Passive Recruiting Doesn’t Exist!

Myth BustersWhen most people talk about “passive recruiting,” they’re referring to the practice of targeting and recruiting so-called “passive candidates” – people who are not actively looking to make a move from their current employer.

If you accept that notion – what would be the opposite?

Active recruiting?

Think about it for a moment. Neither phrase even makes sense grammatically. The “passive” in “passive recruiting” isn’t being used to describe the type of recruiting being performed – it’s being used to describe the type of candidates being recruited. 

In this article, I challenge the notion of “passive recruiting,” implore you to retire the phrase, and introduce the concepts of active and passive sourcing.  

Passive Recruiting?

What could “passive recruiting” possibly mean if you’re not using “passive” to describe the types of candidates being targeted?

Recruiting is intrinsically an active process – it requires action and active participation. So “passive recruiting” doesn’t actually exist!

However, if you don’t want to let go of the oft-overused phrase, my take on “passive recruiting” zeroes in on the talent identification phase of the recruiting life cycle. It actually is possible to take a passive role in candidate sourcing.


If you’re sorting through, contacting and recruiting candidates who have responded to your job postings – you’re not having to actually find the candidates…they’re coming to you.

If you’re tracking down, contacting and recruiting candidates that have been referred to you by employees of your company or other candidates – you’re not having to actually identify the candidates…someone else has already done that for you.

Make no mistake – recruiting people who have responded to job postings and people who have been referred to you is an active process, whether the people are looking to make a change in employment or not. However, the candidate sourcing step is passive and reactive – the people have already been identified for you. 

So if you simply must use continue to use the phrase “passive recruiting,” please make sure that you use it to describe the process of recruiting people who have already been identified for you. 

Active Recruiting?

As I’ve already mentioned – recruiting is intrinsically an active process. Anyone who performs the recruiting function is performing “active recruiting,” regardless of the candidate’s job search status (active, passive, not looking…).

However, you can probably guess how I would distinguish the opposite of my more accurate definition of “passive recruiting.” Yes – it has to do with the candidate sourcing step of the recruiting life cycle.

If the candidates aren’t coming to you by way of ad responses and employee referrals, you’re taking an active role in the talent identification phase because you have to go out and hunt them down with no help from anyone else.

Let’s Move Forward!

Just because a whole bunch of people use the same phrase over and over to describe something, it doesn’t make it right. “Passive recruiting” is one of those concepts that has been perpetuated for years without much thought as to what it really means, which has resulted in widespread misuse.

Not only does it not make any grammatical sense – it doesn’t even really exist. It’s impossible for a recruiter to take a passive role in the recruiting process – you’re either recruiting someone or you’re not.

If you happen to be recruiting people who are passive and non-job seekers – you’re not passively recruiting…you’re actively recruiting passive candidates!

Don’t be a lemming and continue to follow the crowd – just let it “passive recruiting” go.

Now when you overhear someone use the phrase “passive recruiting” to describe the process of recruiting passive candidates, you can be “that” recruiter who says “Actually, you know the phrase ‘passive recruiting’ doesn’t make any sense…”

Passive and Active Sourcing

In all seriousness, I would like to advance and update the recruiting vocabulary by introducing the concepts of passive and active sourcing.

Passive sourcing: Not taking an active role in finding candidates to recruit because the candidates are identified for you – identifying potential candidates primarily through job postings and employee referrals.

Active sourcing: Finding potential candidates to recruit that don’t come to you – identifying potential candidates primarily through e-sourcing and cold calling. 

Notice how the adjectives of “active” and “passive” are not describing the job search status of the candidates being found (which is actually irrelevant, IMO), but rather (and correctly, I might add) describe to the type of sourcing being performed. 

Recruiting is intrinsically an active process, regardless of candidate job search status. However, the means of identifying the candidates you recruit isn’t.  

What do you think?

  • Thank you for this one. I agree. I always have.

    As I think about the topic – the actual words – and who is using them – I tend to think it comes more from the user’s perspective of their service. It’s as if by offering “passive” recruiting they are suggesting to their client they have access to some “secret” pool of candidates.

    We all have access to the same crowd of people. It’s high time we start looking a little deeper at these accepted labels and challenging them when appropriate like you have.

    Thanks for the topic.

  • Great post, I can see where you are going with this and you deserve some points on technicality!

    Actually, this is the first time I have heard the term “passive recruiting” Your narrative made it sound like a wimpy and ineffective method of recruiting and as you say, it doesn’t exist.

    If you are referring to a method of recruiting candidates that are not actively seeking a change in employment, that requires a higher level of recruiting. And to be effective in that space you need to recruit or build relationships ahead to the need. When the need does arise, your recruitment call is simply reaching out and bringing the candidate up-to-date on some new developments. Maybe this is a good example of passive recruiting. But of course you need to be a niche recruiter for this method to be effective.

  • @ Jerry – thank you for commenting! I agree that some people are definitely trying to sell the concept that they have access to a secret pool of candidates.

    @ Ken – I hear and see the term all the time: People try to target and recruit passive candidates all the time, but it isn’t correct to call it “passive recruiting” because there’s nothing passive about hunting candidates. :-)

  • Eccho the comments. It’s a great topic and would be good to see people stop using the term – becuase it is misleading. I’m sure I’ve made the same mistakes and, when I do, I am referring to “actively” recruiting “passive” candidates – which is where I think 3rd party search firms offer an advantage over any other recruiting channel.

  • Once again… your words match my thinking…. exactly.

    This one drives me crazy…. Thanks for posting!!

  • Jimmy

    What about when that is no job opening, but you have a chance to talk to a strong talent in the market, then create a role for him. Is this passive?

  • Glen,

    Great post. Ironic too. I just had this conversation at the recent TRU USA. We had a good discussion on recruiting being a “reactive” process. I saw the eye brows raise when I said that to the crowd. I felt like a loner.

    Internally here (My employer) we tend to see clients generalize the terms when talking about sourcing. Passive v Active. Always referring to the candidates.

    In my experience I find that when I am consulting with larger more robust clients they get the notion when we speak about the channels of sourcing. They are not overly impressed with the terms “social recruiting” and “social media”. They’re more inclined to take interest in the conversations dealing with branding and messaging or under what circumstances do we “attract” as opposed to “search out” candidates. Not referring to branding like these “personal branding” nuts. ((@Jerry_Albright…can you name any? ;-) )) I’m referring to real employment brand with significant consequences.

    The smarter clients immediately understand that sourcing is a key component to the process and that it’s important to view the process from their perspective and not term everything for the candidate.

    It’s a word smithing issue for most as I think the majority of people get what you are saying but in the end very few give a rats a$$. They simply go back to what they know best often leaving them in a rut called insanity. (With no bonus)

  • You nailed this as you often do with your insights. I agree with Jerry Albright.

    As Talent Acquisition Specialists our behaviors are ALWAYS active. We facilitate, collaborate, converse, share content and connect.

    Not passive in the least.

  • steve

    Simple. It is our job to find candidates. If someone is talking to you they are not passive.

  • Michael Goldberg

    Passive is what we used to describe as not doing a d–m thing or passive aggressive which many bad recruiters are because that are not actively looking for talent.

    Great Post!

  • SeSee

    I gave up on the using the word “passive” a long time ago. It sounds old and tired. I have said that I am differnet because I am an active recruiter that sources Top Talent. Sounds a bit more energetic and it defines our process much better.

    So glad to see this post. Affirmation is a good thing!

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  • Coresourcing

    Love the post

    True, searching for passive candidates, cant be termed as passive recruiting.but still belive, Passive recruiters exist, you may may call them inbox recruiters or reactive recruiters.

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  • Noelle

    When we refer to “passive sourcing” we take it from the candidate side. ( e.g They are a passive candidate if they are not actively looking.) I think we can fairly treat our jobs as active anytime we are doing them… heck, even when we are not (thank you automated tools) but the vernacular does not seem a hindrance.

  • Allen Shepard

    Nice read. Outsource recruitment in
    general can be somewhat troublesome. However, passive recruiting is probably
    the best way to attract the candidates you really want. Thanks again.

  • Agree with your perspective, and your grammatical and semantic rigidity–but then, I’m Aspie, and an ex-Linguistics nerd : ) Had to laugh when I saw the first comment’s “Nice read.” followed shortly by the giant “Whoosh” of air overhead: “…passive recruiting is … the best way to …” Ha ha ha ha!!

    So rewarding to know your words are having their intended impact. ; )