The other day I received a call from a recruiter concerning a corporate media relations job he said I was perfect for. When I told him I wasn't really looking for a W-2 position he replied that "passive candidates" are both the best hires, and his speciality. Undaunted, he wanted to meet to discuss the opening. 

There are a couple of issues here in my view. If I haven't actually applied for anything am I truly a candidate? And classifying me as a "passive job seeker" isn't really accurate either, because as I told him, I am not currently seeking a job. 

"Once you understand the proper name to call them, you still have a major problem because 'not-looking top prospects' can simply never be reached through normal recruiting channels," says talent management veteran Dr. John Sullivan in this post. 

That's because almost all of these approaches are designed for prospects who are “actively” looking for a job. 

Finding these potential hires requires recruiters to be more active in their pursuit, but it may be worth the effort, as "passive" candidates comprise 84% of the potential workforce, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

There are some key realizations that recruiting leaders have to accept, opines Dr. Sullivan, if they expect to have any real chance to land these highly desirable 'not-looking top prospects.' Those include:

Realization #1 — “Not-looking top prospects” are the most valuable hires by far

Dr. Sullivan says top prospects are, by definition, top performers. They are innovators, leaders, rapid learners, and/or possess “future skills” that will be desperately needed within 12 to 18 months. He says they have another added value, and that is because they work at a competitor, when you hire them, your firm will get better while the competition gets a little weaker. 

Realization #2 — The very best professionals are already employed

The very best performers in any industry or function are almost always currently employed at another company. But Dr. Sullivan adds that a focus on "not-looking top prospects" will not limit your ability to get unemployed people. This is because he says most unemployed people, including some sidelined former top performers, are extremely active jobseekers who will find you anyway through your job postings and other active recruiting approaches.

Realization #3 — 20% of the employed are “not looking” for the wrong reasons

Don’t fall into the trap of trying to recruit any prospect who is not looking, because some may actually be passive for the wrong reasons, cautions Dr. Sullivan. They may lack the drive or initiative to look for another job outside the firm. Or perhaps their performance is so low, they realize they might not be able to get a better job than the one they have, so they have stopped looking.

Realization #4 — Don’t worry about recruiting above average to average employed people; they will find you 

What about those workers who aren't in the top 10%, but whose work performance ranks them above the bottom 20%? Dr. Sullivan says when they decide to look for another job, they fall into the category of active jobseekers who will find you through normal channels when you simply post an open job.

"By using the wrong terminology, you can cause hiring managers and recruiters to misunderstand what must be done in order to successfully identify and recruit what should be referred to as 'not-looking top prospects,'" says Dr. Sullivan in closing in the piece. "But once the terminology is corrected, everyone should realize the value of these top prospects, and how to determine the best approach to source them."

As for my recruiter, I told him I would think about it, and get back to him if I wanted to schedule a meeting or coffee chat. 

By pure chance, the very next day I happened to speak with a former colleague who was calling to tell me about a new VP/Marketing role she had just accepted.

She was curious though, was I happy in my current situation? I asked her why she was asking. Because, she said, the previous week she had been contacted by a recruiter (yes, the same one) concerning a corporate media relations job he said she would be perfect for. Now that she had a shiny new job she obviously wasn't interested, but wanted to know if I was. I passed.