Anyone in the recruiting industry that subscribes to any staffing industry publications sees consistent discussion around active versus passive candidates (although technically, if they are passive, they are prospects, not candidates). Many people will tell you that passive candidates are better because the people looking for a job are not high-quality (pooh!). That companies will work hard to keep their best people. Frankly, that is giving a little too much credit to most companies because, from what I have seen:
1) most struggle to identify who their best people are
2) they may not have a strategy to retain top talent (like a career model, for example)
3) now that the economy has started to recover, people are more in-demand but few companies have adjusted their compensation up the supply/demand curve (OK, technically, it's up the demand curve as supply goes down...I loved econ!)
Hence the previous discussions about knee-jerk counter-offers. When they hear someone is leaving, they throw some money at the problem and hope that the rest of their employees don't get any ideas about leaving as well. Many fantastic employees end up on the job market (at least via networking, if not some of the more visible job searching activities) because their employers don't have anything more to offer than money. And that just won't do. If you have ever been in a job you hated, you know what I am talking about...they can't pay you enough.
So yes, there are great active candidates out there. The downside of the active candidate pool is that, if they are conducting a full-scale job search, they are visible in the candidate market. So therefore, the competition for the candidate can be relatively high among companies (not that I worry about that as a recruiter...I say bring it!). So the difference between passive and active candidates is about how the recruiter has to compete for that candidate, not the quality of the candidate him/herself.
On the flip side of that, there can be low quality passive candidates as well. You know those people that aren't great performers but they fly under the radar. Well, guess what? Most of them know they have it good because they aren't getting in trouble for poor performance like they did at their last company. Trust me, you know someone like this.
So all companies can and should be recruiting both active and passive candidates. Recruiting the active candidates is a pretty straightforward process. There are the big 3 job boards, niche sites, etc. When it comes to recruiting the passive candidates, though, I feel that most recruiters and most of the staffing industry leaders have it all wrong (with one exception being Lou Adler who totally seems to get this...see his series on passive candidates here...especially Part 3). Think about the last time you had to talk someone into something. They resist so you start selling hard, promising stuff (oh no, not the "what do I have to do to get you into this car?" routine!). In recruiting, this means you have to promise them that what you are offering is better than what they have. And it seriously has to be better. These candidates can be high maintenance, harder to close, and less frequently happy with the job (of course this is not always the case). There's a high probability that you are going to do a lot of work for very little result (and if they truly are the hot shot and not an active candidate, it's likely that they are in fact being well taken care of at their current employer or will get a counter-offer, so good luck getting them).
So today I was speaking with Dave Lefkow at Jobster (and Ethan...as a recruiter you would think I would be better at last names...sorry, Ethan) and was talking about my own perspective on recruiting passive candidates: you don't try to convert a passive candidate into an active candidate, you make sure that they know you and know how to reach you when they have a bad day (and they start thinking of looking). At that point, you still don't try and turn them into an active candidate by requiring a resume (because once they put it together, you won't be the only recruiter getting it), you just get them on the phone (after a good phone call, I can write someone's resume for them anyway) and start talking. So Heather's approach to "passive" candidate engagement:
1) Have something to talk to them about before they even start to think about looking (blogging is great for that). Be credible in their space.
2) Be easy to find (firstname.lastname@example.org, by the way). This means getting over fear of publishing your e-mail address. Time to take the training wheels off.
3) Check in with them once in a while. Don't manufacture a conversation. E-mail is fine, just to say hey. Find out what kind of info they want from you, how often, etc.
4) Be in their community. Repetition breeds familiarity and comfort.
5) If they refer people to you, follow up thoroughly (this sets expectations as to how they will be treated if they become a "candidate")
6) Never require a resume (it's OK to ask, but if the answer is no, keep talking, baby)
If you are doing this, there still may be situations where you need to do the cold-call routine (for example, you need someone with a very specific skill-set or neither your active candidate database nor your current network results in the right match), but keep in mind that the call is about networking, not just filling the one position you are working on at that moment. Think long-term. Many corporate staffing departments reward cold-calling to the exclusion of other sources (for the sake of this discussion, I'm referring to cold-calling as a transactional call, networking is a relationship). I think companies should be rewarding quality and the effective use of the info already inside your company and/or network.