Skip to Content

Hiring ‘passive’ job candidates is harder than you think

hand shakehand shake

Dear Annie: I work in human resources at a midsize company that is trying to find a chief financial officer with a particular set of skills. A number of candidates have applied, and we’ve met with them. Impressive as they are, it seems to me that, to get the best person for the job, we’re going to have to pursue people who are already working for other companies, including one or two of our direct competitors. I saw your article about poachable.com, and I really wish there were a similar job site for non-tech people, because, so far, the “passive” candidates we want are turning us down, despite our offer of compensation that far exceeds what any of them are earning now. Any suggestions? — Stumped in Seattle

Dear S.S.: Money is great but, as you’ve noticed, it isn’t enough all by itself. “Higher pay, expense account, retirement funds, stock options, and other financial incentives have to be there. In fact, they have to be exceptional,” says Tony Beshara, president of Dallas headhunting firm Babich & Co. But in this game, they’re just table stakes.

What really attracts executives who are happy in their current jobs, he says, is much more complicated. An already-employed C-suite candidate “has to be given plenty of good psychological, emotional, and practical reasons” for moving, Beshara says. “No one likes to change jobs. It’s stressful, because it’s always a gamble.” Most hiring managers don’t recognize this, he adds, so they don’t compensate for it by making the opening they’re trying to fill seem compelling enough.

In a new book, 100,000 Successful Hires: The Art, Science, and Luck of Effective Hiring, Beshara and coauthor Rich Lavinski offer this checklist of six questions to ask yourself before you sit down with a passive candidate for your CFO position:

  • Does the opportunity have the same kind of outstanding money, benefits, potential, and security that would make me (assuming I’m contented in my current job) consider going to a different company?
  • Is it above and beyond any other opportunity out there?
  • Am I willing to sell it really hard?
  • Is there a career path, with an exceptional potential future, beyond this position?
  • From the CEO on down, are higher-ups and the whole company willing to go the extra mile to get the right candidate?
  • Can and will we all “sell” it?

“This is quite different from the way employers are in the habit of approaching jobseekers,” Beshara notes. “It’s the opposite of the usual interviewing stance, which is basically, ‘Why should I hire you?’ or ‘What can you do for the company?’ Here, you have to go all out to persuade the candidate that he or she will be better off in every way than he or she already is.”

What’s more, in Beshara’s experience, that often means impressing a candidate’s spouse as well. “We always keep track of the spouse’s support of a ‘passive’ candidate’s job change. A reluctant life partner can torpedo a move. But if we can make a change seem more attractive to the spouse, the whole process may be easier,” he says. “Ignoring the spouse and kids, especially if a relocation is part of the deal, is a recipe for disaster.”

Beshara also recommends giving some thought to how you’ll respond if, or when, the candidate’s current employer makes a counter offer. “In the same way that the person you want has not been looking for a job, their present employer isn’t ready for them to leave,” he says. “Odds are it will be a shock to them, and they will up the ante.” Get ready to match or, if at all possible, beat what the other company puts on the table.

It’s a tall order. As you might guess, Beshara has seen plenty of companies start out trying to poach an executive from a rival firm and end up hiring a qualified candidate who is actually in the market for a job. “Many employers feel that a happily employed, ‘passive’ candidate is better than someone who’s looking, but that’s not necessarily so,” he observes. “Sometimes the only difference between a passive candidate and a jobseeker is timing.” Good luck.

Talkback: If you’ve accepted a job offer from another company while you were already working, what motivated you to move? Leave a comment below.

On another topic entirely, for next week’s column, I’m interested in hearing from male readers who have taken time off after the birth or adoption of a child. Does your employer have a formal policy permitting paternity leave? How did your boss and peers react to your decision to take the time? Did you take off completely, or were you still reachable (or working a flexible schedule, including working from home)? Please email me at askannie@fortune.com. Thanks!