The Real Reason Employers Love ‘Passive Candidates’

By: By: Liz Ryan

It is shameful but true that many employers prefer to hire currently-employed job applicants over applicants who aren’t working.

Beyond that, many employers prefer to reach out to currently-employed people and ask them “Would you consider working for us?”

These folks are called “passive candidates.” They aren’t even candidates for a job until someone from the employer reaches them out of the blue.

Why would any employer prefer someone a recruiter finds on LinkedIn — someone who may never have heard of your company — to someone who has invested time and energy reaching out to you to inquire about employment?

Why would any organization prefer to woo currently-employed people over job-seekers who care enough to contact them?

If we did not understand how important fear is in the business world, the “passive candidate” craze would make no sense.

The fear of making a hiring mistake is so pervasive that some employers judge job applicants by their employment status, although it has nothing to do with their talent or intelligence.

There are many reasons why brilliant people get laid off, get fired or quit their jobs.

There is nothing about being unemployed that makes someone a ‘problem employee’ or less than capable, but bureaucracy is a slow and stupid beast.

Sadly, I have heard HR leaders and other managers defend their passive-candidates-first hiring practices. Here are some of their arguments:

  1. If someone is working now, we know they create value for their employer. If they’re not working now, we don’t know that. (False!)
  2. Unemployed candidates may have lost their skill sets since they stopped working. (Absurd.)
  3. When we favor ‘passive’ candidates over active job-seekers, it’s because in that case we don’t have to worry about the circumstances surrounding their departure from their last job. (Most people get laid off because there’s a shortage of work, get fired because of a personality conflict with the boss or quit because they want and need a better job. What’s scary about that?)

When people follow the pack at work or anywhere else, it’s because of their fear. They don’t want to make their own decisions, in case they make a bad one.

Passive candidates are no more qualified, enthusiastic or capable than active job-seekers are but fearful managers convince themselves they are.

Here are the real reasons some employers prefer “passive” candidates to active ones:

  1. Managers who don’t trust their own instincts for finding talent can ask recruiters to source “passive” candidates currently working for their competitors. It feels great to poach someone from a rival firm! It feels solid and above reproach. The process becomes more important than the person who gets hired!
  2. It is easy (and lazy) to slice the population in half and decide without a shred of evidence that currently-employed people are more desirable than unemployed folks. That decision relieves a manager or HR person of the risk they might take on if they dared to hire someone who isn’t working now. (If this person doesn’t work out, I’ll get blamed!)
  3. Some managers, HR people and CEOs are biased against unemployed candidates for no reason except the ancient superstition that only bad employees get laid off or fired. They can delude themselves that if they favor “passive” candidates, they will only hire super stars. It takes grit and guts to quit a job that isn’t working for you.

Employers who favor passive candidates can’t see that. Their fear blinds them.

It is hypocritical for employers to prefer passive candidates unless they also assume that their own employees are open to contacts from other firms and approve of that activity.

It is unethical to engage in passive-candidate outreach while discouraging or forbidding their own employees to accept similar overtures.

If you are job-hunting and you aren’t working now, your first assignment is to order business cards for your new consulting business.

You are a job-seeker no longer — you are a consultant now! Update your LinkedIn profile and your resume to include your consulting business.

The new-millennium working world requires all of us to grow new muscles. Not every employer deserves you.

What feels like rejection to a job-seeker is often a push up to a higher altitude and a reminder that you will never be everyone’s cup of tea, no matter how hard you might try.

You only need one eyes-open manager to see your talent. The faster you run away from the people who don’t get you and thus don’t deserve you, the sooner the right people will find you!

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