White Papers

Why Most Candidate Searches are Passive - -Passive vs Active Candidate Search


Executive Summary

If you see your people as the most important resource for your company then logically you want the best people. Unfortunately, whether an in-house search process or third-party process most are not designed to find the best people. They are designed to passively wait for someone to come along who will be acceptable to a hiring manager.

The other functional areas of your organization are active or proactive in their activities and processes. Manufacturing has continuous improvement activities, Engineering, new product development, Finance and Accounting finding better systems, Sales developing new customers and expanding existing customers, etc. 

Why seek the best person when the process is designed for failure or not the best performers? Most feel there isn’t a better process. Isn’t that a rather “head in the sand” approach?

This white paper shows what the passive approach looks like and yields and what a very active and proactive process looks like and yields. And, why an active process is preferred by those who recognize the shortcomings of a passive approach.

Finding the best person for a position should be preferred too, especially if it is a critical position. And, today many of those critical positions are not just at the upper levels of the organization. 

Where it Starts

Whenever there is an open position there are two choices for finding the best person for the position, assuming a company wants the best person for the position. Don’t confuse this with active vs passive candidates. This is about the search process itself and its results. 

For decades companies and search firms have conducted passive searches. In other words, they did a couple of things but results were dependent on the action of a potential candidate. They had to respond to a job posting or be willing to engage if someone called about the resume they posted on a job board database or LinkedIn and other places. And, they reaped the results of a passive search, either no candidate or a less that satisfactory candidate they settled for. It has never been necessary. It begs the question, why companies decide to take the path of least resistance for such an important part of their business…their people? Huge effort is put into the manufacturing processes or other business processes to make the company successful and profitable.


Why do most search firms engaged by companies present themselves by the product of their work as unknowledgeable, and when considered carefully, they have a similar process as company in-house processes? Most firms by outward appearance take the approach of do as little as possible to get paid the most. Or, they have low fees so they are paid what they are worth for the quality of the results and companies fall into that trap. Remember, you do get what you pay for. 

Searching for the right individual is as challenging, takes as much thought, and requires one to want to do the best job for the client as possible each and every time as it does to manufacture a product. That is what work is all about and making a company successful is all about. Anything less is unacceptable. 

It sounds like an old fashion work ethic doesn’t it? It is part that and part doing it smart. Investing in only the right technologies that are truly productive and benefit the client. Not, technology for the sake of just having technology. It is necessary to have a process (not much different than manufacturing) that works consistently and produces high quality. Continually improve that process and all its parts to continually produce better results. 

The Differences

What is the difference between a passive search and an active search? By far most companies and search firms conduct passive searches. 

Passive Search

Where are the candidates sought? Here are some of the options.

· Data bases both internal and third party

· Job postings

· LinkedIn – basically a database

· Possible referrals by others who may “know someone”

There may be others, but they are the main ones typically used. Let’s look at each.

Data bases – They are a collection of resumes. Someone searches through them with general information in mind to find the right person. The result is a bunch of resumes with vague general information that was intentionally designed to lure someone to look at them. 

The truth about resumes is that while most people are honest and want to be honest most resumes are embellished in some manner and important information, they deem to be negative is left out. In addition, their information probably doesn’t match up well with the details of the position’s true requirements and nothing about culture. (I have written numerous articles about resumes and their lack of true value.) At best a resume is vague, inaccurate and not very helpful. Most of the time it represents false hope.

Job posting – That is a “billboard in the desert.” It is put out there hoping the right person will see it, respond with something valuable and the right person appears. It too is just as passive because there is no action on the seeker’s end. The potential candidate responded, and the seeker is hopeful their resume will have value. See the comments on resumes. 

LinkedIn – Someone searches LinkedIn or uses it for a job posting, again very dated information for the most part and mostly those who need a job respond or 50% of the individuals found either are not longer at the company that shows as their last one or they are not qualified. The information about individuals on LinkedIn is basically a resume.  See the comments on resumes.

Referrals – If asked correctly, referrals are great. However, most people do not ask well, and they get the quality of information equal to the quality of their request for a referral. It too is passive as because the expectation is the person being asked for a referral and knows exactly what the right individual looks like in qualifications.

Example of What Does Not Work and What Does Work

An example of a passive search by two recognized name search firms conducted for a global company. Each had the search for about a year. What worked well in an active process. 

The client needed a VP, Sales, North/Central America. The position was open due to a promotion. For two years two well-known retained search firms looked for the right person. During that time, they found two candidates. One was unacceptable to the client. The other was made an offer but turned it down as he decided the did not want to relocate. 

We were asked to become involved. Within 45 days we presented three candidates. All three were highly qualified. The client took an extraordinary amount of time to determine which they wanted. The VP, HR and Senior VP, Global Sales said that the leadership team had a very difficult time deciding on who to make an offer to because they were all qualified. We presented their offer and it was accepted. The individual hired today has since been promoted to Senior VP, Global Sales. 

In a passive search the company or firm seeking a candidate did very little but put a request out there and waited for a response or looked through a proverbial box hoping there was a person and resume  about that person that matched up well with their position requirements.

It is not active, nor productive, nor qualitative, nor consistent evidenced by the example above and responses I receive routinely from companies. It is very hard to find the right person for a position. It is rationalized that the talent market is tight, candidates can ignore overtures easily today, and other rationalizations. In other company functional areas the question is often asked, isn’t there a better way? The answer is, of course there is.

Active Search Process

Let’s look at an active search process, like the one that completed the search for the VP, Sales position.

The position is detailed first to the point that it is finite and extremely specific in the three areas of importance. It is performance based as well.


The right technology has some powerful cqpabilities to identify and locate individuals who most likely have what is sought as background for the position. It can be actively used today as a productive tool. Tools are not passive, one strikes with a hammer, cuts with a saw, etc.

The technology used gathers (active) large quantities of real, accurate information about individuals within the position requirements from hundreds of sources, most of which are NOT databases. Information is updated often (active), new, more in depth information added continually (active) to find those potential candidates (not resumes). With our technology this process take as little as a matter of minutes. Keep in mind it is dependent on step number one being done well (also active). And, like any well-developed process each step is extremely important. It takes time to question a hiring manager as a job description is only about 30% of what is needed to be known.

The information is further reduced to those who most closely represent the desired end.  Those who represent the best options are contacted, then qualified or disqualified. The key here is the qualifying process. Qualifying is not read a resume and then telephone interview them. It is a process that takes valuable time invested that returns valuable information where informed, rational decisions can be made.

The information is organized and ordered.  The 2-3 candidates’ information is  compared to the finite, specific, performance-based information about the position. 

The information of those truly qualified are presented to the hiring manager(s).

Provided the information aligns with the beginning information about the position, interview them in person as they have already been qualified past where the typical impotent telephone interview takes it. 

Make an offer to the person who is the best fit and hiring managers like the best. 

Each of the steps is highly active. There are many smaller steps not included here yet are equally important in the process. Our specification of our process is many pages in length. Yes, it is work but like all work it pays off and produces consistent results. 

For the past 16 years the Sutton Group has completed 99.6% of all searches versus 65% for the average retained search firm (that’s a 35% failure rate). 98% of the individuals hired by clients with our help stayed 10 years or longer. 

That is not an accident. Results like that are from a process that produces the quality of individual a client wants and needs. Now we have added advanced technology after careful and extensive research that ensures high quality and quantity results and perhaps even increase the quality of results. It does shorten the time to hire on our end. It can shorten a client’s process by knowing they have just a few highly qualified candidates to interview. The quantity and quality of information provided eliminates unnecessary steps that were necessary with lesser quantity of quality of information.

Stop the passive approach and engage in an active process that produces quality results consistently. And one that is closer to what the rest of your company is doing to continually improve. 

Call us or email to find out how our ideas and process can turn the passive approach into not just an active one, but one that is low risk (of not finding the right person), high return on the investment, and consistent each time. If people truly are the most important part of your business, you will want to change for the better. 

Kevin Sutton, President, Sutton Group


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