Skip to main content

Recruiting Active vs. Passive Candidates

Who should recruiters focus on: active or passive candidates?

There’s no clear cut answer here — applicants will always be a central part of the recruiting process, but it’s becoming increasingly important to think about the people that aren’t applying as well.

Passive candidates are not necessarily better than active candidates, but they make up a whopping 70% of the talent market. If you don’t have some kind of strategy to recruit passives, you’re fishing from a very small pond.

What is the difference between passive and active candidates?

Active candidates: these people are actively looking for new opportunities and are available to start a new role in the very near future. They’re the candidates that apply for jobs.

Passive candidates: these people are currently employed. They’re not actively looking for work, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in moving. They may not be available immediately and they don’t usually apply for jobs organically.

A successful recruiting strategy needs to address both groups. Here’s why:

Fishing with a spear or a net

No matter how much you invest in your employer brand and no matter how targeted your job ads are, many of the candidates that apply for your open roles will not be the right fit.

‘Active candidate recruiting’ is a little like fishing with a net. You’re casting it far and wide in hopes that you catch what you’re looking for. You’re usually successful, but you have to spend a lot of time filtering out all the other fish to get to the few you were actually hoping to catch.

Fishing with a net doesn’t always work though — sometimes you need a spear.

When you recruit passive candidates, you carefully select people that are a great fit for the role and your business. As a team, you make a conscious decision about the candidates you’re going to go after. It’s more strategic, and you can be a lot more targeted.

Then you go fishing!

Active candidates aren’t active for long

There is a finite number of active candidates on the market which makes the competition intense. Most people you speak to will be interviewing at multiple other companies at the same time.

If you blink, you might miss out on some great candidates — the very best talent is often off the market within just 10 days.

This can be even more extreme for ‘hard to fill’ technical roles — Stack Overflow founder Joel Spolsky claims that many developers only apply for four jobs over their entire career. Unless you’re lucky enough to be hiring at one of those four moments, you’re probably going to miss out.

“When we’re competing from a tech candidate standpoint with the Bay Area and Seattle and Austin… we definitely have to seek passive candidates for those roles.” – Christa Foley, Senior HR Manager at Zappos

There simply aren’t enough available active candidates for these highly in demand roles. You have to start speaking to people who haven’t submitted an application.

Passive candidates represent a huge opportunity

Nowadays, if you have a compelling job opportunity, most people will be open to at least having a conversation. No matter how happy someone is at work, the grass could always be greener elsewhere — people tend to move jobs every couple of years and rarely spend their whole career in one place.

Since the bulk of the market is passive, everyone is a potential candidate for your company.

Recruiting passive candidates

Passive candidates aren’t going to apply directly, so you need to approach them a little differently.


This is where your sourcing team becomes invaluable. You need to be proactive and identify passive candidates that you think could be a good fit, instead of waiting for them to apply.

Bear in mind that passive candidates are unlikely to be interviewing elsewhere, so if you can get them interested, you face far less competition for their attention.

Pro tip: Personalization

Because these candidates aren’t job hunting, the way you ‘sell’ your role becomes even more important. See how top sourcers use personalization to connect with passive candidates.

Talent pooling

Many candidates that you speak to won’t be ready to move immediately. That doesn’t mean you should forget about them — these people should become part of your talent pool.

Talent pools are shortlists of candidates that are not currently being considered for an open role (e.g. not applicants). Usually, pools are full of people that your company is considering for future roles.

Keeping these candidates ‘warm’ with marketing campaigns means that when new roles open up, your company already has a pool of leads to dip into. The search doesn’t have to start from scratch.

Why does an organization need a Talent Lifecycle Management system?

Top candidates have more options than ever before, and in such a competitive setting, every aspect of the recruiting experience matters. It’s on the talent acquisition function to design a new way of working that will bring in the best talent.

A full service, Talent Lifecycle Management solution can help companies manage every stage of the talent lifecycle — everything from career sites and sourcing, to talent marketing and communications, to talent mobility and alumni management.

Find out how a Talent Lifecycle Management solution can help your business attract today’s top active and passive talent.