How to recruit passive candidates? Challenges and solutions

June 27 2022

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An active candidate looks for a new job himself/herself. A passive candidate doesn’t need to, they have a good job. Most often it is a high-class specialist or manager that another company is trying to attract. Sometimes the company has a particular person in mind and knows them by name and by their achievements and skills. But it has to cast its nets deeper. Recruiting professionals, also passive candidates, is a tough nut to crack and there is no golden rule here. But there are some good and effective ways, which I will be happy to tell you about. It works best to combine them and use them simultaneously.

Passive candidates are not looking for a new job, but are potentially open to attractive offers. The argument for moving to a new company cannot be the infamous Fruit Tuesdays or Thursday lunches. Sometimes even a more attractive salary is not enough. The best professionals want to source a candidate that shows them the true value offered by the organisation.

Challenges of recruiting professionals in times of an employee’s market

HR professionals often think it’s all about nicely written social media posts and good money. Meanwhile, the truth is that it is a process. Moreover, one that should be carefully designed, thought out, consistent with the brand’s image and values, and started long before any employee search announcement is made in the space.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with the statement that we now have an employee’s market, there are two terms that define not only the mere acquisition of a candidate, but also a job change by a less specialised person. These terms are employer branding (EB) and candidate experience (CX).

Companies use employer branding activities to try to create their brand. To go from a peanut chocolate bar and become Snickers, to go from a sports shoe and become Adidas. They want to be instantly recognisable and become the employer of first choice, associated with very specific concepts and values.

Candidate experience, on the other hand, is the whole area of the candidate’s experiences and impressions of the recruitment process. Have they received all the relevant information? Have all their questions been answered in a satisfactory manner? Was anything omitted or forgotten? How were the responsibilities discussed with them? Was it a specific and clearly defined list, or does the company only know at this stage that it “has needs” and the rest will be specified later?

These two concepts discussed above give rise to a whole series of complications.

Challenges in the recruitment process – the basics

Firstly, the company needs to be discussed and sold to the specialist. It is impossible to do that without being aware of what the company’s differentiator is. We are talking about a unique selling point (USP). Similarly to the sales process, every company should have at least one USP that will give the candidate a lot to think about. Recruiting passive candidates is easier if the company knows what it is good at. What it is able to offer the candidate. Job offers are also easier to compare then. It is based on the principle: everyone else offers basically the same thing, but this company stands out strongly.

In the area of HR/EB, we refer to USP a little differently: candidate value proposition (CVP). It is simply about the reason why someone would join a particular company. Perhaps the most famous, albeit an indirect, example of CVP is Steve Jobs’ famous question to the manager of Pepsi. When John Sculley was considering whether to move to Apple, he heard from Jobs: “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life or come with me and change the world?”

Steve Jobs i John Sculley

Another fundamental challenge is to know the needs of the candidate. Some experts recommend creating a persona here, but I don’t entirely agree. Remember that you want to recruit a very specific person or cast your nets a little deeper, without a specific target. A persona can help, but is not the most important thing here. The key is not so much the persona as defining the competency profile of the candidate and trying to clarify their expectations. It’s all about personalisation, and a persona to some extent excludes that. Clarification is important if only to be able to dispel doubts easily.

Here, however, an important note: if the company tries to use whitewashing, i.e. understating or hiding certain facts, the specialist will want to get away from the company as fast as possible. Here I have two relevant case studies to discuss:

  1. Company X unceremoniously failing to cooperate at the first opportunity. I have seen a lot on the job market and in businesses and this knowledge was one of the motivators to start my own business. To educate, suggest, improve processes and elevate organisations to a new level. However, the case described here is quite bizarre and quite unpleasant.

Well, company X in the first half of 2020, at the very beginning of the COVID-19 situation, did not work with a group of marketing specialists. The best were brought in, including a high-profile manager who was bought up from the competition. The problem was that the company expected results but did not want to put up the money for salaries. However, quality comes at a price. Then, when the labour market crashed, the company, as if nothing had ever happened, published a number of job advertisements. Exactly the same positions for which staff had already been found. The reason naturally was simple – more people in dire straits means more choices and potentially lower rates to pay.

The worst thing about it is that none of the “old”, almost hired employees (contracts were only days away from being signed) were told anything. And then there was no response to e-mails or phone calls. The result of such behaviour? Naturally, the matter came to light and to this day the company is having problems recruiting specialists, as the turnover in marketing is considerable. If we want to cut costs, it can be done more elegantly. People remember how they were treated and this also applies to professionals who often have more “reach” when it comes to opinions.

I am quite sensitive to this, because there are a number of cultured people, but there may always be someone who, by means of word of mouth, will cause problems for such a company. It is not just about the higher costs of future recruitment. It is primarily about the difficulty of erasing a company’s negative reputation.

  • Company Y has turned chaos into its modus operandi (Latin for way of doing things). In the beginning, everything was beautiful. The company created an excellent job advertisement and attracted several professionals. With varying quality of seniority, but generally very competent. After only a few weeks, issues arose. One person was not presented with a proper position at the company and was told: “work like this for now and then we’ll see”. The position not contractually honoured was then presented as a promotion. It also emerged that some employees were given clear instructions to work even at 2 AM because the customers were from the US. In the case of this particular team, work took place, intermittently, 24 hours a day. An hour here, two hours there, three hours there… In total, about 14 hours a day instead of 8. The team finished the project and most of them resigned.

The company did not know what it actually wanted. Managers constantly changed their minds, expected responsibilities that were not in the contract, and would say to co-workers “if you don’t do this, I won’t be able to justify your salary”. Information about tasks was often contradictory, it was impossible to enforce even the simplest things from the employees, because everyone was so busy that the “wish list” had to wait. Chaos giving rise to even greater chaos.

I talk about all this for a reason. If a company is not internally organised, you can hardly expect specialists to come rolling in. The company’s internal situation will sooner or later become the subject of after-work discussions over a beer. Sooner or later it turns out that every industry is small. You absolutely want to avoid this.

So what to do? Start with the right company-wide branding. This will give you a solid foundation for further actions. Then move to a more focused human resources and employer branding strategy. Only then can you start on the recruitment process.

Challenges in the recruitment process – the process itself

The next step is the recruitment itself. Here are three elements of candidate sourcing:

  • identifying appropriate recruitment channels
  • creating an appropriate job advertisement
  • involvement of the candidate in the recruitment process

Communication channels. Contrary to what one might think, it is not that simple. Not every candidate is on Facebook, just like not every candidate follows exclusively LinkedIn. Especially since we are talking here about recruiting passive candidates who are generally not looking for a job so they need to be approached with the relevant information. A good example of this is SoftServe, which flooded my hometown of Gliwice in 2022 with a great outdoor campaign aimed at professionals. Here is an example:

SoftServe’s outdoor campaign

This visual perfectly demonstrates the company’s vision. “You can work from home or from the office. Exactly how you want it, because the company works to not restrict you. We give you the tools to deliver value in the best way. The best for you, not for us.” It does not need to be explained, it is visible at a glance, and the short slogan only reinforces the message. This is branding in practice.

If you don’t have the budget for a flaunted outdoor campaign, you might want to think about something simpler. For example, a video, which is increasingly used as a substitute for descriptions and dozens of bullet points in job advertisements. This form is also easier for independent professionals to ‘swallow’. It is also riskier and more demanding. Not only because of the budget, but above all because of the advertising film script and the creativity involved. A small budget requires a great idea.

Creating an appropriate job advertisement. Leaving aside the form (traditional ad, outdoor campaign, video, other non-standard action), the ad should attract attention. It must include responsibilities, benefits and that mythical CVP. It is also worthwhile for it to include a salary range. This topic is very controversial and many companies avoid it like hell, but I am of the opinion that the pay range should be mandatory in every ad. At a time when, increasingly, everyone knows everyone, and sophisticated business intelligence tools can do more and more, competitors will still find out how much someone earns. It is only a matter of time, new employees will surely tell others how much they earned before and how much they want to earn now. It is about something else. About transparency.

Involvement of the candidate in the recruitment process. This is by far the most difficult subject. How do you engage someone who may have come to an interview or is sitting in front of a camera on a call, but is comfortable in their current job and may just be listening out of sheer curiosity? This is where not only branding but also storytelling comes into play. It is not about embellishing anything or, even worse, lying. It is about presenting the company in an attractive way.

If you already have a CVP, think about how you can talk about it in an interesting way. If you don’t know how to do this, I can help you with the business consulting process. In essence, it is about attracting attention. Talking about how the company arrived at the values it currently holds and how they translate into everyday work. And about the meaning of this work, which is more important for a growing number of professionals. Recruiting passive candidates is not easy, not least when it comes to keeping their attention, but it can be managed.

Recruiting professionals – the best ways to fill vacancies

There are several proven ways to recruit more cheaply but just as effectively. As you are about to see, everything is based on the previously discussed processes of employer branding and candidate experience. That is why they are so important.

Sourcing candidates is a bit like dating. Getting to know each other, asking questions, seeing if the two sides fit together. And even if dating doesn’t end in a relationship, if the parties like each other, contact can be maintained. And even renewed years later. We are talking about applicant tracking systems (ATS) such as Polish e-Recruiter, Traffit, or foreign Workable or Lever. If your company uses such a system, you have an easy task. If the company has an ATS, it’s a good idea to go back through the applications received in previous recruitment processes and get back to people who wanted to work for the company at the time. You may find that despite having a new job, they are still interested.

It is also worth checking the social media accounts of such people. Quite often candidates from the pool of previous applicants announce that they are looking for a job. And even if not, the starting point for the first conversation after the break can be the specialist’s current company. Remember that passive candidates, like a large proportion of people, like to talk about themselves. You just have to give them the chance to do so and actively listen. However, you need to be careful as the ATS requires consent to process personal data.

Create content and position yourself as an opinion leader in the industry. So-called thought leadership, or authority in a given industry, is developed over months or even years. It is often assumed that a reasonable minimum time needed to build a good drive for content (primarily for B2B, but for B2C different rules apply) is two years.  This is when recipients already perceive the company as an opinion leader and make regular and numerous requests for quotations. It is the same with candidates. If you offer content that interests them, they will come to you. And this may result in an enquiry being sent from their side and a change into an active candidate. This, however, requires a content strategy for the HR/EB department.

Change your thinking and use sourcing instead of recruitment (also in the area of tools). Sourcing is actively searching the Internet (and beyond!) for suitable candidates. Portals such as LinkedIn or GoldenLine are perfect for this, but so are the right tools that make the recruiter’s job easier. These include, for example:

Emplocity. It’s a solution for sourcing employees through a chatbot. It automates the recruitment process with your website visitors. It asks questions about experience, expectations, skills and then makes an initial selection.

Mr Toomuch. An interesting plugin for Chrome to help non-technical recruiters understand technical jargon.

Slack. Yes, the same Slack used by so many companies for internal communication. Not possible? Sure it is, and this article shows you how to do it effectively. This is growth hacking.

Additional practical advice

If you are the one acting on your needs and actively searching, be aware that it is you who will be questioned. An HR representative and your company. In this situation, don’t question the candidate, just talk to them. Ask questions, but have a conversation, not a job interview. This is an important difference. Actively listen and find out what is important to the candidate. An excellent lesson has been learnt here by recruitment agencies who, even when recruiting active candidates, are increasingly asking basic questions about expectations. “What is important to you in an employer? What conditions are you most comfortable working in? What is important to you in terms of how work instructions are provided?”

If you plan any benefits, match them to the age and potential lifestyle of the employee. This, of course, is not the rule, but people aged 20-40 are likely to be interested in the Multisport card. Those who have settled down and are showing the first signs of burnout are likely to benefit from psychological services and consultations offered by an increasing number of companies. And if you don’t have a benefit that an employee would expect, then consider introducing one. Not just for them, of course, but for the whole team.

Invite a member of staff from the department with which the candidate will be working to the interview. This could be a colleague introducing them to the company (buddy), a supervisor, or simply a team member. This is about a few things. Firstly, it’s about a perspective other than that of a “salesperson”, i.e. an HR representative. Secondly, it’s about painting a better picture of the responsibilities and learning about them behind the scenes. Thirdly, it’s about a slightly less formal conversation. If the meeting takes place in person rather than by conference call, it is also good practice to send both people out to lunch together. It’s about building bonds and talking in a slightly more relaxed atmosphere.

Business lunch is a great way to shorten the distance and discover expectations

Participate in industry conferences. After all, sourcing and job offers can also take place face-to-face. Industry events are a great opportunity to meet people and pick out potentially disgruntled employees from the crowd. Or satisfied, but open to possibilities. Take advantage of this and mingle with the crowd to pick out the most talented ones.

Create events at universities. Such partnerships not only help build an employer brand among the most talented young people. They make it possible to capture the most valuable young talent and employ and train them at a very early stage of their career path. An additional benefit is that they will not be gobbled up by competitors.

Where passive candidates work, or today’s HR is more than recruitment

It is first and foremost part of the business machine and – by all means! – an element of sale of goods and services. I write about this in my latest article for project management magazine “Strefa PMI”. This is why the elements of this machine, which I emphasise at every step, are so important: employer branding, candidate experience, sourcing, etc.

Where do passive candidates work? Practically speaking… everywhere. According to a LinkedIn study, up to 70% of the global workforce are passive candidates. This makes recruitment in times of an employee’s market even more difficult. For we are no longer talking about one local market, but a global one.

Against the backdrop of widespread automation, robotisation, Big Data, algorithms and several other developments undermining the role of humans in the workplace value delivery chain, they still play a key role. Someone has to write these algorithms. Someone has to design these machine learning models. Someone has to control and analyse results. Someone has to draw conclusions and make the right decisions based on data. This cannot be done via automation; it is still the human being that is important here. Even if we are not talking about the broader new technology and IT market.

That’s not all. I dare say that one of the most important competences of the future will be the simple ability to talk to other people. And this applies both to staff recruiting people into companies and to candidates. In a world where we too often speak up to voice our opinion and too rarely to ask about something, this competence will prove crucial.

O Autorze

Jarosław Ścislak

Pracowałem nad brandingiem, rebrandingiem, skalowaniem biznesu i strategiami contentowymi dla wielu firm. Tworzyłem strategie marketingowe, contentowe, budowałem od zera działy marketingu, szkoliłem juniorów. Mogę skutecznie pomóc. Poprzez tworzenie kluczowych procesów i integrację ich w jeden ekosystem sprawię, że Twoja firma będzie pracowała dla Ciebie, a nie na odwrót. Część usług które widzisz w mojej ofercie (np. rozwój sklepów e-commerce w opozycji do platform e-commerce) wprowadziłem na rynek jako pierwszy w Polsce.