Here’s a bold idea: Let’s ditch the adjectives “active” and “passive” when talking about candidates.
They aren’t just overused; they don’t really do a good job of describing and differentiating prospective employees. Of course, there’s some nostalgia attached to their use, but recruiters really need terms that will help them find and recruit the top talent their firms and clients need—and calling someone an active or passive job seeker doesn’t do that.
Examining the Words
To start, one of these often-used phrases is simply inaccurate. Seeking is an activity, and therefore it cannot be undertaken passively. Therefore, it would seem that “passive job seeker” is a contradiction in terms. Someone can be a passive prospect, but that kind of candidate may or may not be someone you can recruit.
Some prospects are interested in stimulating new opportunities, but others have absolutely no intention of ever doing something different. Recruiters have a shot at selling the former, but are wasting time with the latter.
Additionally, the words “active” and “passive” are commonly misused as surrogates for quality. The assumption is that someone who’s not actively looking for a job is demonstrably more employable because the person is employed.
Many recruiters and even more hiring managers believe that passive candidates are of a higher caliber than active job seekers. They assume a passive prospect’s employment demonstrates a capability for a certain level of performance that someone in transition cannot match.
There’s no empirical data to support that view, however, and plenty of evidence that it’s incorrect.
Assessing Your Process
The trouble is that when you gear your recruiting efforts based on a single, simplistic division—such as active versus passive—you run the risk of incorrectly designing your recruiting strategy.
Many active candidates are high-caliber performers. And the population of passive prospects covers a range of passivity and quality. To put it another way, humans are difficult to codify. Even worse, codifying candidates incorrectly causes you to look in the wrong places and use the wrong arguments to recruit those candidates you really want to reach.
Instead of using a single variable (i.e., is a prospect active or passive?), consider using two. Furthermore, instead of employing the single active-or-passive variable as a crude measure of quality, try using one of the two new variables to indicate a person’s qualifications.
In other words, work toward describing candidates as either employed or unemployed, and as either qualified or unqualified. When you arrange those variables into a matrix of four cells, you get a much more accurate depiction of the candidate population you’re facing in the current job market. Every single person is either employed and qualified, unemployed and qualified, employed and unqualified, or unemployed and unqualified. Of those four choices, of course, the only prospects who interest you are those who fall into either of the first two categories: those who are qualified, whether they are employed or not.
Refining Your Targets
Thinking about prospects only in terms of their qualifications, rather than their current employment status, will give you an edge as a recruiter. Why? Because what you do to recruit qualified talent will also recruit unqualified talent, but the opposite is not true. You must tailor your sourcing efforts to the unique perspective and interests of those who are qualified for your opening. Choose where to advertise, which networks to spend time on, and how to present your firm or your client’s company with that in mind. You need to figure out where those candidates hang out—online and off—and what motivates them to pick one employer over another. Those motivations probably have absolutely nothing to do with their activity or passivity and everything to do with their potential fit for your opening.
There’s plenty of evidence that people who are devoted to excellence in their field all tend to do the same things and go to the same places, whether they are employed or not. They are, for example, likely to hang out with their peers on the websites of their professional associations or societies. They will often network in the discussion forums on those job boards that have transformed themselves into career advancement portals, and in LinkedIn groups devoted to their field. And they will probably stay in touch with their classmates on the websites hosted by the alumni organizations of their graduate and undergraduate educational institutions.
So why differentiate between qualified candidates who are employed and those who are not? You may need to communicate different aspects of the value proposition you’re offering to different groups.
Honing New Strategies
Both employed and unemployed candidates are likely to be interested in the opportunity your firm or client offers for them to advance in their field. The employed person, however, must be convinced to abandon the security they currently have for the unknown security your employer may provide. The unemployed person, on the other hand, must be convinced that the security your employer provides will be better than the security available from other potential employers. Both considerations can be conveyed in the same message, but both must be present if you want to influence the pool of qualified prospects.
Certainly, it’s easier to use a single variable to describe candidates, especially when you’re dealing with inattentive hiring managers. Shaping your sourcing and recruiting strategy to a person’s activity or passivity, however, can send you off in the wrong direction—and even cause you to send the wrong message to the right candidates. It will take practice to get comfortable with two variables instead of one, and it will be a challenge teaching a new set of terms to hiring managers.
The return on your effort, however, will be substantial. It will improve both the effectiveness and efficiency with which you access high-caliber talent for your hiring managers.
Peter Weddle is the author of more than two dozen employment-related books, including Next Practices: Doing Better Than Best in Online Recruitment and The New Golden Rules of Job Board Success: Four Principles for Optimizing Operational and Bottom Line Performance. He is editor and publisher of Weddle’s LLC (weddles.com), a publisher of print guides to job boards.. Send feedback on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org. Engage with ASA on social media—go to americanstaffing.net/social.