Exhausted Young Businessman Yawning At WorkIn the past, the dark art of head hunting was a skill reserved for a very select group of talented executive search agencies that had built up a powerful and unassailable network of clients and candidates. But, all this has changed now. Everyone is a potential headhunter, and everyone can be easily head hunted thanks to social media and the ease with which any one can research and contact anybody.

In fact, head hunting has shed its tag as some crafty form of poaching, has acquired a certain social acceptability, and has a new name to boot—passive recruiting. The problem is whether head hunting or passive recruiting is a central assumption in hiring that passive talent is actually superior to those actively seeking work, be they in work or unemployed. This is backed by research from the Anderson School of Management, which showed that human resource professionals found that employers were likely to rate unemployed job seekers as less hirable and confident than passive or employed talent, even if they have similar skills and experience.

But, is there is any truth in this? Is passive talent actually superior to those who may actively come and apply for your job?

For starters, just because a passive candidate is not looking to leave now does not mean that they are engaged and performing to an optimal standard. Actually, research from Gallup suggests that 70 percent of employees are disengaged or actively disengaged. This means that perhaps 7 out of 10 passive candidates could easily be disengaged, which doesn’t just mean unhappy but possibly not performing that well.

And the fact that these disengaged, potentially under-performing passive candidates are staying put could, at least in part, be down to the fact that they have developed quite a “comfortable” situation, which suits them and their lifestyle or that they lack the ambition, imagination or courage to do something about their situation. This is not something you could easily accuse active job seekers of, so arguably in the drive and ambition stakes, active job seekers are as good if not superior to passive talent.

You could argue that passive talent is better than unemployed talent due to Darwinian survival of the fittest mechanics. But, the truth is you don’t actually know how good your passive candidate is in comparison to unemployed or actively seeking job talent. They could simply be an average performer who has avoided risk, challenge and stretching promotions, which means they avoid making big mistakes but there are no big successes either. Unless you can see a clear pathway of progression and success, your passive talent may be a mediocre-to-average plodder and not a superstar.

And finally, no matter whether they are passive or actively seeking, no one is immune to the context dependent nature of skills. A study of star investment analysts sought to explain how their performance showed a catastrophic decline once they changed businesses, and this was because the network of contacts that they had developed in their old business was the key reason for success and once this was broken in the new business, performance capitulated. So, in truth, you can never be sure that your  candidate will reproduce this performance in the new firm, whether they are unemployed, actively seeking employed or passive. Passive talent is not superior on this regard.

Now I am in no way suggesting that recruiters should stop recruiting passive talent, but there is not a lot of evidence to suggest that they are better performers than the unemployed and those active job seekers. And considering the extra resources and costs required to engage passive talent, should employers be favoring active talent and the unemployed over passive talent? I’d like to hear your thoughts.

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