One of the skills that all great recruiters have in common is the ability to find, engage, and attract passive candidates.  As a recruiter, we know that passive candidates can be hard to engage.  In this article, we’ll explore why that is- as well as go over a few tips on how to sharpen this skillset.

There are three main classifications for job seekers: active candidates, “tiptoers”, and passive candidates.  Active candidates are actively looking for work, applying to job postings and reaching out to recruiters.  “Tiptoers” are candidates who aren’t actively applying to jobs, however they are pulsing their networks for opportunities and would be receptive to inquiries from recruiters.  Passive candidates are not currently looking for new opportunities, and they account for approximately 75% of the workforce!

Passive candidates are hard to engage for one main reason, and their classification points to this: they’re passive.  They aren’t actively on the job market, which means they aren’t pursuing new opportunities.  What this means for recruiters is that we often find passive candidates to be non-responsive.  Sure, we know that we have a great opportunity for them- but how do we convey that to them?  If we can’t get them to return phone calls or reply to emails/ social media inquiries then we can’t let them know about our opportunity.

The Mindset of a Passive Candidate

To understand why passive candidates don’t respond to recruiters, you have to put yourself in the mindset of a passive candidate.  If I’m not on the job market, what is going to entice me to respond to you?  I’m going to delete most emails and voicemails that aren’t enticing to me.  I am not concerned that you have a job you need to fill.  Canned email blasts and leaving me two voicemails per day about a job I haven’t expressed any interest in are sure fire ways to lose any opportunity you may have had to engage me.

So is it hopeless?  Is three fourths of the workforce really off limits?  Not quite.  Passive candidates are a fantastic talent pool, and a great resource for recruiters to find top talent.  In order to tap into this talent pool, you have to become a strategic recruiter.  You cannot rely on job postings and email blasts of your jobs.

Why Email Blasts Aren’t Enough

When you reach out to a passive candidate, don’t throw your opportunity in their face.  Reach out and introduce yourself to them.  Let them know that you’re interested in learning about them and what they do.  Sell yourself first, build a relationship, and then you can sell your opportunity to them later.  I’ve had a lot of success by telling a passive candidate that I came across their information and saw their great experience.  I tell them that I’d love to learn more about what they do, and that maybe in the future I could be a resource to them.  This is a non-aggressive, non-committal approach that will not scare away a passive candidate.  A little flattery and a little intrigue go a long way.  People tend to like talking about themselves and their accomplishments.

However, before you contact them make sure you’re prepared.  Passive candidates are consumers, and they will do research on you.  Build up your online presence and your own brand.  They are checking you out.  Ensure that you’ve done your homework on them as well.  Candidates are much more likely to stay on the phone with you if it’s clear you’ve done your homework.  One top tech candidate I spoke with, who was a passive candidate, told me that “a recruiter’s demeanor will interest me more than the location, job description, salary, etc.  That gets my interest up front.”

During your introductory conversation, focus on them.  Learn about them first; ask questions about what they do.  Place the job you’re trying to fill in the parking lot until you have built a strong rapport with them.  If you build up trust with them, they’ll be much more receptive to discussing a potential career move with you.  As you build up that trust, you may start to uncover some of their “pain points” in their current role.  Maybe it’s salary, or location, or lack of advancement opportunities, or poor leadership, etc.  Once you understand what is important to them, you can align your recruitment strategy around that.  Lou Alder uses a great line:  “Would you be open to explore a situation if it were clearly superior to what you’re doing today?”  As a passive candidate, if I trust you and you ask me that question, chances are I’m going to listen.  Who doesn’t want to improve their current situation?

Absolutely Essential – the Trust Factor

It’s important to not erode the trust you’ve built by trying to force them into a certain role.  If you discover they are looking for an opportunity that doesn’t match the current opening you’re trying to fill, don’t break down your trust by trying to sell them into it.  It’s better to take the long approach of finding another opportunity with them, vs losing them as a resource by trying to fit them into a role they aren’t interested in.  Keep their best interests in mind, and you’ll see a great return on your investment.

Happy Hunting!

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Staffing strategy and operations is my job. Family, friends and fishing are my love. The Ravens are my team, Sinatra and Johnny Cash are my music, and helping others is my passion. If you have staffing and recruiting questions, send them to my email: