LeavingEverybody wants a passive candidate. I’ve written against this mentality in the past, but I’m a realist, and one blog post isn’t going to change the hiring world. So the fact remains that people want passive candidates. Passive candidates are abundant, with some sources estimating that they make up as much as 79 percent of the workforce. According to the received wisdom, passive candidates are also better than their active counterparts: Jobcast says passive candidates are “17 percent less likely to need skills development.” This fact, Jobcast maintains, “ups the ROI on passive candidates substantially.” Many people agree with them.

With passive candidates abounding – and a significant number of companies lusting after them like hormonal teenagers – we’ve seen a preponderance of how-to guides for employers looking to recruit passive candidates. But what about if you are that passive candidate? Where’s the how-to guide for passive candidates who want to know if it’s cool to respond to a recruiter’s InMail during company hours?

This post was inspired in part by Mel Kleiman’s recent article for TLNT, in which he assures timid employers that’s nothing unethical about recruiting their competitor’s best employees. With Kleiman and many others focusing on the ethics of recruiting passive candidates, I wondered about the ethics of being a passive candidate – how do you entertain invitations to leave your company while you’re still working at that company?

Scenario One 

Katharine is what you might call a “social media rock star,” if you were into that kind of thing. Really, she’s a social strategist, heading up the social media campaigns of a mid-sized and highly successful tech company.

Katharine earns the dubiously kitschy title of “social media rock star” because she’s really, really good at what she does – one of the best in the business – and her company’s competitors have taken note. They all want Katharine for themselves.

Katharine likes her job well enough, but she, like most people, is a passive candidate. She’s not looking for anything else, but if the right offer floats her way, she’ll take it. One day, while sitting at her desk, her phone buzzes. It’s an email from a competing company – one asking her about her interest in possibly defecting from her current employer. What does Katharine do?

Being a Good Passive Candidate when Your Employer is Great

Being a passive candidate is a lot like being an active candidate when it comes to job offers: no matter what kind of candidate you are, you need to negotiate for the best offer. The difference is, the passive candidate has a lot more leverage than the active candidate, as it is clear that an employer needs to lure the passive candidate away from a job they are already comfortable with.

Now, let’s speed up our hypothetical situation and say that Katharine has negotiated a wonderful offer from the competitor. She hasn’t yet committed to leaving her current job, but she knows that, if she does, she’ll earn more, have better benefits, more flexible hours, etc., etc.

Now, I think this is where the real moral quandary comes in. Katharine has worked for her current employer for a few years now. The company has always treated her well. She enjoys her co-workers. She’s fairly happy. So what does she do about this new job offer? What, if anything, does she owe to the company that has taken such good care of her so far?

Some may disagree with me, but I think Katharine owes her current employer at least a shot at keeping her. Remember: in this situation, we’re talking about an employer that really truly does care about its employees – the kind of employer who is invested in the happiness and overall wellness of its employees. (Later, we’ll deal with what you owe a company that doesn’t care about its employees).

Workplace culture, we all agree, is important. But culture needs to be a two-way street: if employers treat their employees well, than employees should show that same respect.

So what’s the most ethical action Katharine can take?

After she has confirmed the job offer with a competitor, she should sit down in a formal meeting with her boss and carefully broach the subject of the competing offer (plan this out ahead of time, Katharine).

Now, we’re getting into entirely different territory: not the ethics of being a passive candidate, but strategies for handling such a delicate negotiation. That’s outside the scope of my post, but I’ll point interested parties in the direction of this very good article about the subject on The Ladders.

Scenario Two

Rick is just like Katharine: an awesome social strategist. Except, there is one key difference: whereas Katharine’s employer was great, Rick’s employer is just downright terrible. Rick has been with his company for three years, and he hasn’t seen a raise in all that time. The benefits are lousy. Rick’s boss only talks to him when there’s something to complain about; he never compliments Rick’s successes. Rick’s coworkers are nice enough, but the company culture is such that everyone is discouraged from being any more than polite acquaintances with one another.

Still, Rick is not actively looking for a new job. His company may not be great, but he figures it is good enough for now. Then, something better comes along: an offer from a competitor.

Being a Good Passive Candidate when Your Employer is Awful

Rick, like Katharine, goes through the whole negotiation dance and secures a better offer.

Now, what does Rick owe his current employer?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. As I said above, workplace culture requires cooperation from employees and the employer. If the employer is doing nothing to build a strong, positive workplace culture, then the employees have no obligation to do so, either.

Rick shouldn’t give his current employer a chance to keep him. Sure, Rick should leave on a good note – never burn bridges, Rick – but, unlike Katharine, he shouldn’t try to leverage his offer into something better at his current company. He should take the offer and leave.

The Moral?

When it comes to being an ethical passive candidate, there’s really only one thing to consider: how well is your current company treating you? There’s nothing unethical about companies trying to lure top talent away from competitors, but there is something unethical about an employee suddenly abandoning a company that’s taken care of them – without giving that company a chance to take better care of them, that is.

Of course, when it comes to our careers, we need to do what is best for ourselves. No matter how well a company treats you, if they can’t be the best thing for your career, then it’s okay to walk away. It isn’t immoral to leave one job for another. Just be considerate in doing so — as long as your employer deserves it.

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