Recruiting passive candidates means finding those hidden gems in the global talent pool, making a genuine connection with them, and matching their career ambitions with the opportunities available at your company. Even if they aren’t actively looking for a new position.
But how do you source passive candidates? How do you contact and engage with them? And how do you make them an offer they would gladly accept? We will answer all of these questions and more in this article and we will start by defining the concept of a passive candidate.
What is a passive candidate?
A passive candidate is any person or employee who is not actively searching or applying for a new position in a company. They may be happy in their current positions, or reluctant to make a move at this time. Passive candidates are often highly impactful employees and, therefore, highly sought after in the recruitment space. This is especially true if they possess niche skills or are senior leaders in their industries.
These candidates are particularly valuable for roles that require skills and knowledge that are in short supply in the industry. Usually, passive candidates have unique skills, experience, and knowledge that actually make them the perfect match for a position. Because of this, recruiters and executive search firms often approach passive candidates to start discussing open positions in other companies and their willingness to change jobs.
This style of proactive or opportunistic hiring is a great way for recruiters to make connections with candidates who may eventually be ready to make a move to a new company. It can be used as both a technique to fill a talent pool proactively, or as a way to beat the competition and hire high-impact employees before they become available.
Passive candidates are desirable by employers because of their unique skill sets and because they’re in demand. It’s quite difficult to recruit them, especially if they’re satisfied with their current employer, salary, and position. However, there are ways you can find, approach, build a relationship, and recruit a passive candidate for open jobs in your company.
Before we dig into those techniques, let’s step back and look at the difference between passive candidates and active candidates.
Passive candidates vs. active candidates
Generally speaking, active candidates are those who are actively searching for a new position. They come to you and apply for jobs, and actively engage in a job search. Passive candidates, on the other hand, aren’t actively looking for work. As such, the techniques used to attract, screen, and recruit candidates will vary depending on whether they are passive or active.
When you look at the global talent pool, you soon realize that most people aren’t looking for a job. Around 73% of potential candidates are passive job seekers, with the remaining 27% made up of active candidates. Notably, a whopping 87% of those passive candidates are open to new job opportunities, if suitable for their career goals and needs.
Even though there are a lot of active candidates applying for jobs and sending their resumes to your organization, you also need to look for passive candidates because you’ll often find A-list players in this talent pool. They are almost never out of a job and, if they are, it’s not for long. This makes them tricky to identify, and even trickier to attract to your company or position before they’re snatched up by another company.
So, while attracting and screening active candidates remains important, you also need to focus your recruitment efforts on proactively finding excellent passive candidates. There’s a higher chance that you will find your exact match for the open role in the pool of passive candidates than in the pool of active candidates.
How do you source passive candidates?
Unlike active candidates that come to your website and apply for an open job, executive recruiters will have to do a lot more work to source passive candidates.
Your recruitment team will have to use different tactics to source, find, vet, and hire excellent talent from the pool of passive candidates. Some of the ways they can source passive candidates include the following.
1. Asking for referrals
This is quite a popular tactic for sourcing passive candidates. The recruitment team can create referral rewards for employees who recommend someone who might be an excellent fit for the company. If you have a great employer brand, this can work wonders. Employees will rave about how great their working conditions are and how they enjoy working in the company and that will attract many of their colleagues, friends, and peers to look into the company and apply for open roles. Also, referrals don’t need to happen only from employees— they can happen from professional networks as well so make sure that you ask your network for recommendations.
When asking for referrals to fill executive positions, we recommend connecting with other senior leaders in your industry. Ask them if they know anyone who might be interested in your open role, and if they can help set up an initial call to discuss the opportunity. It’s also likely that your existing leadership team will have deep connections with other senior leaders in the industry. Encourage them to put names forward during the executive recruitment process.
2. LinkedIn sourcing
LinkedIn is one of the most powerful tools available to recruiters for active outreach to passive candidates. There are roughly 700 million people on LinkedIn as of 2022, so the talent pool is quite large. It’s also daunting if you don’t know where to start.
LinkedIn Recruiter gives recruiters much-needed filtering and searching capabilities that allow them to look for candidates based on predefined criteria in a much more targeted way. This platform gives you the ability to filter profiles based on:
- Candidate demographic details
- Educations and experience
- Job title
- Recruiting and candidate activity
- Employment Type
Importantly, you can layer these filters on top of each other to create a deeply targeted search for the exact types of candidates you want. This is critical to effective passive candidate research, especially if you’re looking for more senior and well-established candidates.
Once you’ve found candidates to connect with, LinkedIn also provides InMail as an invaluable tool for outreach. This lets you message passive candidates directly, and deliver your sales pitch directly into their inbox. With LinkedIn Recruiter, you don’t need to be a connection with the passive candidate, either, giving you a powerful outreach tool on the world’s biggest professional network.
3. Mining the talent pool
If your company has been in business for quite some time, you’ve probably already had multiple recruitment cycles. During those cycles, you likely left some really good candidates on the table, and kept their information for any future roles that might be a good fit for them. This talent pool is a potential gold mine for high-quality candidates who may now fit the bill for your open position.
The candidates in that talent pool will likely have learned new skills and gained new experience since you last spoke to them, so they might be even better candidates now than they were when they applied for a job in your organization.
If you’re using an Applicant Tracking System or HRIS, we recommend filtering your talent pool based on a set of criteria that you’ve defined in your job description and requirements. This will help you quickly search through your talent pool, and match your open position with potential candidates.
4. Partnering with an executive search firm
Sourcing passive executive candidates can be much more involved and tedious than more junior positions. To help make this process easier, many companies will partner with an executive search firm to help elevate their recruitment capacity and output, and the quality of their proactive outreach.
Executive search firms use a robust recruitment process to find passive candidates, which includes an in-depth research phase. During this phase, the firm will proactively seek out potential candidates to fill the role. This process includes identifying target industries, companies, and geographies, and then identifying all relevant talent that meets the criteria for the position.
From there, executive search firms will proactively reach out to identified candidates, using highly personalized outreach tactics designed to establish a strong rapport between the company and the potential employee.
Contacting passive candidates
Now that you have identified the right passive candidates, it’s time to contact them. This is where you need to be tactful. Passive candidates are busy —especially when you engage in senior leadership recruitment — and if the message isn’t specifically tailored for them, they won’t give you a minute of their time.
There are four rules that you should follow when contacting passive candidates.
1. Use networking to your advantage
If you want to recruit passive candidates successfully, networking is your best friend. Once you identify the right candidate, look at their network and see if there’s anyone who might be suitable to introduce you to the candidate.
A common connection will make all the difference when introducing yourself to the candidate and will give you much-needed credibility to start a conversation. You should also think about every approach to a candidate as a way to expand your network. Because even if they aren't a great match for the job role in your company, they might know (and introduce you to) someone who is.
2. Send a specific and personalized message
When contacting and forming a relationship with highly skilled and experienced candidates, a shotgun approach won’t work.
The shotgun approach is all about sending as many messages, emails, or InMails as you can, hoping that someone will respond to the message and that you will start a conversation. The chances of that happening when reaching out to senior leaders are quite minimal.
Instead, you should have a sniper approach. The sniper approach means identifying the candidate that you think is a great fit for the job and then deliberately crafting a message that’s highly personalized to that specific individual.
Candidates will notice that you took the time to craft the message and that you did your research on them. This will make it clear that you are interested in them, specifically, as a candidate.
To make your message personalized, we suggest mentioning a joint connection, friend, or colleague, or something specific from their profile that made you believe that they’re a perfect match for the open role in your organization.
For the first outreach, we recommend keeping the message short and to the point. The goal is to get a response from the candidate, and to set up an exploratory call.
3. Never, ever sell on the first contact
This rule can be applied to almost all first interactions in almost any situation— never sell on the first contact. The passive candidates you’re approaching aren’t ready to be sold on the opportunity yet, so coming too hard out of the gate will just make them ghost your messages and emails.
Instead, your goal is first to create rapport with your candidate and nurture a trusting relationship where they will believe you have their best interests at heart. It’s about understanding their needs first and realizing what they need from a working position. Only then will you be able to sell them the opportunity.
4. Always follow up
Business is done on the follow-up. If you don’t get any response on your first message, email, or InMail, send another one. It doesn’t mean that the candidate isn’t interested— maybe they didn’t see the message, maybe it went into their spam folder, or they skimmed through it while they were busy and later forgot to respond.
When you do follow up with the candidate, make sure that you don’t slip into a sales pitch on the second contact. Until the candidate replies, and you begin a conversation with them, the goal should still be to get their attention about your job and company. Try following up with some more personalized information about the role, or simply say that you’re checking in to see if the candidate might be interested in learning more.
If the candidate still doesn’t respond, then it’s likely safe to move onto other contacts. If they do, but aren’t interested in learning more, then this is a good opportunity to ask them if there’s anyone else in their network they’d recommend that you reach out to. This is especially useful when recruiting senior leaders in a specific industry, and will give you deeper inroads to contacts that may not have been caught during your initial research.
Emailing passive candidates
When contacting passive candidates via email, your message is very likely to be either ignored or end up in a spam folder. To improve your odds of reaching the passive candidate via email, you should:
- Make sure that you write the correct email address
- Personalize your subject line and preview message
- Write a brief email that explains why you’re contacting them
Keep your email short and to the point. To help you with that, we created an email template that you can use when contacting passive candidates.
Bonus: You can also use this as a LinkedIn InMail template for passive candidate outreach.
Passive candidate email template
Subject Line: [first name], here’s an exciting job opportunity for you.
Hi [first name],
I hope you’re doing well! I’m reaching out because I [how you found the candidate] and wanted to see if you might be interested in a new role I’m looking to fill at [company].
My name is [your name], and I’m the [your job title] and [your company].
We’re looking for someone to [key leadership and job responsibilities]. This is a great opportunity for anyone looking to [key motivator for joining the company in this [role].
Based on your experience at [current or past company] as [current or past role], I think you’d make an exceptional candidate for this position.
Are you interested in setting up a short 10 to 15-minute call to discuss? If so, how does [date and time] look for you at the moment?
I know that you’re a busy person, so I’ll understand if you don’t have time to reply to this email. (This sentence enables you to “follow up” in a couple of days if they don’t respond.)
Have a great day!
[Your name, position, company]
How to engage passive candidates
Once you’ve made contact with a passive candidate, the next step is to make sure you keep their attention. To effectively engage passive candidates, you need to understand what motivates them.
If they’re looking to change jobs, they will have higher expectations from the next job than they have from the current one. They’re not going to move to another company if the opportunity isn’t a lot better than their current one.
It’s your job as a recruiter to identify what the key motivators are for each of your high-potential candidates. Once you’ve learned what those are, then you can craft your sales pitch to be more enticing for that individual.
With that in mind, here are three main motivations that would make passive candidates consider a new position or company.
- Better salary and more benefits. According to an EdX survey, a better salary is one of the biggest motivations for passive candidates to change jobs. The offer needs to be highly competitive in the market and it needs to be better than the one they currently have. On top of that, they should also get new (and improved) benefits as a motivation to take your job offer. Conversations around salary and benefits usually happen a bit later in the interview process — after the initial contacts, at least — so it’s a good idea to mention that you are willing to offer a highly competitive salary during your early conversations. This is also a good time to mention any unique benefits or perks that your company can offer, especially if they’re unique in your industry.
- Opportunity to grow. Not all passive candidates want a bigger salary and more benefits— some of them want to change companies because they believe they’ve hit the growth ceiling in their current company. They want new responsibilities and new opportunities for growth. If it becomes clear during your initial conversations that growth is a driving factor for your target candidate, then we recommend emphasizing the unique opportunities and future state of your job opening and company. Explain the impact that the candidate can have at the company, and what the growth prospects are for your organization.
- Better work-life balance. There are plenty of great passive candidates who don’t want a bigger salary, more perks, or exciting new career growth—they want a better work-life balance. They could be a new parent and have a child to take care of, or they could have a sick family member who needs help, or they could be burned out from stress and overworking and they want a better work-life balance. Whatever the reason is, you should identify if the passive candidate is someone who wants a better work-life balance and then make sure to communicate to them that your opportunity will provide them with that (if it will, of course).
Open dialogue and strong listening are critical to a recruiter’s ability to learn about the motivating factors for each of their high potential candidates. Once you’ve learned what those drivers are, the recruiter and hiring manager can craft their pitch to the candidate accordingly.
Likewise, understanding key motivators in your candidates is invaluable to understanding who they are as a person, what they value, and how they might perform within your organization. These are valuable data points that can help you gain a full, 360-degree view of your target candidate.
Recruiting passive candidates
Once you’ve established rapport with the passive candidate, and presented the opportunity, now it’s time to be persuasive and sell them the job opening as the perfect role for them.
The first thing you need to do once they realize that this opportunity is right for them is to explain what the recruitment process will look like.
You likely have a clear recruiting process in place already. Unless the candidate you’ve identified is so exceptional that they can skip ahead in the process, we recommend putting all individuals through the same thorough screening process. This is especially important for senior leadership positions that will have an impact over your company culture, strategic vision, finances, and any other mission-critical element of your business.
You should provide your candidate with a realistic timeline for the entire process and make sure that they’re patient enough to reach the end of it.
It’s critical that you maintain clear and frequent communication with passive candidates at each stage of the recruitment process. If candidates feel that they’ve been sold a bill of goods, or if the process is too time-consuming, then it’s highly likely that they will drop off.