Winning Through Passivity

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No, we're not talking about indexed investments.

Here's a phrase you'd do well to learn if it isn't familiar already: "passive candidate."

That's headhunter-speak for an employed person who is not seeking a new job. Odd as it might seem, recruiters - retained search firms especially - go ga-ga over these non-candidate candidates. So much so that many will routinely snub any candidate who initiates contact with them (whether through answering a job posting, sending a resume, or some other form of approach), in favor of candidates who the recruiter reached out to first.

Does that seem silly? Then you're on the same page as Ronald Katz, president of Penguin Human Resource Consulting. In a recent post on, under the headline, "What's So Great About Passive Candidates?" Katz exhorts his peers in the HR and recruiting communities:

"What is it that makes us question the motives of people looking for jobs? Aren't we making our jobs harder by only looking for the flaws in active candidates? I'm all for screening applicants, but lately I've seen recruiters time after time shooting themselves in the foot.

"Are we back in high school playing 'hard to get'? ....

"There are all kinds of reasons that people are actively looking for work, and most of them do not cast a pall on the applicant. ... We may find ourselves ignoring proactive, experienced team players with solid business experience just because they are actively looking for a job. Since when did looking for a better job become the mark of Cain?"

The piece details diverse reasons that individuals do and don't actively search for jobs. It thoroughly debunks the myth (popular among headhunters) that passive candidates usually end up being better and more stable workers than active candidates.

Impersonate a Passive Candidate, Even If You're Active

But Katz overlooks an entirely different reason why retained recruiters prefer passive candidates - a reason unrelated to quality. To justify their fees, clients expect a recruiter to dig for hard-to-find candidates, as opposed to taking the lazy man's road of advertising on job boards or mining a database of resumes posted by active job-seekers. (I shouldn't have to say this, but any recruiter's client is not you; it's the employer whose opening they're working to fill.)

So whether recruiters are behaving rationally or not, you'll probably get more interviews and more offers if you can position yourself as a passive candidate. That means, instead of pursuing headhunters directly, do things that make it easy for headhunters to find you. Make yourself visible within your profession, and get evidence of your expertise and your achievements onto the Internet where recruiters will find it through search engines.

Get published or quoted in the trade press. Take a leadership role in your professional association or its local chapter. Each time you win an award or achieve some other professional milestone, send a brief notice to your alumni association(s) and any professional groups you belong to. When your exploit appears on the group's Web site, you've gone a long way toward establishing yourself as a passive candidate.

Some professionals may be able to go still further, by maintaining their own career Web site or even publishing their own blog. Before taking that step, carefully assess whether it could jeopardize your current job. Some companies and industries bar employees from publishing anything anywhere without prior approval. Lately there have been a handful of media reports about individuals fired by investment banks after they were caught blogging - even though the bloggers had published under pseudonyms and had never named their employers on their blogs.