5 Ways to Prep for Engaging Passive Tech Candidates

I’ve got a name, now what?

In this three-part series on engaging passive technology talent from tech recruiting guru John Vlastelica, learn how to prepare for that first email or call, how to write emails and connect with tech professionals in a way that gets them interested, and finally, how to overcome common objections you’re likely to hear.

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Part 1 of 3

Top tech recruiters know that treating passive candidates like active job seekers is a waste of time. They just won’t reply. In this first article, we’ll share some of the keys to preparing for that first email or cold call, so that you can improve the chances of getting in-demand tech pros to engage with you.

chettacrowley4Talented tech pros get bombarded by recruiters
Many top tech pros get 20+ InMails and emails every week. Most consider the messages spam, and it’s no wonder. The messages are generic, with titles like, “We need a hot shot Java programmer in Chicago. Interested?” and the attached job descriptions are boring and loaded with 30 requirements. Why would a top tech candidate, who is not actively looking for a job, even open that message from you?!

Before you send that first email or make a cold call, you must prepare.

Personalization and customization is key to improving your response rate
So, how do you get a passive tech pro interested? Personalizing the email or phone call is critical. And the foundation of personalization is research.

1.  Research their interests and expertise
Obviously, hardware engineers are different from software engineers. And within software engineering, there are 10+ specialty areas: front end, back end, embedded systems, mobile apps, etc. Going beyond keyword matching is critical to targeting the right leads with the right opportunities. The good news is that engineers often publicly share their interests and areas of expertise on sites like GitHub, Stack Overflow, and in various forums across the web (many of which are searchable through tools like Dice’s Open Web).

stevelevy24So, before you write that email or prepare for that call, you must know something about the kind of technology and work that interests them. Simply knowing they’ve done Java programming is not enough. What kind of technology are they passionate about? Are they contributing code to the open source community, sharing ideas in forums, or writing blog posts that highlight their expertise? You want – no, you need – to know this ahead of time. It will help you make a more credible introduction and avoid generic approaches like, “I see you have 6 years of Java programming experience. We need someone with 5-8 years of experience, so we’d like to see if you’d be interested in this job we have … ”

2.  Research their current employer
What does their company do? Is it a tech startup, a well-established non-tech company, or a well-known global leader in technology? Use that information to help differentiate your company from the work they do now. Will your smaller company likely offer them a bigger job with a larger scope than they’d have as a Software Developer II at their current company? Will your company offer them the chance to work on building something new ­– something that will impact millions versus the maintenance work they do now? Is their company doing well? Is it growing? Is it profitable? Are their products well received in the marketplace? Engineers don’t just care about the technology they work on. They also want to work with companies that are successful and growing, as these organizations offer more opportunities to lead, and often are in tech investment mode.

3.  Research their career history (What moves have they made?)
On a related note, look at their past. If you can find out where else they’ve worked, you may gain insight that will help you craft a better targeted message or reply to questions or concerns. Have they been a full-time employee their entire career, working for companies for 4-5 years at a time? If so, a 6-month contract position may be a hard sell. Have they moved around the country quite a bit? Or, are they still living in the same town where they went to college 10 years ago? If so, getting them to relocate can be a much bigger barrier than quitting a job they like. Finally, does it appear that they’re working virtually for a company that doesn’t have a tech center in their city? If so, a job that doesn’t offer the flexibility they need may be a deal-breaker.

marciedavis4Additionally, if you’d need them to relocate, you’ll want to proactively research cost of living differences. The salaries required to maintain a good living situation in NYC versus Kansas City, for example, are quite different. You need to know this before you target someone, because you could be wasting your time and theirs if your compensation packages and relocation offerings won’t come close to addressing the significant cost differences. Having said that, some candidates might be excited to return “home.” So, if you can tell that a candidate moved away, and your opportunity is closer to where they went to college or grew up, you may be able to offer them the chance to move back to family and friends.

4.  Research their connections (Do you know someone they know?)
Obviously, leveraging a shared connection to turn a cold email or call into a warm one is recruiting 101 stuff. So, it would be silly not to leverage social media, your colleagues’ shared work history, and your own work history to improve your chances of getting a response and/or helping to gain additional insights about this passive candidate’s motivators and interests.

5.  Research your own company and jobs
Steps 1-4 are critical – you should never go in blind when contacting a passive candidate. However, you eddelgado4also must know your own stuff. What’s the value proposition for a top engineer at your company? Look beyond the buzzwords on the job description to be able to share – and answer questions about – the specific projects they’d work on, the impact their work would make, the team they’d work with (including the hiring manager’s background), and the salary and relocation packages available. Depending on a traditional job description (which, let’s be honest, is probably poorly written) to persuade a top-quality passive candidate to leave his/her job is not going to cut it. Do your research and your credibility will skyrocket. (Plus, you’ll stand apart from recruiters who send spammy, “Interested?  Job description attached” emails.)

Wrap Up: The foundation of good engagement is research
So, what’s the secret to improving your hit rate? Learn as much as you can about a candidate’s interests and motivations (not just the keywords and technologies in their profile) to ensure the kind of opportunities you have align with what they likely want. In summary, customize your approach to what a candidate cares about; not what you have to offer.

In the next article, we’ll focus on how to write emails and engage passive candidates in a way that will significantly improve your chances of getting them interested. 

11 Responses to “5 Ways to Prep for Engaging Passive Tech Candidates”

    • RK Mocherla

      Superb article,I had been following quite a few strategies that you had prescribed ,your article puts them in perspective.
      I am drilling the same to my staffing team saying how difficult it is to engage passive candidates

  1. David L. Allen


    All excellent points and in a perfect world, would make recruiters more effective. And with management and C-level positions, your recommendations are spot on. But the reality with passive candidates is that no matter how well crafted the pitch, the vast majority of them are not going to look at new opportunities at any given time. So realistically, we must reach out to many candidates to find a few willing to look at a new opportunity. If I put as much research as you suggest into every candidate for an individual contributor position, and I have multiple positions to fill at any given time, how can I hope to reach out to enough candidates?

    Obviously there is a happy medium and it would truly be helpful to know your thoughts on what that is.

  2. johnvlastelica

    David – Totally agree. And for corporate recruiters, in the real world, you’ll likely not have capacity to focus all of your efforts on passive candidate recruiting…you’ll depend heavily on job postings, internals, referrals, contractor conversions, your ATS (especially if you have a brand). There’s no way a recruiter can do all of this for every req – unless, it’s low volume (exec) or you’re in a pure sourcing role and passive talent is the only talent you can/should target.

    I recommend recruiters prioritize their reqs, and realistically look at where the best talent is (target candidate profile work will tell you what kind of companies and people target), and then identify whether traditional inbound recruiting will get you the talent…or, if you need to do more outbound, passive-candidate recruiting.

    This article was written for the recruiter who wants to improve their hit rate on direct sourcing. But first you have to decide if direct sourcing is necessary, and the right approach. Our capacity as recruiters is finite. Agree.

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. Amber Shinault

    Great article! It is so true. That is why a passive candidate is a longer recruit. It’s not an instant pay off, but a recruiter, candidate, and client/employer are all better served with the right fit rather than the quick fix.

  4. I agree with most points in the article and most are good strategies, in general. We always personlize our contact with our candidates – active or passive. However, we are a staffing company and have a time-sensitivity issue, that of having immediate or multiple open positions and a short window of opportunity to fill a position. I would like to add that for companies like ours, the biggest impediment in generating interest from good candidates is, in fact, DIRECTLY linked to the “We need a hot shot Java programmer in Chicago. Interested?” approach. That now all too common shot in the dark mass recruiting, along with some other not-so-legitimate recruiting practices, have conspired to give professional, talented and respectable recruiters a ‘bad name’. In other words, we find ourselves met with resistance too often, because a top-notch candidate has a bad taste in their mouth from previous experiences like that … usually, more than once! If only everyone practiced such eloquent recruiting techniques, we’d all be doing each other a great service!

  5. Carlos Arias

    This is such a great advise, I have been utilizing this procedure for quite long time, however until you put all of them together and in the right order it start to getting big results.

    Thank you.