Recruitment 101: Active vs. Passive Job Seekers

Phil Kendall & Anna Roberts

Feb 2017 ⋅ 10 min read

Are you currently looking for a job? Probably not. But how would you respond if someone got in touch with an amazing job offer? You'd obviously consider it.

There is more than one type of job seeker. Here is your jargon-free guide to the differences between active and passive candidates, and what they mean for your recruitment strategy.

What is an active candidate?
Active candidates are actively searching for a new job. Their CV is up to date and they've uploaded it online. They keep track of the latest postings on various job boards and are in contact with recruiters.

Active candidates aren't necessarily unemployed - instead, they might be looking for a job that better suits their schedule, or an escape from a job that they dislike.

These job seekers only make up around a third of the workforce at any given time.

What is a passive candidate?
Passive job seekers aren't looking for job opportunities, but they will consider any vacancies that are brought to their attention.

Passive candidates probably already have a job that they're happy with, and they have no plans to move on. Therefore, they haven't got an up to date CV on hand. However, if a recruiter, headhunter or friend suggests a job opportunity, they might look into it.

More than half of the workforce fall into this category.

What about the rest of the workforce?
Some recruitment experts argue that a third group of job seekers lies in between these two - often referred to as 'actively passive' job seekers or 'tiptoers'. These candidates are sprucing up their LinkedIn profiles, cautiously asking friends if they know of any job opportunities, and researching companies, job roles and market salaries - but they're incredibly picky about what they apply for.

Of course, there's also a small portion of the workforce who have no interest at all in finding a new job and will never consider job vacancies, regardless of how attractive they are.

What does this mean for your recruitment strategy?

Active and passive are distinct categories of candidate. The lines between them may not be so stark in reality, but you can use the differences between these two groups to better plan your recruitment strategy.

Even if you don't use these exact terms, they'll still help you think about how best to reach your target candidates.

Let's look at when you should target each of these groups.

Active Candidates

active hiker

Most jobs, particularly entry level jobs, are filled by active candidates. Here's why:

  • Active candidates come to you via online (or hard copy) application forms.
  • On average, active candidates will settle for a lower salary than passive candidates.
  • It takes fewer resources to gain an application from an active candidate than a passive candidate.
  • Active candidates tend to be able to attend interviews and start work at short notice.

In other words, it's easier and cheaper to find active candidates, particularly at short notice.

Reaching active candidates effectively
The quality of active candidates varies considerably. If you want to secure high-quality active candidates, here are some great tips:

  • Where applicable, use industry-specific job boards
  • Build a candidate persona to help you identify attributes of the perfect applicant
  • Avoid generic job descriptions
  • Screen candidates by phone before inviting them for interviews
  • Be upfront about salary/wage

Active candidates aren't difficult to find - but high-quality active candidates can be somewhat more elusive!

The Downsides
Recruiting active candidates can have some downsides. These candidates might be lacking in experience, or their skills could be a little rusty. You might need to invest more to train these staff and get them back up to speed.

Of course, every active candidate is different - and there's a very real chance you'll find the perfect applicant amongst your next crop of active jobseekers.

Passive Candidates

office worker taking notes on phone

Most companies aren't used to courting passive candidates. Reaching out to individually-selected candidates is clearly resource intensive, and although you can significantly increase hire quality through this tactic, for many businesses it's simply not worthwhile.

There are certainly some circumstances where you might wish to reach out to these types of candidates. In fact, some recruitment experts think that passive candidates consistently make the best hires. Here's why:

  • You can count on candidates having the exact skills you need
  • You know they've got recent experience in your field
  • If they accept the job, you know it's because they're genuinely excited about it instead of just accepting the offer out of desperation
  • They're unlikely to need much training
  • The best performers in a field are more likely to be passive jobseekers

The candidates with the right skills are more likely to already be happily employed. By targeting passive jobseekers, you can seek the very best candidates for your job role - something you'd be very unlikely to achieve through only job posting.

Reaching passive candidates effectively
This is the tricky part.

Small businesses, in particular, may struggle to find the resources to commit to searching for passive candidates at scale.

That's because it involves:

  1. Identifying potential applicants via social media or other channels
  2. Approaching prospects over social media
  3. Following up with an email conversation
  4. Following up again with a phone call

Each step requires time. If you want to get results, you need to take even more time to personalise the approach you take for each and every prospect.

You might need to do some research to find some common ground (maybe you're both members of a LinkedIn group, or you both shared a particular article from a key influencer).

That means you'll need to spend at least a couple of hours on the search and preparation before you can even consider reaching out to a single candidate. You could write and publish multiple job postings in that time.

There's also the risk of being ignored at each step, and seeing all that time investment wasted.

Mastering the Art of Passive Recruitment

planning in an office

Tempted to try your luck and pursue passive candidates?

The four steps above cover the entire process, but you'll soon learn that your success rate will vary significantly depending on how you approach each step.

Identifying Candidates

If you're trying to find passive candidates without the help of a recruitment agency, here are some routes to go down:

  • LinkedIn. Search for a job title and a location on LinkedIn and see a list of professionals who fit the bill. Depending on the size and reach of your network on LinkedIn, you may need to sign up for a premium account in order to message potential candidates using InMail, the site's built-in messaging service. Sign up to and post in suitable LinkedIn groups to further boost your reach.
  • Twitter. Twitter is the next best social media channel for reaching out to candidates. Build a network and start conversations. Twitter's built-in search tool is lacking, but as you follow more professionals, the site's algorithm will get better at suggesting similar individuals to follow.
  • Offline networking. Old-school networking still works! Attend industry events, hand out business cards and put your name out there. You're not going to source many candidates at the events themselves, but you'll build up a pool of passive candidates who might get in touch in the future.
  • Google. Depending on the job role you're looking to fill, you may be able to find suitable CVs via the candidates' own websites. Make use of Google's advanced search options to find suitable results.
  • Portfolio sites. Designers, programmers and writers may showcase their work on sites like Carbonmade and Dribbble,Behance, and even sites like Tumblr.
  • Candidate sourcing sites. These sites sell you passive candidate profiles and contact details based on the specific job roles and skills you require. They can be a little pricey, and you'll get variable quality results. Workable is a good place to start.
  • Referrals. Let your employees do the hard work for you by setting up an employee referral program.

These methods aren't quick and easy - at least not compared with posting an ad on a job board!

Finding candidates is just the start. Now comes the tricky part - approaching candidates.

Approaching Prospects

If you use LinkedIn, you'll certainly have been approached by plenty of recruiters. Some will try to add you to their network, while others will take advantage of InMail to reach out without requiring your acceptance!

More rarely, company founders or senior managers might reach out to you over LinkedIn.

How do you typically respond to these approaches?

If you're anything like us, you ignore them 99% of them.

Why should your approaches be treated any differently?

Let's look at some of the ways to boost your chances of having your message read and responded to:

  • Avoid cold messaging, if possible. Before you pester prospects with news of your empty job role, interact with them in a different way. Share one of their tweets, comment on a LinkedIn post, or shoot over a quick email with a link to an article you think they might be interested in. When you do message them about the role, name recognition will increase your success rate.
  • Personalise. Make it clear that you've paid attention to their social media feeds and you understand the nature of their current role and previous experience. Mention any shared interests. Find common ground.
  • Keep it short. Passive candidates don't have the time to read essay length pitches. Keep the initial approach to a couple of paragraphs.
  • Talk about them, not you. Say why you think they'd be a great fit for the role. Explain how they'll benefit from working at your company.
  • A senior manager should be the sender. Many of us automatically ignore messages from recruiters or people in HR departments. Instead, a relevant senior manager should be the one to send the first message.
  • Avoid a sales-oriented (or dull) subject line. Over-the-top subject lines such as 'An amazing career opportunity!!' look spammy and don't reflect well on your company. Generally, the best subject lines are those which evoke curiosity - such as 'Quick question'. You could also use the title of a recent blog post they've written as the subject line, then go on to praise it in the first paragraph.

This advice applies regardless of platform.

If you don't receive a response after a week, send a quick follow-up message in case they missed it the first time. If that doesn't net you a response, let it go.



A post shared by Sad Recruiter (@sadrecruiter) on

If you receive a positive response, you're through the hardest part - but there's still time to screw up!

Your follow-ups are a little easier to formulate. You use them to share more details about the job role and your company, whilst learning more about what the candidate wants - particularly compared with their current job.

Here's where your careers page and employer brand start to matter. The candidate will be giving your company a thorough Google to see if your messages reflect the reality of working at your company. They'll look at Glassdoor, your social media channels, customer or client reviews, and maybe even the LinkedIn profiles of other employees at your company.

Passive candidates have a lot to lose if they accept your offer and it doesn't work out, so they're allowed to be extra fussy!

It's also important to have some effective rebuttals on hand to counter any 'no's. This is especially important if you're speaking over the phone. Try to use open questions that can't be dismissed with a 'no', such as 'How would you improve on your current job?'.

If, after much perseverance, you find that the job isn't a good fit after all, you can stay in contact and get in touch again if a more suitable opportunity arises - it'll be much easier to pick up where you left off instead of starting from scratch with a new passive candidate.

The final and arguably most critical part of the process is the application itself.

After all your emails and phone calls, if you direct your candidate towards a tedious application process that's identical to the one experienced by active candidates, they'll switch off.

Passive candidates want an application process that's:

  • Extremely quick
  • Doesn't require a CV or references
  • Flexible
  • Mostly or entirely remote

Does your current system fit the bill? Unless you plan on hiring a high volume of candidates, you can probably process applications from passive candidates via email or a spreadsheet. If you're struggling to manage applications, look into applicant tracking systems.

Passive vs. Active Jobseekers: FAQs

Are passive candidates better than active candidates?
Not necessarily. Although it's easy to assume that the more competent candidates are currently employed, active candidates may have more of a drive to impress and succeed. Decide which approach to use based on the resources you have available, the job role in question, and the competitiveness of the market.

Do I need to work with a recruiter to secure passive candidates?
Recruiters certainly have access to more data on passive candidates than the average SME, but you certainly approach passive candidates without the help of a recruiter. In fact, your success rates might actually improve if you offer something different from the usual recruiter spiel.

Should I target passive candidates for temporary and seasonal roles?
In most circumstances, it's not worth sinking vast resources into passive recruitment for seasonal workers, but employee referrals remain incredibly valuable for these types of vacancy.

What kind of salary increase do passive candidates expect?
To tempt the very best candidates away from their current roles, be prepared to offer a salary 15-30% higher than what they currently earn. These candidates are expensive, but their worth to the company should make that investment worthwhile.

No-one replies to our initial outreach messages. What are we doing wrong?
If you receive a pitiful open and reply rate, there's probably something wrong with your template. Personalise it more. Check for spelling and grammar errors. Try a different approach to subject lines. Don't copy and paste the job description into your first message - instead, talk about them.

I don't have time to reach out to passive candidates right now, but we still want to attract the best candidates. Is there some middle ground?
You can start an informal employee referral program and reward employees following successful hires. If it works, formalise and expand the program.

Final Thoughts

Passive candidates are harder to reach than active candidates, but you're often rewarded for your extra effort with access to higher quality candidates. Don't give up on active candidates just yet - there's still a good chance you'll find the perfect candidate via old school methods.

There's no point chasing passive candidates for every single vacancy - reserve it for the most competitive, critical roles at your company. Working with a recruiter might make this process a little easier, but by carefully targeting your own messages for passive candidates, the DIY approach can work, too.

After more recruiting tips? Head back through our HR archives.