Settling the Active vs. Candidate Debate

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  • Linked_In_Cropped_Kim.jpgBy Kim Cole, Cofounder of The Sales Zone

    Let's settle the "active candidates are better than passive candidates" debate once and for all!

    With unemployment among college-educated workers at an all-time low, a common misconception about active versus passive candidates is once again floating around. During the tech boom of the late 90’s we first heard the term ‘War for Talent’ which came about as a result of companies not being able to fill positions fast enough. Recruiters and hiring managers clambered for a more proactive way to find candidates. Somehow a perception formed that a so-called passive candidate was better than an active one. In addition to that, syndicated research companies sell data suggesting that passive candidates are somehow better. At The Sales Zone, we have a different perspective informed by more than 15 years of being in the search and placement business.

A Simple Definition

An active candidate is a job seeker who has made the emotional decision to look for a new job and most likely make a job change, while a passive candidate has not. It’s as simple as that. 

One is not better than the other. One is easier to recruit and one is more difficult to recruit. Can you guess which is which? If you guessed that active candidates are easier to recruit, then you guessed correctly.

Active Candidates Typically Have the Following Qualities:

  • They have a completed resume
  • Active candidates are receptive to a conversation about a job change and are ready to engage in the interview process
  • Their LinkedIn profile is complete or nearly complete with a picture, and accurate company data that uses the latest company logos, etc.
  • They may or may not be employed

Passive Candidates Can Illicit Some of the Following Qualities:

  • They have to “dust off” their resume
  • They may not be as attentive to their LinkedIn profile, making it difficult to determine what they are all about (granted, this is rapidly changing as people begin to realize how important their personal brand is to them as professionals)
  • They might be interested in what you have to say, but they are not psychologically ready tofully engage in a job search and the interviewing process
  • They need to hear compelling reasons why the opportunity and your company are worthy of consideration while they are busy in other aspects of their life
  • They are not yet at the point where they feel like they have to sell themselves in order to obtain a job
  • They can be anywhere from three to 18 months away from making a job change from the time they receive their first phone call about a potential new opportunity
  • They may or may not be employed (I am presently working with an unemployed passive candidate who chose to leave a company in order to take stock of what type of opportunity is best suited for him; he's in no hurry and is "interviewing companies" who might be a fit for him)

Are You Trained to Recruit Passive Candidates?

Your internal and agency recruiters should be able to fully represent your company (including its strategy and hiring needs) to candidates; so should your hiring managers as well as everyone in the interviewing loop.

Ask yourself this question: “is my interviewing team trained to court potentially passive candidates and sell the benefits of our company and industry versus simply conducting a one-sided interview where we act like we are in the driver's seat?” And if everyone is prepared for this assignment, are you prepared for what comes next? Namely, getting the candidate to shift their behavior so that they will go into active interviewing mode and begin to sell themselves and to understand that, just because you reached out to them, at a certain point they will be no different than any other potential employee should they come to work for you. We have observed passive candidates acting as though they somehow enjoy a certain status because of how they entered the hiring stream ("you chose me"). While recruiters can bring passive candidates to your door by requesting that they simply, hear you out and entertain an informational interview, the hard work of landing a passive candidate falls to those who ultimately make the hiring decision.

We have also seen an interesting dynamic occur when we have presented a passive candidate to a client for an informational interview. The passive candidate comes to an interview ready to listen and learn, but not necessarily to make a case for themselves, close for next steps, or generally move the process along. This posture is off-putting to some hiring managers because it is interpreted as disinterest rather information-gathering. We have seen hiring managers write these candidates off—forever.

A Change in Status

When a passive candidate becomes an active one, there is a clear shift in behavior. Sometimes this change can happen suddenly and be brought on by a transition in their current company or because they suddenly become interested in your company and view your job opportunity as going to something versus leaving something (this is the ideal state). Other times, this behavior evolves more gradually over time for any number of reasons (career, personal, environmental, cultural). Whatever the case may be, your company has to decide if it wants to take on both the challenge and the opportunity of truly courting passive candidates.



As cliché as it sounds, the 'War for Talent' never ended, particularly in our world of B2B sales and revenue-affecting, customer facing roles. Losing even one candidate to a misunderstanding of status and level of interest has a dramatic and negative effect on hiring overall.

If you’re an employer and your HR team approaches you with a person who is “just kicking tires” then be ready to sell your company and drive the hiring process. Better yet, hire someone who has made the choice to make a job change and do away with the active/passive label!

Whether you’re an active candidate or a passive one, we'd love to hear from you if you are interested in career opportunities that are customer-facing or revenue-affecting!