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Finding and Recruiting the Passive Job Seeker

Finding quality employees can be challenging, especially in a strong economy. In September 2019, the jobless rate fell .2 percentage points to 3.5%, the lowest it has been since 1969. While this is good news for businesses, and great news for people actively seeking employment, for hiring managers, it may pose a challenge. Particularly in industries where the labor markets were already tight. A low jobless rate can mean unfilled positions for weeks or months on end, causing workflow stoppage, increased costs from outsourcing, or worse.

Job boards like Monster, ZipRecruiter, and Indeed can be helpful, but they’re best for recruiting active candidates—those who are intentionally seeking new jobs and keep their profiles updated with keywords that match the type of jobs you are posting. When unemployment is low, it’s important to target both active and passive candidates.

So what is a passive candidate?

Simply someone who isn’t actively searching for a job. They could be happily (or unhappily) employed, self-employed, retired, or even a military service member who is six months from joining the civilian workforce and hasn’t begun actively searching for jobs yet.

3 Reasons for Targeting Passive Job Seekers

1: Larger Applicant Pool

It should be clear already that one reason for targeting passive job seekers is that it significantly opens up your pool of potential candidates. If you’re only targeting people who are looking for jobs, you’re missing out on people who might have exactly the skillset you need—you just need to convince them to stop what they’re doing and join your company.

2: Better Qualifications

Passive candidates are often working in or have recently retired from the same positions you want to hire them for. This means they have experience and will require less training than an active job seeker who just finished a university degree but has less experience.

A quick word about retirees—People often “retire” from a lengthy career at one organization to take advantage of a buyout package, or simply decide that it’s time for a change, while still in their 50s or early 60s. That doesn’t mean they are out of the job market for good. Often, these individuals get bored and want to come back to work. A new company setting can be energizing for them.

3: More Precision

You know who your competitors are. You know who the sought-after speakers are at industry conferences. You know the best graduate programs that put out highly qualified candidates. Identifying and targeting candidates from highly qualified sources like these means you can increase the precision of your efforts.

How to Catch a Passive Job Seeker’s Attention

What was your first thought when you read that headline? Most people would probably think, “It’s easy, just offer more money.” Which would be followed by a second thought, “We can’t afford to pay more than industry standard.” Thankfully money isn’t the only motivator that works to attract passive candidates. In fact, it might not even be the best motivator.

So let’s start by assuming that if you can offer more money, you will, and if money is enough to motivate a passive job seeker to accept your position, they’ll take it.

Now that we’ve gotten that topic out of the way, let’s look at more creative ways to motivate passive job seekers to join your company.

It starts with strategy. If you’re thinking of the position you need to fill as a one-off, you’re making a mistake. Every business decision, including hiring, should be strategic, and should align with your overall company strategy. By aligning your hiring strategy with your company strategy, you’ll ensure that new employees know what they are signing up for from day one.

Starbucks does a great job at this.

Starbucks: A Short Case Study

When I graduated college, it was on the tail end of the Great Recession, and I got a job at Starbucks so I would have insurance while I was building my first business. What stands out to me to this day is the way they emphasized their customer-centric strategy. From Howard Schultz on down, the message was: “If you serve the customer, you can do no wrong.”

That’s an incredible thing to say to a new hire. By empowering new employees with that mentality, they create a workplace and environment full of energy that delights customers and builds on their core brand strategy, creating comparative advantage against their competitors.

So what’s your strategy, how is it related to your comparative advantage, and how can you use it to engage passive candidates?

Some possibilities:

Company Culture

If your company is widely recognized for its fun vibes, healthy work/life balance, or some other aspect of its culture, this can be a powerful incentive for reaching passive candidates. (For an interesting discussion on how company culture can make a qualitative difference between two similar companies, read this). Another reason to lead with company culture is that you want team members who enjoy participating in your work environment. If your company culture is serious, but your new hire is lighthearted, s/he may not last very long and you’ll be going through the whole process again soon.

Challenging Problems

There’s a myth out there that says employees are lazy and don’t want to work. The truth is, lazy employees are often a sign that they aren’t being challenged. Humans by nature like to encounter and solve challenges, particularly when they feel supported and have the freedom to fail. One way to attract passive candidates is to present the nature of the challenges a new hire will get to work on. You can imagine that an auto engineer might be more inspired to work on the latest Tesla model than on a reboot of a GM pickup. Why? Because the problems Tesla is trying to solve are inspiring.

Meaningful Work

Increasingly, consumers are requiring corporations to participate in socially responsible business practices. But pressure also comes internally from employees. You can leverage your own corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts when reaching out to passive job candidates by pointing out the good they will be participating in, whether locally, nationally, or internationally. For example, well paid employees at a firm that recently received significant PR for unethical dealings at the C-suite level might be easily convinced to switch to a similar firm that actively promoted positive values. Just remember—employees are savvy. If they think your CSR is an afterthought, or isn’t genuine, they won’t want to work for you any more than they wanted to work for their previous company. Corporate social responsibility has to flow from strategy, and it has to be modeled from the top and introduced to employees on day one.

Getting Your Message in Front of Passive Job Candidates

Okay, let’s say you’ve identified your strategy and landed on solid messaging that is authentic to your brand and company culture. How do you actually get your message in front of the people you’re interested in hiring?

Start with your employees. You can offer an incentive for referrals that lead to a successful hire, but you don’t have to. When people work at a company they love, they have no trouble referring friends and former classmates for jobs. Plus, employees with friends in the workplace have been shown to be more engaged.

Another way to get your message out there is to personalize your targeting. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received what are clearly template emails from recruiters. They go straight in the trash. If you have a candidate you are serious about, spend a few minutes learning about them, and then reach out with an email or phone call that shows you’ve done due diligence and that you’re actually interested in that specific candidate. You should also consider having a manager reach out. 94% of candidates report that they are more likely to take a job if a manager contacts them.

Finally, consider outsourcing your recruiting to an agency. Far from admitting defeat, there’s a strong case to be made that outsourcing should be one of your first thoughts. Here’s why: Your time and energy are best spent on your company’s core competencies. Unless you’re a recruiting agency, finding new employees is unlikely to be a core competency and may end up being a distraction. There are great agencies out there who will really get to know your business and then help you find candidates that match your culture and strategy.

Closing Thoughts

There are plenty of reasons to target passive job seekers, including a larger job pool, better qualifications, and more precision. And I’ve given you several options you can use to reach them where they are at. Just remember, the key long term is to make sure that your recruiting strategy is derived from your overall business strategy and flows from your company culture.

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