The Candidate Pool – Active vs. Passive Candidates

by Peter Cotton, founder and president of Best Sales Talent, LLC

Recently, an HR director told me about a position that he was seeking to fill.  Before committing to using my services, he said that he had “pushed the market” to find candidates on his own.  Fair enough.  I’d rather have him do that and exhaust his efforts prior to having me spending my time on a search, only to learn weeks into it that he had done his own recruiting parallel to mine and filled the position on his own.  Since time is my most precious asset, I am never thrilled by wasting it.

In marketing, there are push and pull strategies. In a pull system, the consumer requests the product and ‘pulls’ it through the delivery channel. So, if a candidate is looking for a job, he or she might approach a company by submitting an unsolicited resume in the hopes of getting an employer interested.  On the other hand, in a push marketing system, the sales efforts are initiated by the producer, and information is ‘pushed’ toward the buyer.  In recruiting terms, this means that the employer is pushing information onto the market about the job, i.e. advertising or posting the job on websites or networking to get referrals.  That’s fine, so long as you don’t care about letting your competitors know that you have a weakness (an open territory that they could penetrate), or letting your customers know that they have no sales rep to deal with for awhile.  But, getting respondents from job postings or referrals means one thing: the employer is not seeing the “entire pool” of candidates.  They are only looking in the “shallow end” of the pool.

There are only three kinds of candidates:

Unemployed Lookers (a.k.a. Active Candidates):

These candidates are out of work and are looking for a job full time (or at least they should be) and it is highly unlikely that an employer will find a superstar candidate (competitor) with industry-specific sales experience among them.  These candidates frequently will apply for jobs that they are not qualified for, shot gunning their resume around to any and all employers.  They work with multiple employment agents, too.  Many times a referral falls into this category.  An employer’s worker, or a contact, refers a friend, neighbor, or relative who is out of work and needs a job.  They are trying to help the person, but typically the person has none of the qualifications for the position which is open.  Employers should ask themselves: “If this is a really good sales person, why is he out of work?”

Employed Lookers (as in the above category a.k.a. Active Candidates):

These people are employed, but they are actively seeking a new job, since they are unhappy with the one they have for some reason.  Sometimes these candidates are perennially unhappy.  Everywhere they work, they are unhappy with something – the boss isn’t good, the pay isn’t good, the co-workers aren’t good, the benefits aren’t good, etc.  So these employed lookers regularly read and respond to many job postings, they work with more than one recruiter at a time, and their focus is not on a specific job, but many possible jobs.  These candidates do get hired at times, but employers should ask themselves: “Can I make this person happy, or will he continue to look even after he comes on board, since his resume is posted and circulated, and he may continue to get solicited by other employers and recruiters scouring the job board databases once we hire him?”

Employed Non-Lookers (a.k.a Passive Candidates):

These people are not actively looking for a job since they are happy, thought well of, highly productive, one of the best, if not the best at their job, could be working for a competitor, or a similar kind of company. They are not looking at job postings and don’t have an up-to-date resume.  Just because a job is advertised, doesn’t mean they are going to get excited about it – especially since they are not actively reading job postings in the first place.  Top talent expects to be wooed by a recruiter or competitor.  They need to be “romanced,” motivated, and sold on a particular opportunity.  They become the buyer.  The employer is the seller.  When employers approach an employed non-looker, if they launch into selling the job to the candidate prematurely, without doing the necessary wooing of the person first, the candidate will most likely tell the employer he is not interested.  “Hunting” for a top performing, employed non-looker is a lot like trying to catch the only big fish in a pond.  Just as you wouldn’t speed onto the scene in a noisy motorboat, you cannot “barge” onto the scene trying to sell the job at the beginning of the conversation, unless you have gotten into the candidate’s head first to find out his real motivations, career aspirations, likes and dislikes, as well as his desires.  Employers and HR people usually are not trained in conducting that kind of exploratory conversation.  However, it’s what recruiters do every day.

Therefore, the “candidate pool” is comprised of these three types of candidates:  unemployed lookers, employed lookers, and employed non-lookers.  Employers are fooling themselves if they think that they are hiring the best candidates by only talking to the candidates of the first two classifications, since they make up only a small part of the workforce.

Unemployed and Employed Lookers make up 20 percent of the workforce, while employed non-lookers make up 80 percent of the workforce.

There is a big difference in quality, experience, and past performance between the best talent in-the-market and the best talent on-the-market.  Candidates ON the market are 20 percent of the workforce.  They are the active candidates and tend to be found in the “shallow end” of the pool.  Candidates IN the market are the other 80 percent of the workforce, and they are NOT looking. They are the passive candidates, and they are only found in the “deep end” of the pool. The “deep end” is where recruiters spend their time. When employers don’t use recruiters, they are hiring the best talent only from the people actively looking for a job (on the market).

I’ve never heard an employer extol the virtues of all the great people to be found on the big job boards like Monster, Career Builder, etc. telling me that’s where he finds most of his new hires. When I ask employers:  “Is YOUR resume on Monster?” or “Would you put YOUR resume on Monster?” nine out of 10 respond “NO,thereby classifying these employers  as  Employed Non-Lookers (“deep end” of the pool).  Top performers don’t post their resumes on job boards.   They know that their current employer could find them there – and that makes for some very uncomfortable conversations.  It can lead to jeopardizing the top performer’s career.

Recruiters like me spend time in the “deep end” of the pool finding and attracting superstars.  I have yet to meet a professional salesperson who is not interested in doing better.  We will call and woo a superstar into a conversation about himself – asking about his real motivations, career aspirations, likes and dislikes, as well as his desires – demonstrating we are truly interested in him, and desirous of being his personal career enhancer.  Then we will ask if he would consider looking at a new opportunity if it was clearly better than what he now has.  Only then will he talk with us and only then would he consider speaking to one of our clients – even if it is a competitor of his.  These are the “big fish.”  The kinds of candidates recruiters will find, because recruiters are not afraid of swimming in the “deep end” of the pool.