For Employers
Active Vs. Passive Candidates: Recruiting On Baseless Merit

Here’s a topic that’s near and dear to my heart: recruiters’ and employers’ preference of sourcing and hiring passive (non-job-seeking) candidates over active (job-seeking) candidates, and discrimination against the unemployed or anyone seeking employment.

Sixteen years ago, I worked for a New York City ad agency that was sold to a larger company and, along with many other employees, I was laid off. As I began to embark upon my new job search, 9/11 happened, leaving the city and much of the country in a deep recession. I tried to look on the bright side – certainly there were people who were dealing with much worse than I was. But nevertheless, I was unemployed, and unfortunately stayed that way for many months after.

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When I eventually reentered the workforce in the recruiting industry, I soon discovered what could have been one of the contributing factors to my long stretch of unemployment. Many recruiting firms often sell clients on the fact that they only recruit passive candidates, and many employers simply demand it. Over the next several years, I worked job searches for clients who would only hire candidates who were already employed. I sourced candidates for recruiters who wouldn’t even consider them if they weren’t currently working, even for positions that had gone unfilled for long periods due to their specialized skill requirements. And through it all, I wondered…am I now contributing to the same cycle of unemployment that I had been caught in a few years ago?

Discrimination based on employment status is nothing new in the recruiting world. Recently, it became enough of an issue for states like New Jersey, Oregon and Washington, D.C. to pass laws outlawing it. But in most states, employment status is not a protected class. Even if it were, how many unemployed workers have the time, money or drive to pursue a lawsuit against a potential employer who insists on hiring passive candidates? How would they even prove that their state of unemployment affected the employer’s decision not to interview them? And assuming they could, let’s not overlook how a legal victory in their favor would affect their future job search.

The perception

In the working world, there are many perceptions that are held so tightly that they often take years, even decades, to break. One of those is the perceived notion that passive candidates are superior to active candidates. Active candidates are desperate, and there must be some deep-rooted reason why they’re unemployed. If they had the skills and drive to be successfully employed, they already would be. If they were willing to work hard, they would have channeled that passion into their job search. Passive candidates are comfortably employed because they deserve to be. Luring them away from their current employer with a better salary and benefits will certainly result in a better hire than someone who is willing to accept anything. Unfortunately, none of these are true.

The reality

Have you ever known a good employee to lose his or her job? Have you ever worked with a bad employee? Of course! Everyone who has held a job can answer “yes” to both of these. So what makes so many recruiters and hiring managers associate “employed” with “better employee” and “unemployed” with “lesser employee?” Certainly there are occasional cases of employees losing their jobs by their own fault, then not being able to get rehired for good reason. But there are far more excellent employees who have lost their jobs by no fault of their own, and are willing to do whatever is necessary to reenter the workforce and prove themselves.

Any recruiter or hiring manager who disqualifies candidates based only on employment status without taking into account previous work experience, education, skill set, personality, drive and determination is doing their employer a huge disservice. Substituting any or all of these qualities with the simple requirement of being currently employed is a quick and easy path to a bad hire, thus forcing the employer to start the search process over again from square one. Furthermore, only considering passive candidates increases the chances of hiring job hoppers, who are only interested in salary and perks, and will jump ship again as soon as a better offer comes along. Active candidates are far less likely to take a job offer for granted, and more likely to work that much harder to impact the company, enhance their skill set, assimilate into the company culture, and prove their worth to the employer who was willing to give them a second chance.

There are few employees who are lucky enough to retire without ever having experienced a day of unemployment. Those of us who have been unemployed know that if every employer only hired passive candidates, a layoff or termination would mean the end of one’s career and a bleak financial future. It’s therefore up to recruiters to consider both active and passive candidates for job searches, and to educate clients on the benefits of recruiting based on skills, experience and culture fit as opposed to employment status. After all, the more active candidates that rejoin the workforce, the more passive candidates that will exist for the next job search!

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