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Passive vs Active Candidates: What’s The Difference?

When reading any hiring guide, you’ve probably come across the terms “active” and “passive” regarding your potential candidates. Do you know what they mean?

This guide is mainly for HR novices, new hires, and individuals who aren’t immersed in their terminology. The definitions are relatively simple, though the repercussions of them and how you treat them in your hiring process are complex and far-reaching.

Let’s dig in.

What is an Active Candidate?

Consider the traditional model for hiring to fill a vacancy in your company. You have an open position. You know what you need out of a candidate to fill that position. So, you write a job posting. That job posting is uploaded to your website’s careers page, posted to career sites like Indeed, and possibly even advertised on print media, television, or other venues.

Then you wait.

As you wait, candidates fill in their applications for consideration. They submit resumes and cover letters, send emails, call your hiring team on the phone, and maybe even stop in the office to follow up.

These candidates are actively seeking a job at your company. They may or may not fit the profile of the person you want for the position, but they’re the candidate pool you have; they’re the people out there, proactively putting in their applications. They’re the people you have to dig through to find the best one to hire.

These are active candidates. They are active in their job search, active in their applications, and active in their follow-ups. Whether or not you hire them comes down to your hiring and vetting process, of course, but these are the people who come to you.

What is a Passive Candidate?

Various studies put the percentage of the total workforce – all working-age people who are not retired – actively seeking new work somewhere between 20% and 30%. The number changes over time, but it’s always relatively low.

After all, there are many reasons why an individual might not be seeking a new job. Maybe they’re satisfied where they are. Maybe they’re paid so well that they’d need an obscenely good offer to leave their current position. Maybe they’re three months away from retirement and have no reason to shake things up.

Whatever the case, that leaves 70-80% of the workforce in the category of “not seeking work.” These people are not active; therefore, they are passive.

Passive candidates do not see your job posts because they aren’t looking. They don’t send in applications because they don’t want a new job.

Unfortunately for you, from a sheer statistical standpoint, the best person to fill your open position in your company is already working for another company. They never apply, so you never see them in your candidate pool.

Here’s the trick: many of these people are, in fact, open to being recruited. If you approach them with a compelling enough offer, they may be happy to leave their current company and work for you.

“The benefit to a passive candidate is that, since they are not looking for a new opportunity, they probably won’t be interviewing with anyone else. With 60% of the workforce not looking for a new job but willing to discuss a new opportunity, proactive sourcing (Boolean searches, social media, etc.) will be your best bet for finding this group. Since it can be difficult to distinguish a passive candidate interested in speaking to you from one that’s not, you should be careful how you reach out to people you find through proactive sourcing.” – LinkedIn.

Passive candidates are challenging to locate and hire. After all, you know very little about them. You don’t have their resumes, and you don’t have their skill testing results; all you know is they work for some other company in the same position you need filled, and seem good at it.

Which Kind of Candidate is Better?

Are active candidates better?

There’s an argument to be made that they could be. After all, active candidates are coming to you with a motivation behind them. If they fit what you need and you treat them well, they can be a loyal asset to your company for decades.

On the other hand, many active candidates seek jobs purely because they need a new job. Maybe they want less responsibility than their current role, or they’re 100% just in it for the money and benefits. They may not have any loyalty for you and be more than happy to jump ship if something better comes along.

Are passive candidates better, then?

Potentially. The best candidates for a role are often already employed in that role and are passive because they’re satisfied where they are, and they have job security. You can attract them to work for your company, and they may do an excellent job, leveraging those same skills in exchange for better pay or benefits than they had at their previous firm.

On the other hand, many passive candidates grow lax with their skills, fall into bad habits, or fail to progress their education. They may not necessarily be able to adapt easily to a new environment and may find themselves dissatisfied, even if your offer is better.

“While both proactive and reactive search methodologies can unearth top performers, the more thorough nature of proactive search techniques employed in retained search solutions means the likelihood of discovering high-caliber talent is greater. Proactive search techniques, by their very nature, leave no stone unturned and are deployed by the best headhunters and executive search firms.” – Fraser Dove.

The truth is, neither kind of candidate is inherently better than another. Passive candidates make up the bulk of the workforce, so it makes sense that they cover all parts of the spectrum of a quality hire. And, of course, it’s always true that an excellent candidate may not work out in your organization for many different reasons.

Other Kinds of Candidates

Some analyses divide the greater workforce into more than just active and passive candidates. Other definitions may be relevant.

  1. Tip-Toe Candidates. These are candidates that are a middle ground between active and passive. A formerly-passive candidate who has grown dissatisfied with their job and is starting to put out feelers for new work but who doesn’t need to jump ship immediately and actively seek a job is a tip-toe candidate.

  2. Super-Passive Candidates. Super-passives are passive candidates who are not only not looking for work; they are not interested in work. They’re happy where they are, and nothing you can offer them could sway them away for one reason or another.

You may also encounter candidates who seem to meet one definition but instead meet another. That usually happens when unscrupulous recruiters get involved. Some recruiters will attempt to portray a passive candidate as an active candidate, for example, to trick both sides into thinking the other approached them and wants them more than they genuinely do. Luckily, this is relatively rare.

Is It Worth Pursuing Passive Candidates?

The workforce in America is over 150 million people. For many companies, hiring outside of America is entirely on the table, so the broader available workforce is much larger. Even only 30% of that many people is still a lot of people.

With so many potential active candidates out there, your job postings are probably getting hundreds, if not thousands, of applications. Depending on the role and your business’s reputation, you may be getting that many per day.

You already have a great number of potential candidates to sort through. Is it worth pursuing a passive candidate when so many active candidates have already come to you? And, isn’t it even a little offensive to ignore everyone at your doorstep to go down the street and approach someone else?

The truth is, it depends. Sometimes, you will be able to find excellent candidates in your active candidate pool. Good candidates need to apply for jobs, too, though better, more established employees may not need to very frequently.

“Stack Overflow founder Joel Spolsky claims that many developers only apply for four jobs over their entire career. Unless you’re lucky enough to be hiring at one of those four moments, you’ll probably miss out.” – Beamery.

Sometimes, your active candidates will be more than good enough to fill your available open roles. Other times, none of them quite meet the mark.

For most businesses, it’s a matter of expertise. Active candidates tend to be most focused on entry-level jobs or jobs where advanced technical skills or years of experience are not as necessary. Those candidates still exist but are a minority of the active candidate pool.

When you need to fill a higher-level role, including more technical and experienced roles in engineering, development, management, and more, you need people who are less likely to be actively seeking work. Passive candidates offer a better return on investment for your time and money spent recruiting.

The decision whether or not to pursue passive candidates for a given role often comes down to your experiences in hiring active candidates. If your candidate pool is thin and of poor quality, and you can’t seem to find someone who fills the qualities and requirements you need, you’re faced with a decision.

  1. Do you settle for the best of the available candidates?

  2. Do you promote someone internally and hire to replace them in a less stringent role?

  3. Do you hold off as long as possible, hoping a better candidate comes along?

None of these are great options, though they have their benefits. Often, the best choice is to look for a passive candidate that fits the job description and approach them.

Tips for Attracting Passive Candidates

One key thing to remember about passive candidates is that, by their very nature, they have leverage in the hiring process. You are coming to them, and they don’t need you or your offer. That means they can negotiate for what they want out of a role. This can include:

  1. Increase in job title/promotion in the field.

  2. Better pay than they currently get, and potentially better than you would typically offer.

  3. Better or more flexible benefits to improve their living situation and work/life balance.

  4. Continued training and education to further advance their career.

  5. Guarantees of ongoing raises, bonuses, or consideration for promotion.

After all, you need to make your offer worth more to them, and it’s very rare that your name recognition and the prestige of working for you are inherently valuable. That can be true of some companies, but not very many.

You will also need to offer a more streamlined consideration process. If you reach out to a passive candidate offering to poach them from their current role and, when they express interest, link them to your normal application process, most will stop responding. One of the benefits of being in-demand is being able to skip the tedious parts of the process.

After all, why should they need to put in a formal application when you’re already approaching them? Why should they need to take a skills assessment when they’re already performing in the role, as evidenced by them currently working in the role?

You need some process, but it should be more streamlined and faster than a traditional process for active candidates.

Another critical element of recruiting passive candidates is treating them in a personalized way. Template emails and form letters don’t cut it. You’re approaching this person for a reason; treating them as though they’re just another candidate is a sure-fire way to make them lose interest.

Recruiting passive candidates is difficult, especially for companies that may have never tried to do so before. It can be highly beneficial when done correctly, but it can be a massive waste of time if done poorly.

Do you or your company have any questions about the differences between active and passive candidates? Was there anything we mentioned today that you would like a little more clarification on? If so, please feel free to leave a comment down below, and we’ll get a conversation started! We’d be more than happy to answer any of your potential questions on the topic or clear up any concerns you may be having!

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