In these days of skill shortages, if you want to keep a full complement of
staff, says Kate Dale, you should have the passive job seeker in your sights
Recruitment used to be a simple matter. Employers advertised their vacancies
in the relevant sections of the right newspapers or sent their criteria to a
favoured employment agency and sat back waiting for the CVs to flood in. They
could then pick and choose the right people for the jobs on offer. Their only
gripe was the amount of time it could take to sift through the hundreds of CVs
each vacancy generated.
Unfortunately, skill shortages, changing demographics and the creation of
new industry sectors mean it is no longer enough to wait until someone is
actively looking for work. It’s not a question of striking while the iron’s hot
but rather while it is still warming up. Passive job seekers are the new hot
target for recruiters.
So what is a passive job seeker and why are they suddenly so important?
According to Pam Vicks, group marketing director of on-line recruitment
consultancy Stepstone.com, a passive job seeker is: "Someone who, while
not actively searching for a new job, may be persuaded to move if the right
opportunity comes up."
Bella Hubble, MD of on-line recruitment firm Monster.com in the UK goes
further: "All of us are passive job seekers these days," she says.
"There’s a role, location, package or title which would make each of us
move, no matter how happy we are in our current jobs."
While this has always been true to a certain extent, technological and
demographic changes have made identifying and attracting these people both
possible and essential for the first time.
Internet job boards have effectively democratised head-hunting. While this
elite form of recruitment usually only applied to a select few at the top of
their professions, now anyone who has entered their details and CV on to an
on-line job board can expect, or hope, to be contacted by the perfect job or
employer. It also makes it easy for employees to check out their market worth
and investigate what opportunities are on offer. "What was a passive
jobseeker before on-line job boards?" asks Peter Croasdale, European
content director of Monster.com. "Someone who didn’t read the job ads?
That concept doesn’t really offer anything to potential employers."
Vicks, however, thinks that the idea of recruiting passive job seekers has
less to do with the Internet and more to do with skill shortages and declining
She points out that Europe is already facing an alarming shortfall of
skilled workers, particularly in the IT and communications sectors. "By
2010, half of all jobs will be in industries that are either major producers or
intensive users of IT products or services. Where will these employees come
from?" she asks. "At present the European Union countries are short
of an estimated 500,000 IT workers and the shortfall is projected to reach 1.6
million by 2003." Stepstone recently opened up a division in India with
the primary purpose of recruiting Indian IT professionals to work in Europe.
There are also massive shortages throughout Europe in education, medical
staff, financial services, local government and even experienced middle
management. According to the European Commission’s Central Statistical Office,
Eurostat, the middle management group is expected to decline from about 140
million to 127 million by 2020.
All of this has swung the balance of power in favour of the once-humble
employee who has been educated – through recession and redundancy – to believe
that loyalty to "Me plc" is more rewarding than long-term devotion to
the company they happen to be working for at the time.
So is it just desperation that’s driving employers to try and unearth the
passive job seeker? Susan Butterly, business development manager of on-line
recruitment consultancy Justpeople.com, thinks that passive job seekers have a
lot to recommend them to potential employers. "Because they’re already
gainfully employed they’ve had no time to lose skills, they’re currently doing
a good job and are still highly motivated," she says. Vicks agrees:
"These people are often the most highly sought after, as they are
qualified, experienced and employed," she says.
It also allows employers to be more creative about the people they take on.
Not only can this help beat the skill shortages – especially in new industries
such as the dot-coms that haven’t been around long enough to build up a
substantial pool of directly experienced potential recruits – but it also fits
in with some of the latest management thinking, which focuses on an
individual’s personality and temperament, rather than their more tangible
"Companies used to be interested in qualifications and
experience," says Hubble. "Today EQ (emotional quotient) – your
personality – is more important than IQ. You have to think laterally about the
type of people you interview. You can teach people skills but you can’t change
their personalities. When I joined Monster.com, for example, I had 13 years’
experience in recruitment advertising but none on the Internet. They felt I had
the attitude and team-building mentality they needed and that I could acquire
the technical skills through them."
The advantage of a strategy that enables you to target passive job seekers
is that it helps you recruit people who would have passed over a traditional
recruitment ad assuming it was irrelevant, when actually, a bit of lateral
thinking proves they are exactly the person you need.
So how do you attract the passive job seeker? It’s a bit like chatting
someone up. You have to spend more time talking about them and less time
talking about yourself.
"Recruitment ads used to start with facts and figures about how big the
company was and the role it played in the global market place," says
Hubble. "Now it’s much more about: do you want a challenging career, lots
of rewards, training and development? It’s much more focused on the applicants
it hopes to attract."
It is less about offering people specific jobs and more about communicating
what the experience of working with your company can offer them in terms of
career development or even lifestyle. Of course, money always plays a part in
this. Most people expect a decent salary rise when they switch job. But it’s
not the only motivation. Hubble says: "The tendency of many women to leave
work and have children when they get to a certain stage of senior management is
leaving a real hole in the market. Jobs that offer more flexible hours and a
commitment to taking working parents – with all their responsibilities –
seriously, can entice these women back into the workplace."
Building empathy is important. UK-based employment Web site Workthing.com
recently ran a billboard campaign which posed the question: "Ever dial
nine for an outside line on your home phone?" It struck a chord with
office workers across the land and helped to promote Workthing as a Web site
that understood their working lives. The TV campaign for Workthing, meanwhile,
uses a number of smug retired people talking about how difficult it is in the
world of work today – and how they don’t care because it’s nothing to do with
them any more. By highlighting some of the work issues Workthing.com helps
people deal with, it persuades them, humorously, to visit the site and,
ultimately, register their details.
Monster.com has taken a similar humorous approach with its pan-European ad
campaign – "Beware the Voices" (see case study below). We have to
keep people using the site even when they’re not consciously looking for
work," says Croasdale. Everything from advice about CVs and interview
skills to information on employment legislation and tax codes is featured.
"We have to make people feel that using this site is going to give them
the edge, the ability to make the right decisions at the right time,"
Croasdale says. This generates repeat visits to the site and helps Monster sell
its recruitment services to employers.
And you can also use fun to give people a solid reason to visit your site.
In the US, on-line recruitment consultancy HotJobs.com recently launched a
nationwide initiative to promote its college channel. As part of the programme,
representatives wearing HotJob-branded graduation-style caps and gowns will
attend high-traffic campus events, such as Spring Fling, Homecoming and Parents
Weekend, at 75 college campuses. They will take digital photos of students
while explaining to them the importance of pre-graduation career planning – the
first stage of passive job seeking. The photos will be posted on the college
channel so students can download them and e-mail copies to their friends or
order keepsakes. While doing that, they will be encouraged to search the Web
site’s database of thousands of entry-level jobs. "We’ve designed this
programme in a way that creates tangible memories of the college experience,
while still driving the important message that the time for students to prepare
for life after college is now," says Marc Karasu, director of marketing
and advertising at HotJobs.
Vicks agrees that quality content is an important part of keeping passive
job seekers interested, but is more wary about just how much you should rely on
humour. "People’s careers are important to them – as our tag line say,
‘your career, your life, your future’. We take a lot of care to be responsible
and professional in our approach. Having said this, we also make sure we keep a
None of this means that active job seekers – the ones definitely looking to
switch companies or careers – should be overlooked. And some industry experts
are sceptical about the concept of passive job seeking. Ken Brotherston,
European MD of on-line recruitment firm Futurestep, points out that the term
"passive job seeker" is an oxymoron – you can’t really passively seek
anything: "People mainly visit employment Web sites when they’re looking
for work. Perhaps a better way to describe the ones not looking to move
straight away is slow-burning job seekers."
Whatever you call them, the existence of these recruits does reflect the way
the job market and people’s attitudes to their own careers have changed.
"Career management used to mean frantically scouring the newspapers just
before you were handed your P45," Croasdale says. "Today it means
keeping an eye on the market and being prepared for any opportunity."
Employers who do the same in return are the ones who will have the fewest
recruitment problems as the skill shortages bites.
Hints & tips
How to attract a passive job seeker
– Focus on the benefits you offer the job seeker, rather than just the size
of your company. What unique benefits in terms of opportunities, location or
training can you give them?
– Think of it as a long-term process. They may not be ready to come and work
with you now but that doesn’t mean you won’t need or want to work with each
other in the future.
– Don’t lose touch. Ask for their contact details and tell them you’d like
them to keep in touch, especially if they get to a stage where they do want to
– Think laterally about the criteria you apply to a specific role. Obviously
some jobs demand specific qualifications and training, but there are many
others that can offer on-the-job training as long as someone has the right
– Many on-line job boards allow you to sponsor specific keywords. Be
creative. Don’t just enter words specific to your industry sector. Using
emotional words and phrases that help sum up your working culture can bring in
good-quality candidates you might not have reached through more conventional
– Make it easy. If you have a company Web site, set up a form that allows
people to enter their information if they think they might be interested in
working for you at some stage. The easier it is for someone to register details
of their experience, attributes and aspirations with you, the more likely they
are to do it and you get the pick of the crop when it comes to filling actual
Case study: Monster.com
Monster.com is using a mixture of TV, poster and radio advertising across
Europe to persuade passive job seekers to visit its Web site and enter their CV
details. The "Beware the Voices" campaign relies heavily on humour to
build up a sense of empathy with employees. It depicts situations we’ve all
been in – such as sitting in a meeting, not saying what you really think about
something and then getting cross when someone else comes out with the same idea
and gets the credit you know could have belonged to you. Another scenario
depicts a works football match. Should the hero tackle his MD or let him score
a goal? By listening to his inner voice he makes a spectacularly wrong decision
and knocks his MD over for no reason whatsoever.
"The ads were put together with a voiceover so we had a lot of
flexibility," says Peter Croasdale, European content director of
Monster.com. "The colloquial elements can be adapted for any country and
there’s enough creative space in the ad to tailor it for local markets."
Despite the widespread belief that humour doesn’t travel across frontiers,
Croasdale says it has in this case. "There’s a large element of slapstick
involved and that’s international."
The point of the advertising, according to Bella Hubble, MD of Monster.com
in the UK, is to: "Almost subliminally communicate the idea that Monster
is not just about getting a new job. It’s to say that we all need some help to
make the right decision at some stage. We use humour people can identify with to
build a sense of belonging to the work community."