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10 Email Best Practices for Attracting Passive Candidates

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Clever Boolean and LinkedIn Recruiter are great for finding remarkable people for just about any job you need done. But this is the easy part. The hard part is getting the people to respond to your email once you have identified them. The even harder part is to maintain control of the conversation once you get them on the phone. How to pull this “first contact” part off was described in a post a few weeks ago, “The Most Important 5 Minutes in a Passive Candidate Recruiter’s Life.”

This post will describe how to use email to get the people to call you in the first place.

The emails that work

To make the email tips more effective, I want you to read the message below. It went out to 75 HR leaders in the Midwest and it got an overwhelmingly positive response:


Why do you think the email did so well?

Here are the 10 reasons why I think this email was a hit and the 10 steps you should always incorporate in your messages any time you reach our to candidates:

1. Understand the job.

When working with passive candidates, recruiters need to understand what the person will actually be doing and why the work is important to the company. If recruiters don’t know this, they’re seen as just gatekeepers with little influence. To better understand the work involved, ask the hiring manager, “What will this person be doing most of the time, and what kind of results would the person need to achieve in order to be considered successful?” For the HR job it was rebuilding the entire HR function.

2. Determine the employee value proposition (EVP).

To understand the true EVP, ask the hiring manager, “Why would a top person who’s not looking even consider this a better opportunity than what he or she is now doing?” For the HR spot it was accelerated growth, working with a CEO who valued HR and the strategic importance of the job itself.

3. Capture the prospect’s intrinsic motivator in your messages.

For the HR VP spot is getting a seat at the strategic table. This motivating need needs to be reinforced in every component of your recruitment advertising.

4. Tell stories.

Think about the best consumer ads you’ve seen. They’re all stories based on the benefits of the product. None emphasize a boring list of requirements. Note: In the U.S. there is no legal or compliance requirement that internal job descriptions need to be posted for recruiting nor do they need to be boring! This was an invention of the first job boards!

5. Start with a compelling headline.

You must capture your ideal prospect’s imagination in a few seconds. Notice the subject line in the HR email. It was irresistible.

6. Forget the laundry list of skills.

Focus on what the person can learn, do and become. Notice the total absence of any “must have” requirements in the email. Any HR executive knows what skills and competencies are required to do the work, so why waste space listing them?

7. Focus on the future, not the past.

When crafting recruitment advertising describe the future, not the past. Notice how the HR email emphasizes where the company is going and the important role the VP HR will play in this growth.

8. Brand the job, not the company.

Hyperbole, generalizations and boilerplate have no place when recruiting passive candidates. The job brand is a customized description of the impact the person can have on the company.

9. Reengineer the apply process.

Passive candidates will not apply nor will they take some assessment test until they’re convinced the job represents a career move. So start slowly. If the offer is compelling enough even passive candidates will prepare a short write-up, but the big idea is sell just a short conversation about a possible career move as the first step.

10. Elevate the importance of the job.

In this email one of the first discussions the prospect will have is with a board member. This demonstrates the importance of the job. Saying something like, “Send us a short write-up of a major accomplishment and we’ll make sure the hiring manager reads it first thing in the morning,” is also effective.

There is as much art to recruiting passive candidates as science with the recruiter as the artist. It starts by creating a compelling word picture of the job but only revealing its full potential in a series of orchestrated discussions. A great email can launch these discussions by creating a persuasive vision that’s hard to ignore.

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* image by Robert S. Donovan