The Latest Corporate Mania: Snagging 'Passive' Job Candidates

Passive job candidates aren't passive at all, they're blissfully unaware of whatever corporation has them in its sights Photograph by Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

It’s funny how the business world follows fads, no different from the colorful Silly Bands my 10-year-old was so crazy about a year ago or the Bro Tanks that hipster-wannabe high school boys are sporting, now that the weather is cooperating. Business fads, in my experience, are motivated by the same currents that drive consumer fads: the urge to try something new, a hope to differentiate oneself (or one’s department, division or company), and, conversely, the desire to keep up with the crowd.

One of the big fads in corporate America is the “passive candidate” craze. I use quotes on the word “passive” because these job candidates could be considered passive only when they’re viewed through an employer’s self-centered lens. They aren’t passive at all, of course; these folks are busy at their jobs, blissfully unaware of the existence of whatever corporation has them in its sights and its Passive Candidate database.

When I was a human-relations leader, we believed that people who followed your company, used your products, stopped by your booth at trade shows, and kept up with your goings-on were valuable friends of the organization. We’d be quicker to hire someone who already knew and liked our company than a stranger pulled out of the mist. But today, the fact that a person has never heard of you, isn’t job hunting to begin with, and doesn’t know your company from Adam is considered the mark of a first-rate candidate. We call them passive candidates, and we pursue them as if they were Moby Dick.

In the bizarre world that corporate recruiting has devolved into, people who approach your company for jobs are second-tier applicants. People who aren’t working are devalued—as though most working people over 40 haven’t been caught up in a layoff at some point in their careers. People sitting at their desks in other companies are the rare birds companies are dying to attract. What message does it send to job seekers—or, for that matter, to your company’s own employees—when we find people at their desks and say, “Hey, wanna come and work with us?” If I got a call like that, my first question would be, “If your company is so awesome, how come your employees and suppliers aren’t keeping your talent pipeline full?”

Before corporate HR departments try to morph into headhunters (an arrogant move, given the years that seasoned third-party recruiters have spent honing their skills and building their networks), they’d be wise to remember that relationships drive business. Calling unsuspecting people at their desks and pitching them on your opportunities doesn’t make a company hipper or improve its employer brand, any more than an armful of Silly Bands enhances a fourth-grader’s social standing or a Bro Tank turns a high school dude into a chick magnet, badly as he might wish it.

If companies truly value talent, they’ll revise or dismantle this talent-repelling recruiting method and leave the headhunting to the pros.

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