Debunking the Passive Job Candidate Myth: the Science of Candidate Behavior


A day doesn’t go by without someone touting a new way to attract passive job candidates. In fact, it seems to be the new golden ring that most talent acquisition professionals are clamoring for.

But according to those who study candidate behavior, that “passive” moniker is a myth. And you should be glad it is, for some very important reasons. 

Indeed’s recently released report, What Matters to the Modern Candidate, for example, takes a deep dive into the behaviors of the candidate in today’s talent-driven economy, and the numbers are astounding: 71% of our labor force are either looking or open to a new job. And of those recently hired, 65% are looking at new jobs again within three months—a whopping 50% of those making over $100,000 per year start looking within 28 days.

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Obviously, that means those passive candidates you are targeting are only passive from your point of view as the employer. They’re open to changing their jobs. They just have not thought of working for you.   

So why is this good news?

First, it means your talent pool is probably much larger than you think. You just need to know how to connect with them.

Secondly, it means they are already receptive to a career change. And psychologically, that’s exactly where you want your candidate to be if they are going to be engaged and productive from day one.

Why are more employees “active candidates” and receptive to career change?

To understand why employees might be more receptive to the idea of a career move, you first need to understand why they may be resistant in the first place, according to Indeed research

Career change requires people to project into the future and imagine the potential benefits and risks. As a species, we’re hard-wired with a negative bias so we’ll overestimate the probability of failure and underestimate the benefits of change because we can’t visualize it in much detail. That’s why candidates who are presented with a great opportunity may focus only on the risks of a career change and not necessarily the great potential outcomes. And it’s also why trying to influence a truly passive candidate—one that has not “made the leap” psychologically—will result in a longer time to convert, and that’s if you can get them to consider it at all.

Simply stated, people are more receptive to changing jobs when they feel the rewards outweigh the risks.

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A recent Indeed study conducted by Harris Poll of employed job seekers showed that only 20% are inspired to act by a new opportunity alone; 80% are reacting to work-related stressors that cause them to be disillusioned with their current role.

Talent Acquisition and the science of candidate behavior

Bringing talented individuals into the organization is one of the most important efforts a company will make. Human Resources has gained valuable perspective from behavioral scientists, occupational psychologists, and data analysts on how people’s minds work once they’re in the organization.  As the recruitment process becomes increasingly sophisticated, it is essential that Talent Acquisition gain those same perspectives to be successful. New Call-to-action

The science behind decision making and how people consider career changes has a huge impact on the success of your recruitment efforts.  Most people are wired to be resistant to career change. The forces against it are extremely strong. It’s stressful. It’s hard work. Understanding what inspires us to go against our own nature to consider such an important life change can help us be far more effective in engaging top talent.

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Written by Patty Silbert

President of Newton Talent since 2018, Patty Silbert has over 30 years of experience developing the innovative solutions that help HR professionals just like you meet their most pressing recruitment challenges and their companies achieve their talent acquisition goals. She is a regular writer and speaker on the subjects of recruitment strategy, employment branding, HR technology, and leadership.