Passive candidates are the better candidates - are they really?

In recent years we have increasingly heard the terms passive candidates – those who are not looking for jobs and active candidates – those who apply for jobs or reach out to head-hunters in search of new career opportunities. Interestingly, there seems to be an opinion amongst search specialists and hiring managers that passive candidates are the better candidates.

I have always wondered where that has come from.

The role of psychology in the candidate selection process

Psychology plays a huge part in any candidate selection process. Very simply put, people often want what they can't have. This is one of the reasons why most of us dream about owning that expensive new motor or one day earning enough to buy that mansion in the trendiest most desirable streets. The seemingly unattainable is automatically more appealing.

So, asked to meet a really good candidate your headhunter identified through his candidate sourcing process and convinced to speak to you. The candidate has great credentials and an excellent CV, would be a great fit to your role but, she isn't so sure whether she should consider an offer from you. She would be considered to be a passive candidate. Then there is candidate number two, he has the same level of credentials and an equally excellent CV. This candidate applied within minutes of the job going live online and is very keen and has been forthcoming throughout the process. He would be considered to be an active candidate. What I have seen happen in this scenario many times over, is that the “desire for the unattainable” kicks in. You start doubting the second candidate and question his motives, why is he so keen? Doesn't he have any other options? Is he really that good after all? The first candidate, who is seemingly unattainable, somehow is more attractive, she is excellent, our competition could snap her up, how can we make a move on her quickly? How much can we offer to get her to sign? You ignore the possibility and more likely consideration that candidate number two was just coincidentally on your website when you posted the job and is just simply a forthcoming nature and possibly didn't feel the need to tell you about the other two job offers he has on his plate.

The candidate sourcing channel is another issue

One comment I hear from recruitment professionals regularly is about the number of candidates applying for the same job. Especially where large corporates and large recruitment firms are concerned. They generate literally hundreds of thousands of applications through various job boards and their own website during the course of a year. The downside is many of these applications are irrelevant but we still need to go through them and respond. You can’t be blamed for reaching the conclusion that these so called active candidates are not as good as passive ones, but you would be wrong.

People just don't appreciate how job advertisement works these days. Several years ago there were a couple of major industry related magazines you had to be in and that was it. Your target group read those papers and applied. Now there are a multitude of job boards and networking sites. As you can’t predict with certainty which site the right candidate will use in the precious hours your job ad is ranked highly, you have to post on pretty much all of them to have the best chances of it being seen by the right person. That will obviously generate volume. The Internet as a medium increases volume further as candidates can easily access any online job ad globally and apply with little else but the click of a button. Subsequently that means you need to generate a certain amount of volume to stand the chance to find great candidates amongst all the applications.

Dealing with that is no indication of quality of candidates, it is an indication of how well you have planned the channels used and what your process is for dealing with the applications generated.

Mix up of words, psychology and wrong data

Psychology and wrong interpretation of data leave the impression that there are hundreds of active candidates of low quality. You can´t simply divide the number of relevant CVs by number of applications and compare that to the number of relevant CVs divided by the number of names on a list generated through market mapping. The two figures are simply not comparable. In the latter case someone has already preselected the profiles for you. Additionally, most people seem to ignore that market mapping identifies both passive and active candidates although most people consider all of them as passive candidates. Who knows how many job applications one of these passive candidates has recently sent to other companies? So it is likely that it’s all down to a mix up of words and the transferable meaning of these words particularly when being used on social networking sites which now sell us access to the high quality passive candidates.

Does active or passive candidate matter?

Well, from my point of view, if your aim is to hire the best candidate in the market, it does not matter. The best candidate will be the best talent regardless whether he actively applied for the role or whether someone approached him. It does matter for your candidate sourcing strategy as you can only choose between the candidates you have in front of you. If you purely rely on sourcing strategies which attract actively looking candidates, such as advertisements, you will only select the best candidate on the market, not in the market. One could argue that purely focussing on sourcing strategies identifying those passive candidates such as market mapping and direct approach, will get you the best candidate because it will identify candidates regardless of their active or passive status.