The Passive Candidate Pipeline Problem


If you’re in HR or recruiting, you’ve undoubtedly been exposed to (and likely believe in) the concept that proactively building passive talent pipelines is critical to talent acquisition success. Some would say that pipelining passive candidates is one of the sacred cows of recruiting – you just don’t question it.

It’s my opinion that the belief in talent pipelines is driven heavily by the fact that it can be incredibly difficult to quickly find suitably qualified candidates once you actually have a hiring need if you don’t already have the right people identified and queued up.

As such, it seems only logical to begin to identify potential candidates prior to your actual need so that when you do need to hire, you have a number of people you can contact, engage, interview and make a final hiring decision from.

Sounds great in theory, doesn’t it?

I thoroughly enjoy sacred cow tipping, and I’m hard-wired to automatically question anything that seems to be generally accepted as truth. So if you’ll indulge me, in this post I am going to expose you to a critical flaw in the actual practice of passive candidate pipelining that no one seems to like to talk about.

What is a Talent Pipeline?

A talent pipeline is a group of people that you have identified and engaged who have skills and experience that closely match a specific future hiring need. You don’t pipeline prospective candidates for a job you’re looking to hire for ASAP.

Talent pipelines typically consist of passive and non-job seekers, because you can’t really pipeline active job seekers as they will likely have taken a new job with another company by the time you are ready to hire.

The Passive Candidate Pipelining Problem

Once you engage a passive or non-job seeker who looks to be a great match for a future hiring need, if they are interested in the opportunity to join your organization at some point in the future, you may succeed in adding them to your talent pipeline.

What you will also undoubtedly succeed in doing is plant the seed of the idea of transitioning out of their current role and employer.

Once that seed is planted, it can and often does grow beyond your control.

After you’ve engaged them about potential future opportunities with your company, they begin to think more about the next step in their career.

The moment you engage a passive or non-job seeker and discuss the idea of leaving their current employer for another opportunity, you often effectively convert them into a casual or even an active job seeker. It may not happen immediately, but that’s not the issue.

The issue is that you were trying to build your talent pipeline with someone who wasn’t looking for a new job so that they would likely still be available to be recruited when you were ready to hire.

However, once you plant the seed of the idea of making a career move with your company at some point, most people logically begin to wonder about other opportunities – what else might be out there for them.

That’s when they reach out to their professional network. They start to pay attention to all of those calls, emails and InMails they get from recruiters that they have historically ignored. They start to notice those targeted jobs on the right side of their Facebook page.

They might even begin searching online for jobs just to see what else might be available.

Fast forward to 1 or 2 months down the road when you actually have funding and final approval for your job openings and you reach out to your passive talent pipeline – what do you think happens?

Although they weren’t really looking to make a change when you first engaged them, you should not be surprised to find many of the people in your pipeline are no longer available, having accepted offers elsewhere – in the worst-case scenario, with one of your competitors!

What’s the Solution?

The inadvertent conversion of passive and non-job seekers into casual and active job seekers is a critical flaw in the concept and practice of passive candidate pipelining that no one seems to like to talk about, most likely because they don’t have an answer to the problem.

Is there an answer?

Is there a better way?

I have my ideas, but I’m more interested in hearing yours.

  • Glen,

    This is a two way problem. Our hiring managers always expects recruitment department to deliver real-time solution to their hiring needs. If we start doing that – you also have issues in candidate relationship as you want to sell them your jobs but in reality you don’t have any of them at this point of time. Sometimes this may harm company brand as candidates think company HR is never serious about open requirements and they are just collating CVs.

    Human capital data converts into actual candidates when you engage them in process. What if we search this data on internet OR on telephone and keep them with us in ready to use format? This helps not to get into trust, engagement right-away and only use it as and when needed. This can work as more of a research in back-end.

  • Expertly written post and a very thought provoking question.  People do have minds of their own; so whenever
    you engage a non job seeker into keeping an open mind to potential opportunities,
    they become a passive candidate.  And
    passive candidates will become curious about their present situation and will
    often wonder what else might be out there, but they may not become active.  Some however might become active, as you
    implied.   Your objective is to be there to scratch that
    itch, should and when they become active. 
    One sure fire way is to stay in contact with them before the right job becomes
    available or plant the seed to offer your advice as a trustful advisor on their
    career progression.  Hopefully they will
    call you for advice if and when they become active.

  • Anonymous

    This IS a thought provoking question!

    My take on this is that few potential candidates have the mojo to start/continue the process as you describe.  Now, if they’re being contacted time and time again (are they really “passive” if they’re on LinkedIn?) these multiple attempts might keep the juices flowing but most of the (potential) candidates I call seem surprised I’m calling – like this is a new experience. “How’d you get my name?””I’m not looking for another job!” I’m sure it is a new experience for some of them because most of the ones I call are names I PHONE SOURCED and are not accustomed to being contacted about other opportunities because they’re NOT EASILY FOUND.They’re in the (hidden) 90% of the iceberg that’s sitting beneath the waves.I know you guys are tired of me beating this same old drum but I think the more critical thing to be wary of is recruiter contact burn-out from those who are able to be found on the Internet. I believe it (recruiter contact burnout) is increasing dramatically.

    I also believe (most) potential candidates (that are phone-sourced) fall back into the drone of their daily existence without much more thought about being any more active than they’ve been in the past.

    You are so astute, Glen!

  • Jo Dellicott

    Great post Glen and something that recruiters and Hiring Managers don’t think about. It is a risk that when we engage a candidate that they will look at other opportunities and this is something that we as recruiters have to manage. Firstly if we have meaningful communications and build a genuine relationship with a candidate we can put ourselves in the position of a trusted sounding board with that individual. The more we interact and the more we add value with our interactions then the more we will become the first port of call for career advice. I have seen this happen with candidates that have been in my pipeline for some instances upto 3 years and we are still talking to them and they still want to join oiur organisation!

    Secondly we have to manage our Hiring Managers so that if a gun candidate approaches us and is ready to move then they have to be ready to hire. Usually we talent pool difficult to find roles and if this is truly the case then if an A grade candidate presents themselves then the business should be in a position to snap them up!

    It is a difficult balancing act to manage and is a real testimony to the experience of your sourcing team if they get the balance right!

  • Claire Peat

    great post as always. Personally, I see the talent pipeline having far more issues than just the fact that some candidates become active and leak out of that pipe… As I believe you do from the ‘just in time’ posts you did a couple of years ago. 
    Firstly, the fact that it’s a pipeline suggests it will hold more than 1 person. And you need to maintain some level of contact with these people for them to remain in that pipeline, which takes valuable recruiting time away from the open reqs you have to work. Unless you’re going to find an opening suitable for all of these people, you’ve spent a lot of time on developing a relationship that goes nowhere. OK so they may also help to put you on to some new leads that you do hire, but then their perception of you may go down as you’ve placed someone else but they’ve got nothing from their side of the relationship, and then maybe they won’t want anything to do with you and your company again – ruptured pipeline.
    Another issue is that for these ‘future opportunities’ – you’ll usually only have a generic idea of a skillset being sought. When (if!) that vacancy finally arises, hiring managers often want a lot more than that generic skillset, and will include additional niche features that will automatically knock out a number of candidates in your pipeline, so again, your time finding and maintaining contact with these people has not led to a placement.
    It’s also not just the idea of you turning someone from passive to active that means they are no longer available when you need to get them in the door – I don’t think we’re out of the water with the economy yet, and global situations combined with personal circumstances mean that often you can’t provide enough reason for them to move from the status quo in their current role, give up the benefits they’ve accrued with their current employer to jump ship to the unknown – for a lot of people in tough times it’s “better the devil you know”.
    Where I do see value is if you are constantly hiring a number of people with a very similar profile (which I never had the luxury of) – if you can find a way to engage with a group of people that takes minimal time, they can come in and out of this talent community as it suits their circumstances, but you don’t mind if people leave because you have plenty there in your stockroom. They have to get something out of being in this talent community, nobody wants a one-sided relationship, so that means you putting time and effort in to give them a reason to be there (holding qualified resumes in your ATS does not equal maintaining a talent pipeline). Recruiters don’t always have the time for this so sometimes low-level admin folks are tasked with keeping the relationship going, and unless you’re lucky, there’s usually a reason these admin types aren’t off earning more money elsewhere themselves, and is that the face of the company you want to show to your prospective shiny new talent?
    The real solution in my eyes is the right succession planning internally in an organisation so you know what you have, you do your best to keep what you already have, and you know how long their assignments should last and whether there are development opportunities internally for them, and who will be promoted into their position as they move up the ladder. When you know who’s likely to go because there is no internal development for them, or there’s nobody to replace the high flier who’s likely to be promoted in the next few months, you can have that detailed job spec prepared in advance and engage the recruiters to be on the lookout for an exact skillset. Yes, there will still be unexpected moves, but fewer of them because the company’s looked after their staff and paid attention to their development and retention needs or been astute enough to spot when employees are unhappy and likely to be looking elsewhere. Unfortunately, this isn’t something recruiters are often able to influence, it has to come from a wider company mindset and culture, and people outside of recruitment aren’t used to thinking about recruitment in this way, because they’ve always just gone to the company recruiter or an agency when they needed someone.
    Apologies for writing a response that’s almost as long as the blog, but it’s a topic that fires me up!

  • Glen, Claire, All,


    I welcome Claire’s words and would only add that pipelining
    is certainly more than identifying and keeping candidates warm. Pipelining should
    be a complex methodology which gives you the opportunity to learn a lot (if not
    almost everything) about your target/market, to learn where the skills are
    sitting and how they are employed with which tasks and conditions. I am sure
    once I am aware where I can find my talents even if the pre-identified ones are
    currently not interested, this knowledge, this pre-discovered lead will bring
    me more results thus reducing my time-to-search.


    Pipelining is also about building a good rapport with these experts
    and leverage this network mid/long-term. My main message is to make them sure
    they are important to us, we count with them, it matters what they want, how
    they feel today and so. Once a trust-based rapport is built the referring miracle
    will not delay.

  • The intelligence of the recruiting world is always inspiring, to me. Why is it that I don’t work directly with professionals like you guys? Your passion and love for our profession comes out in every post, observation point and counter point. Which is Nicesh! (sp) :-)

    Recruiting & the psychology therein, is fascinating, isn’t it? Do not fret over the win or the loss of planting the seed. Know that your are helping someone move forward in their life.  

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  • All excellent comments to an excellent post, but I’m surprised no one mentioned the employee value proposition.  A well-conceived and conveyed EVP should resonate with the right talent for your org and cause them to include you in the mix as they inevitably wake up from their passive slumber and, as you said, start investigating other opportunities concurrently.  At that point, the main concern for many recruiters is (as Jo commented) how fast the hiring managers will act.  I think the smoothest, most efficient and otherwise positive candidate experience from that point on will usually win the hire (unless your comp is way out of whack – the right EVP can make up for a slight deficit, but probably not a huge one).

  • my fav =
    What you will also undoubtedly succeed in doing is plant the seed of the idea of transitioning out of their current role and employer.

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  • Looi

    Not sure if the environment now is the same as it was when you wrote this, but as a job-seeking engineer it is really distressing to be told, “Sorry, that’s not really a job. We’re just collecting resumes for a pipeline position.” Additionally, it is distressing to hear that recruiters are only interested in people who are already employed by someone else. I don’t know the solution, but at some point the employers willing to take a chance on someone reentering the workforce may find a much more loyal and industrious new hire.

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  • This has been my major roadblock with JIT recruiting.

    Where do the referrals come from? How do we gain credibility with our candidates? How can we know the market and course correct if we don’t know the road ahead?

    Toyota warehouses spares too.

  • dynamix

    the text on this page is too small for my poor eyes, and browser zoom function is disabled! :0