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by Jessica Mintz | March 10, 2009

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Online job boards have lost their cachet, yielding landslides of risumis for each job posting, many from unqualified candidates. What is a hiring manager to do? One answer that is gaining popularity among corporate recruiters: Go find the perfect candidate, instead of inviting the masses to come to you.

The trick -- something executive-search companies and headhunters have known for decades -- is that the perfect candidate is usually working happily at a desk somewhere. Third-party recruiters have long traded on their ability to find so-called passive candidates, people who aren't looking for jobs but whose skills are a good match for job openings. Unemployed or unhappily employed people are on job boards and sending risumis to as many recruiters as possible. Meanwhile, recruiters who find passive candidates face less competition as they try to close deals.

Among recruiters, active candidates get a bad rap. In the U.S., "unemployment is about 5.3%, so that might mean there are roughly seven or eight million people very actively looking for work," says Allan Schweyer, executive director of Human Capital Institute, a human-resources research group in Washington. "There's some real talent in these eight million, of course, but on the whole, a bigger portion of that eight million are less desirable than the people who are employed."

Mark Mehler, a career consultant at CareerXRoads, a recruiting-strategy consulting firm in Kendall Park, N.J., puts it more bluntly: "You may be employed on Friday at a big company at a big salary, and at 4:55 on Friday get fired. On Monday [to a recruiter], you're a different person."

Fair or not, this thinking is catching on with recruiters who work at big companies, and recruiter message boards and blogs are full of advice on how to find passive candidates. Several types of companies have sprung up to help with the task.

Finding passive candidates involves hunting down names, networking and nurturing relationships until the time comes when a happily employed person might consider a job switch. Online tools like Zoom Information Inc.'s ZoomInfo, which cobbles together job histories when headhunters do people searches, and LinkedIn Corp.'s LinkedIn, which allows recruiters to use their network to communicate with potential candidates, have become popular for finding fresh faces.

Sites that help corporate recruiters build networks of passive candidates are the latest to gain momentum. The rationale behind this breed of tools is that good employees will know good candidates.

Companies like Jobster Inc., Forum Jobs Inc. and JobThread Inc. help corporate recruiters email job descriptions to their companies' employees and other contacts. When friends of friends apply for the job, or sign up to hear about jobs, the tools help recruiters track where these new names came from.

Each tool has slightly different features. JobThread has a newsletter function that lets recruiters send out a digest of all openings, instead of individual listings. Jobster lets recruiters rank which employee referrals yielded top candidates in the past, helping them to prioritize applicants.

The market niche is growing hotter because the economy is strengthening, says Jason Goldberg, chief executive of Seattle-based Jobster, clients of which include Expedia Inc., Nike Inc. and Microsoft Corp. (Nike doesn't comment on relationships with vendors.) Professionals are comfortable with the knowledge that they probably will find a better job every two or three years. "It puts the impetus on the companies to be a little more active," he says.

At Expedia, a Bellevue, Wash., subsidiary of IAC/InterActiveCorp, recruiters spend a lot of time thinking about passive candidates. "We have a slogan: 'Anti-inbox recruiting,' " says Tracy Poole, the company's director of talent and recruiting. Instead of waiting for candidates to apply for jobs by email, Expedia recruiters use Jobster and other methods to build up a ready supply of passive candidates.

Mr. Poole sees this as a must in today's economic climate. "There's more competition than there used to be even a year ago" for top talent, he says.

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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