. I don’t see a problem in defining someone as “active” or “passive”. Lets be honest we’re not trying to philosophically define the human condition here but rather just trying to establish if someone is in the market for a new job or not. Some people are. Some people aren’t. Some people have different motivations to stay or go and these can change due to a variety of factors.

    I think Mervyn’s point that in real terms a considerable amount of appointments are actually filled by active job seekers while recruiters bang on to their clients that only they have the power to access the passive talent pool (which is assumed to be the better people) is a valid one.

    PS – Must dash … have a form to fill out and database to update

  4. It is indeed a myth that “passive-candidates” are some sort of holy grail. This originally sprung from recruiters wrongly believing the fallacy that those candidates were somehow of better quality than those actively looking for a new job. At least this is how they would pitch it to clients. The greater truth is that recruiters biggest fear is representing a candidate, who is also working with other recruiters and applying to other jobs (i.e. the active candidate). Active candidates are a pain in the backside because no recruiter has exclusive rights to market them to potential employers.

    The trouble is that these “passive candidates” carry their own set of hurdles to be overcome. A recruiter must find a way to flip them to active status. This is often done by a combination of a tempting new job, undermining their current employer, and a lot of flattery and arm-twisting. A genuinely passive candidate cannot be manipulated by a cynical recruiter, as they can walk away easily at any stage, whereas the converted candidate is much more malleable. As you say, Mervyn, this approach can appear to work fine right up until the job offer stage, when reality hits home, and candidates need to decide what’s truly best for them.

    Neil Morrison is correct. There is a wide spectrum of motivations which compel anyone to either remain in their current role, or need to make a move elsewhere. Recruiters will tell themselves that they are merely helping the candidate, by giving the courage to do a brave thing. Employers and new recruits are the ones who have to deal with the outcome of a flawed hiring process, once the dust has settled.

  5. As ever a thought provoking article and in my experience I think you are right – not all candidates are passive.

    I agree that there is so much written about targetting passive candidates and that all candidates have their price and on and on…….

    Finding the right candidate may not be as easy as placing an advert and getting a stream of high calibre “active” candidates. But equally it’s not a case of making dozens of phone calls to passive candidates from LinkedIn with your sales pitch.

    A good recruiter will know where to advertise to find the right active candidates. They will also know where to look to find the best passive candidates. As Stephen says above approaching passive candidates is not about selling them a dream. I think it’s about finding out what would motivate them in a new role and/or what is demotivating them in their current role.

    It’s been said before but if there is then a match with your vacancy then BINGO! If not then good recruiters will fill out one of Neil’s forms and update their database.

  6. Mmm, I wonder what makes a recruiter “good”.

    Here’s another take on the construct of “passive” candidates.

    I met yet another “passive” job hunter recently. Passive because stuck; stuck because active job hunting led to four initial interviews, four interviews led to three more. Then – the void opens. Communication stops, the recruiter avoids phone calls, feebly explains that the client has stopped communicating with them. The void sucks in the confident, active, optimistic job hunter and leeches out their confidence. They then decide to stay put.

    The recruiter blames the client, the client blames the recruiter. The candidate gets passive.

  7. This is really interesting research, and feels pretty close to the truth to me. I strongly believe that an engaged employee does not move for more money, or even improved status, and therefore head-hunters will not persuade them easily, if at all.

    My rule when I was employed was always to speak to head-hunters – after all, you never know when you will actually need them! But although I moved relatively often, I never jumped ship unless I was facing redundancy or had become disengaged and dissatisfied with the work I was doing, or the employer I was doing it for.

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