How to hire passive candidates (a guide for start-ups)

Actively recruiting can be better than referrals

This article is based on one I originally published in BusinessWeek on Dec 9, 2009. 

Hunting for the ideal job candidate? Ask any hiring managers and
they will very likely give you a ranking system for would-be hires.
Lower on the list are those actively looking for a job. High on the
list are employee referrals.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult
to elicit employee referrals on a broad enough scale. First, employees
know only so many quality candidates. Second, if you have a very
rigorous hiring process, employees will be loath to refer people unless
they are sure that person would get strong consideration.

a hiring manager to do, then? One way to get a steady flow of
high-caliber applicants is to actively seek them out. Instead of only
relying on employee referrals and active job-seekers, companies should
spend more time identifying, nurturing, and recruiting so-called
passive candidates, people who are perfectly happy in their current job
but would move to a new company if they felt there was higher growth
potential. While these candidates might not have the same
qualifications as employee referrals, they can be found on a wider

Recruiting passive candidates can be an involved and
difficult process. Because passive candidates are not looking at job
boards such as Craigslist and, you need to think of creative ways to reach out to them directly.

Web Recruiting Strategies

hunch is that at most companies, the mix of job applicants is something
like 80% active candidates, 10% passive, and 10% referrals. A better
mix would be 30% active, 60% passive, and 10% referrals. Here are some
strategies for boosting your pool of passive candidates, using the Web
and social media:

• Seek great people. Companies can seek out great people on sites such as LinkedIn, XING,
and other professional social networks. These sites house millions of
passive candidates and include tools that let would-be employers search
for candidates by geography, skills, interests, and a host of other
criteria. It may be time-consuming to message each person you consider
a good candidate, but it is among the most effective strategies.

Passove_cand_google • Advertise to candidates.
Instead of posting a job announcement that will only get read by active
job-seekers, try to find passive candidates while they are surfing the
Web. Google famously posted a candidate-seeking math puzzle on a billboard
alongside the 101 in the San Francisco Bay Area. Those who don't have
tens of thousands of dollars to spend on a billboard can advertise by
purchasing keywords that possible candidates might be searching for
online. For instance, my company, Rapleaf,
is always looking for people who are interested in Hadoop, an
open-source software framework that supports applications running
across multiple, distributed computers. So we purchase ads that will
appear when people search for keywords associated with Hadoop. The
approach has helped us find qualified candidates.

• Continually remind great people.
Once you find people and drive them to your careers page, you'll want
to continue to remind them about your company. That's because most
passive candidates who visit your careers page will only be browsing
and won't submit a résumé. A great way to continue to remind passive
candidates is through retargeted ads—ads that follow the passive
candidate wherever she or he goes on the Internet (like on the
Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, and CBS Sports). Rapleaf uses,
which helps you deliver ads to your site visitors as they navigate to
other sites. It has huge reach because it works with Yahoo's Right Media, Google's DoubleClick, and Fox Interactive. (full disclosure: I am an investor in

• Encourage others to refer candidates to you.
Ask all your employees to put a footer in their e-mails reminding
people that their company is hiring. My e-mail signature says "Note:
we're hiring amazing engineers, BD people, and a star Ops person …
refer a friend and get fully paid trip to Hawaii for two." Another
great tool is to have employees use their status lines on Facebook, Twitter,
LinkedIn, MySpace, and other social networks to let friends know their
company is hiring. A great status update might be something like: "I
love my job: come work with me" with a link to your careers site.

• Stay in touch with past applicants.
You may also want to consider sending occasional newsletters or other
communications to people who have applied in the past but, for one
reason or another, didn't get the job. They may be just the right fit
for a new opening, or they may at least know of a qualified candidate.

a company's best asset is its people, and filling open positions with
top-notch people gives your company the best chance to continue to grow
and innovate, which is especially important during these down times.

(special thanks to Michael Hsu for his help writing and editing this article)

11 thoughts on “How to hire passive candidates (a guide for start-ups)

  1. James Stratos

    Hiring A-Players is really hard. we’ve focused on employee referrals at our companies but should make a bigger effort to get passive candidates


    Auren – I was surprised you didn’t include any reference to working with a search professional or professional recruiters in your article – this is a multibillion dollar industry, and are typically used to assist hiring managers make critical decisions on talent, and also guaranty their work. Some tips on when to consider using a search professional, how to brief them, how to manage them through the process, what to expect, and how to choose the right search person would have made an excellent addition to your article, and rounded out what is an excellent piece with highly relevant info for a lot of executives. There are all types of approaches to acquiring great talent – and having a tier one search consultant is often a real driver of value creation, just like surrounding yourself with the right board, the right legal counsel, and the right accounting professionals.

  3. Jeff Staiman

    And you left out: Never hire B-players, and for the love of God don’t put B-Players into management roles.
    A-Players want to work with other great people and will be turned off by interviews or work environments where the people around them don’t meet their standards.
    And B-Players in management roles will hire C-Players because they are less astute at judging talent, and out of their own insecurity.

  4. Auren Hoffman

    thx. Yes, I have never actually worked with a retained search professional but we have had some luck with contingent search people. Like there are many great lawyers and many bad lawyers … there are some great recruiters and some terrifically bad ones. sometimes just hiring a recruiter can take a very long time.

  5. Bcroke

    Great post, couldn’t agree more. Working out these hiring issues with my current company. With passive candidates I am hesitant in leading an employee away from a company to a new job, unless I know 100% that it will be better.
    @jeff What happens when B-Players get hired in management roles cause they are friends with A-Players. I’ve seen that as a huge problem, possibly the downfall of an entire division.

  6. Kevin

    I am surprised that retained search firms are not mentioned here. Especially considering that we’re talking about start-ups who are usually shopping the talent market for senior level ‘A’ players. By that I mean top producers who can positively impact a young organization and help it get ahead which is so vital to a start-up. Retained search firms specialize in this type of search. Retained recruiters get paid a percentage of their fee in advance to conduct extensive candidate research and network for referrals. That’s why they consistently deliver elite passive candidates. You mentioned having success with contingency recruiters but I doubt that was for passive candidates, right? Contingency recruiters are just fine for finding active candidates on job boards, local database, and light referral networking. But no way does a contingency recruiter fish the deep waters and do the same thorough candidate research a retained recruiter does. They can’t afford to do so because of their business model. Thanks for the great post, Auren. Happy new year to all.

  7. Auren Hoffman

    Kevin — good points about retained search. that could be a good option for hiring a senior executive but it is not a good option for hiring a software developer or a sales rep. for high comp execs one needs a very different hiring strategy than written here.

  8. Kevin

    Hi Auren,
    Actually, a retained search is a good choice for hiring anybody at a senior level for a role that is of strategic importance to an organization. A senior level developer who will play a big role in the architecture, design, and development of a business’s flagship product for example is definitely the territory of retained search as most likely you will need to poach this person from a competitor. You won’t find ‘A’ Player developers on job boards or responding to job ads. So how do you reach them without a recruiter who will do the research to find them and then formulate a compelling enough job value proposition to entice them to leave their current position for yours? Cheers, Kevin.

  9. Harold

    Sounds like a dog and pony show. With such high unemployment companies are now are playing the labor pool lottery recycling old jobs looking for the perfect candidate that’s never quite right. Its no longer about industry development or even globalization, its about creating a social network to gossip.

  10. Paul Munder

    Hmmm… I don’t know. Perhaps you develop a relatioship with a Contingent firm that does fish deep? Or, you get a pipelining company to produce a targeted list and then your recruiting team engages with them? Many options out there. Retained is just one of them.


Leave a Reply