How to Motivate a Passive Candidate
By Bill Radin
Let’s say you contact someone you’ve never met about a position
you’re trying to fill. The person is hard at work, buried in
excellence, and isn’t looking for a new job. And yet, after a brief
discussion, the person warms up and starts to express interest.
Encouraged, you ask a logical question: Why are you talking to me if
you’re happy where you are? And what set of circumstances would
motivate you to leave your job and go to work for another company?
“Hey, you called ME, remember?” the candidate replies. “It’s YOUR
job to sell me, not the other way around.”
Suddenly you’re at a crossroads. Do you drop the subject and shoot
for the sendout, or slow down and try to understand your candidate’s
My approach would be the latter. Yes, it’s tempting to get a new
candidate into the funnel. And a quick sendout might make you a
hero—at least temporarily. But without a qualifying process, you
might very well create a monster, should the person turn out to be a
tire-kicker, a turndown specialist or a counteroffer monger.
People don’t change jobs on a whim; they need a sense of purpose to
see them through a complicated and often stressful professional
transition. Setting up an interview is relatively easy, as compared
to quitting a job and starting a new one.
Luckily, if the candidate’s underlying motivation for change matches
the work and the environment the new company has to offer, you’ve
probably got yourself a deal. If it doesn’t, you could end up
holding the stems, not the roses.
The Qualifying Question
Here’s the script I use when it’s time to test whether a person is
truly interested in a new position and committed to making a change:
“I know I approached you,” I tell the passive candidate, “and that
just a little while ago you were minding your own business. However,
I’d like to know what it is that interests you about the new
position. Does it offer something you really want that’s not
available to you, or does it solve a problem that can’t be fixed
where you’re currently working?”
And then I shut up. And listen really hard.
If the person opens up with a good reason to explore a new
opportunity, we’ve got something to build on. On the flip side, if
the person offers nothing more than clichés, I know I’m in trouble.
A case in point: Recently, I spoke to an otherwise qualified
candidate who said he was “intrigued” by the job my client was
trying to fill. When I tried to get more specific, he dodged the
question. Then the other shoe dropped. When I asked him what he was
earning, he wouldn’t give me a number. Heck, he wouldn’t even give
me a range. Finally, he threw me a bone and said he was making less
than $100,000. Thanks for the range, bud: zero to a hundred.
That’s when I told him it wasn’t fair to my client for me to present
his credentials without good information. Not surprisingly, the
candidate stopped taking or returning my calls. I guess that was his
way of saying he wasn’t really interested. Had I gone all soft on
him, I’m sure I could have set up an interview. But at what cost?
They say that recruiting involves persuasion. I’d agree. But more
importantly, recruiting requires a willingness to ask the difficult