May 8, 2019

Key differences between passive and active job candidates

By Paul Pompeo

In April, I spoke at the National Association of Innovative Lighting Distributors (NAILD) Annual Conference on “The War for Talent” in the electrical and lighting arena. Because of the uber-competitive candidate’s market we’ve been in for the past few years, employers often turn to search firms to hire the very best person rather than resort to the “lower hanging fruit” that is the bulk of responses to online ads—or, as a hiring manager for one of our client companies put it, the “The Three U’s—unqualified, the unemployed and the unimpressive.”

This is by no means to say that there aren’t out-of-work candidates who are qualified. While the best candidates today are usually currently employed (especially for sales positions), there are sometimes candidates of a similar quality who are out of work (and for the most part, they are on the market for just a very short time).

THE BIGGER DIFFERENCE IS between candidates who answer your company’s ads and candidates who have been recruited for your position.

As a hiring manager in today’s market, it’s important to know the “source” of a candidate moved forward by your HR department. Most HR professionals will tell their hiring manager whether a forwarded candidate answered an ad or simply applied online vs. not actively looking and recruited by a search firm.

The difference can be critical, as a professionally recruited candidate may behave and respond differently during the interview process than a candidate who eagerly answered an ad or sent their résumé to your company’s website. For example, if your HR person doesn’t tell you the candidate’s source, you can easily mistake someone as not interested in the role, when they may be a recruited candidate who genuinely needs to speak with you to see if the opportunity makes sense for them as their next career step. Interviewing without knowing which of the two your candidate is can be a strategic blunder.

Here are three key differences between a candidate who has answered your ad or applied online and a candidate who has been presented by an executive search professional:

1. Résumés. The candidate introduced by a search firm may not have updated their résumé recently or, in some cases, may not have a résumé because they weren’t actively looking. The out-of-work or actively looking candidate has devoted more time to polishing up and revising their résumé. That shouldn’t be held against a passive candidate intrigued by how a search firm has presented an opportunity.

HR professionals often have a hard time wrapping their heads around a candidate without a résumé, but don’t fall into the “interviewing the résumé” game. If a candidate doesn’t have a résumé prepared at the time of the first interview, your search professional should be able to provide a suitable career summary for the purpose of the first interview. If the candidate becomes interested, it would be expected that they then put together a résumé.

2. First Interviews. A candidate identified by an executive recruiter and/or not actively looking may have more questions of an interviewer than an out-of-work candidate. Occasionally the passive candidate may be in more of a listening mode in the interview, trying to size up whether the opportunity is something they wish to spend more time pursuing. The out-of-work candidate will probably “close” you at the end of an interview whereas the recruited candidate may not be as quick to warm up and may want to contemplate whether to continue moving forward after a first interview rather than focus on getting to a second interview or offer.

3. Thank-you Notes. The on-the-market candidate will usually send you a thank-you note right away—typically within 24 hours. The recruited candidate may be late in sending their thank-you note—sometimes by as much as several days. I’ve had client companies try to gauge the interest of the candidates by the speed in which they receive a thank-you note, but we remind them it’s like comparing apples to oranges— not a fair comparison. The candidate introduced through your search partner is more often than not currently employed. If in a sales management role, for example, they may be busy traveling and trying to fulfill obligations to their current employer, so a thank-you note to a company they’re not working for (at least yet) is simply not a priority.

EARLY IN THE INTERVIEW process, it might be hard to gauge how interested a recruited candidate is in an opportunity, but if the process moves forward, the candidate’s interest should increase. If you find that the recruited candidate’s interest level has not increased by the second or third interview, it might be time to move off that candidate, or at least park them to the side.


Paul Pompeo

Paul Pompeo

Paul Pompeo is president of The Pompeo Group (, an executive recruiting firm in the lighting, IoT, electrical and energy... More info »