10 Commandments of Recruiting Passive Candidates

How to increase your passive-candidate recruiting effectiveness by more than 200%

Lou Adler
Adler Concepts • lou@adlerconcepts.com
During my 25 years of recruiting experience, I’ve learned a few important principles about how to effectively recruit passive candidates. I would now like to pass these on to you.

Most of these principles were learned by trial and error, and while they might not all be applicable to your specific situation, collectively, they offer a pretty decent road map of what it takes to hire more top passive candidates on a consistent basis. Your thoughts on the usefulness of these principles in today’s market would be appreciated; please contact me. Thanks.

Here are my 10 commandments for recruiting and hiring more top passive candidates:

1. You must know the job and why it’s exceptional.

Top passive candidates who don’t know you will not speak to you for more than two or three minutes, nor give you any top referrals unless you know the job. Top passive people aren’t looking, so to get them to look, you must offer instant credibility with a job that offers significant upside potential. I suggest using a performance profile to define the real job. It describes the major challenges and problems required for job success. Recruiters who know the job this way are more confident when calling, and they can use the screening process to create an opportunity gap. This is the difference between the person’s current job and the new job.

2. You must become a partner with your hiring-manager clients.

If your hiring managers won’t put in the extra effort, if they won’t spend more time conducting exploratory interviews, and if they won’t fight for a little extra compensation, your success at recruiting top passive candidates will be limited. That’s why being a partner rather than a vendor in the process is critical. (See articles on becoming a partner on my website.) Recruiters who are partners have more influence. Managers will then interview candidates who meet most of the requirements of the performance profile, even if they don’t have all of the requirements listed on the job description. Bridging this gap is the key to hiring more passive candidates. Becoming a partner starts by preparing a performance profile, developing a mutual agreement, committing to put in the extra effort required to recruit passive candidate, and then delivering top people.

3. You must limit the number of calls to “unworthy” candidates.

An unworthy candidate is someone who isn’t competent or doesn’t know any good people. A worthy candidate is someone who is a potential finalist or someone who personally knows a top person who could be a finalist. Since each cold-call to an unknown person takes at least 15 minutes (to call, engage, screen, recruit, and get referrals), it takes a lot of time to develop a short list of three or four well-qualified and interested passive candidates. Spending these 15 minutes with an unworthy person is a waste of time.

4. You must know how to work a cold list.

Whether you use ZoomInfo or a Shally Steckerl data-mining technique to find names of potential candidates (my two personal favorites), these are all cold leads, so you don’t know if they’re worthy or not. When calling these types of lists, it’s best to limit your initial calling to the best 10 to 15 people based on titles and companies. Your goal is to call these people and separate them into two pools: worthy and unworthy. Then, only network with people from the worthy list. My experience indicates that for every 10 worthy people you call, you’ll get one finalist and six great referrals. This takes about three hours. If you call a random list of cold names, it takes 30 to 40 calls to get one finalist and no referrals.

5. You must recruit the person directly before getting names.

To maximize results, recruit the person directly when you call someone for the first time, rather than using an indirect networking approach. People will be more interested and more likely to call back when there is something in it for themselves. To get them excited, leave a voice mail that clearly indicates you’re leading a recruiting effort for a senior-level position in the person’s field. When you get the person on the phone, ask her if she would be open to explore a situation if it were clearly superior to what she is doing today. Most people will say yes if you sound credible, confident, and professional. Our statistics show that you’ll get two to three times the number of calls back, in addition to in-depth career conversations when the person you’re calling believes the opportunity you’re representing is a potential new career move for him or her.

6. You must engage with the person for at least 10 minutes to establish your professionalism.

When the person says that he would be open to explore a situation if it were clearly better, you must not tell him anything about the job. This is a critical moment. You must get him to tell you about his background first. You have leverage (candidate control) when the person says yes. Don’t lose it by telling him about the job. If the job is uninteresting to him, you’ve lost the candidate and the chance to get referrals. Try this to get the candidate to talk first: “Great. Why not give me a two-minute overview of your background; then, I’ll give you a quick two-minute overview of the opportunity. If it seems mutually interesting, we can schedule some time later to talk in-depth.” It takes about six to eight minutes to conduct a quick work history review. During this time, you’re determining if the person is worthy and a potential finalist. Equally important: You’re developing rapport with the candidate and demonstrating your professionalism.

7. You must not take “no” for an answer.

An “I’m not interested” response, or some facsimile thereof, when you first call someone does not mean the person is not interested in exploring another situation. It means the person does not want to talk to you. This is big difference. People don’t make long-term career decisions moments after they get a call from someone they don’t know. That’s why the questions you ask and how you leave voice mails are so important. A “no” is okay if the person has the correct information to make a reasoned decision. The recruiter’s primary job is to persist and set the stage for the candidate to obtain the necessary information to make a wise long-term career decision. This starts by not taking “no” for an answer.

8. You must have rebuttals for every major concern.

It’s even better if you anticipate these concerns and objections before they’re brought up. While most people won’t say “no” to the “Would you be willing to explore a situation if it was clearly better than what you’re doing today?” question, you must have a response when the person does says “no.” One of my favorite responses is, “That’s exactly why we need to talk.” This is an attention-getting mechanism. Follow up with a discussion of why spending a few minutes to talk about a potential long-term career move is worth it. Most people will agree to go forward as long as you persist and can provide some logical rationale to continue.

9. You must proactively network only with worthy candidates to get more worthy candidates.

This is what effective networking is all about. Most top people won’t give you more names unless you recruit them first. If the person is great, but not a perfect fit for your open position, you must then convert the recruiting call to a networking call. If the person is overqualified, ask her to tell you about other great people she worked with at prior companies. Say you want to continue networking with these people, but you only want to talk to top performers who know other top performers. Done properly, 75% of these people will give you the names of other great people.

10. You must maintain applicant control.

Don’t give up your leverage if the person turns out to be a potential candidate. Top people will stay engaged and ultimately accept offers without a big compensation increase if the job offers great potential. That’s why creating an opportunity gap during the first screening call is so important and why the candidate must talk first. Look for areas of possible job growth as you ask about the person’s background. Then suggest that in the next round of interviews, the candidate will learn if there’s enough job stretch to consider moving.

That’s it. But, if you skip a step or do the steps out of order, you will be less effective. Establishing credibility with hiring managers and candidates alike is the key to hiring top passive candidates. It all starts by preparing a performance profile and then picking up the phone and calling someone you don’t know and asking, “Would you be open to explore a situation if it was significantly better than what you’re doing now?”

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