Stealth Recruiting at Non-Recruiting (Passive) Events

As any good hunter would tell you, you’re unlikely to bag the best game when you’re hunting with a large group of hunters who are all congregated in the same location. The same can be said for recruiting at most “recruiting” events. I am constantly amazed at managers and recruiters who expect to capture high-quality “passive” candidates at job fairs that are also attended by literally dozens of other recruiters. Sitting at a booth and accepting resumes is hardly strategic recruiting, and the sheer number of recruiters in attendance at most fairs makes it unlikely that you will leave the event with any resumes that the competitor does not also have. If you expect to gain a competitive advantage consider an alternative approach: attending non-recruiting events in order to obtain a higher quality “passive” candidate in an atmosphere of reduced competition. One major Fortune 100 firm found passive events to rank #4 in overall quality of hire.

What is a non-recruiting (passive) event?

A non-recruiting (passive) event is any gathering whose primary purpose is other than recruiting. Typical non-recruiting events include wine festivals, home shows, entertainment events (movies and music shows), and trade shows. These non-recruiting events (which are sometimes also called “passive” events) generally fall into two categories:

  1. Social and entertainment events
  2. Trade or industry events

Why recruit at a non-recruiting “passive” event?

The typical candidate that attends a job fair is either currently unemployed or is likely to fear upcoming unemployment. In stark contrast, those that attend passive events are likely to be employed people that do not need to be looking for a new job. Although it may seem strange on the surface to seek out people who are “not looking” for jobs, that is, in fact, the best approach if you are targeting the very best (currently employed top performers from competitor firms). Because top performers are seldom actively seeking work, if you expect to find them you need to attend the types of events that employed people are statistically more likely to attend, such as social and trade events. There is another reason why passive event recruiting can be superior to the traditional events. That is that top performers seldom enjoy talking to recruiters. Because they constantly get calls from recruiters, they often develop an aversion to speaking with them when they are not in the job search mode. Because they don’t expect any recruiting to occur at a social event, attendees are generally relaxed with their “guard” down. Non-recruiting events also, in sharp contrast to the hustle and bustle of job fairs, give managers an opportunity to approach and to talk to these performers at some length. By sending managers to recruit at social events, not only are you likely to catch the candidates off guard, but you will also probably be the only people recruiting them at the event.

Which passive event should you attend? (How would I find you again?)

Identifying which passive events you should attend is relatively easy. Start with a tool that I call “How would we find you again?”

Approach #1: The “How would we find you again?” process starts with identifying your top performers in the jobs you want to recruit for. Next, ask for their help in identifying possible passive events to target. If they agree, the next step is to interview or survey each of them in order to develop a list of the specific social and industry events that they regularly attend. Top candidates can also be asked during interviews what professional events they attend. Ask all of them “where and when” industry professionals meet under a single roof. If privacy is a concern, this information gathering can also be done anonymously. You then target the specific events that top people regularly attend.

Approach #2: A second approach requires you to develop a demographic profile of your top performers (their average age, hobbies, interests, where they live etc.). Next, you then present this demographic profile to professional “event specialists” and they will in turn tell you which specific events attract the kind of people in your profile. It might sound complicated, but it is actually just simple market research. Most large HR advertising firms can help you identify the events.

Attending the Event

Once you have identified the events where a large portion of the attendees fit your demographic profile, you must then decide whether to set up a booth or, as an alternative, to send a group of employees and managers to mingle within the crowd. For example, if the event happens to be a wine festival, the company can sponsor a booth and either have a prize drawing or give away free wine (or charge and give the proceeds to charity). If those covering the booth wear logo T-shirts and are aggressive, it is very likely that they will easily be able to strike up conversations with the attendees about their firm and what it’s like to work there. These conversations need to be bold enough so that they interest the attendee but they cannot be so aggressive that your employees come off as appearing to be actively recruiting. During these subtle conversations, names can be gathered and business cards can be exchanged but any “real recruiting” or extended conversations need to be postponed until an informal follow-up call is made during the workweek. Building relationships and subtlety are the keys here. If you chose not to set up a booth (or place an ad) sending a group of enthusiastic employees to mingle with the attendees can also be quite effective. Encourage them to wear logo shirts and to seek out attendees in order to a strike up conversations. Initial conversations can then be extended into targeted discussions with promising individuals about where they work and why it’s so exciting to work at our firm. Again, the focus is on casual conversations, exchanging business cards and the promise of a follow up call. Obviously attendees will not have resumes because they don’t expect to be recruited at a social event.

Why recruit at a trade fair or professional conference?

Unlike a job fair, in which people decide to attend on their own, a trade fair or a conference is a gathering of the very best professionals in any industry who all are sent by the company. Because they are “sent by their firms,” you can generally be assured that they all are the top performing managers, salespeople and technical experts. Having all of the top people in an industry together all of once in a single building is an opportunity too good to pass up for anyone looking to recruit the best. One top firm found that 80% of the people that walked through its trade fair booth were employees of direct competitor firms who were seeking out information about their competitor…a great opportunity to turn the tables and to recruit them away.

Trade Fair Recruiting Requires a “Subtle Recruiting” Approach

Because the people you’re targeting are “sent” by their firm to the trade fair or conference, they are often in the midst of “doing their job.” This means that they need to be approached in what I call “a non-recruiting recruiting” manner. Although it is possible to set up a direct recruiting booth at some events, it is much more advisable to look at trade fair recruiting as a name-gathering and relationship-building process that starts at the product booth. Identifying people and starting up a relationship with them is about all you can expect at a trade fair. In-depth selling and convincing is best done later through email or follow-up phone calls.


As the unemployment rate rises, it is important to realize that the number of people who now we’ll be attending job fairs will increase dramatically, while the quality will, unfortunately, decrease proportionately. In contrast, social events, trade fairs, and conferences will remain the prime gathering spot for the top performers in any industry. Because their “guard” is not up at these events, and in addition, because there are few other recruiters present, approaching potential hires is easier and more effective at these non-recruiting events. Because it is also a relaxed event, there are also more opportunities for longer discussions with potential candidates than could occur at most job fairs. In addition, because the attendees are of a higher quality and they’re not expecting to be recruited at social events, trade fairs and conferences consistently provide hires that are clearly superior in performance (as much as 50% higher) to those found at job fairs. Be forewarned that because fast (but instantly impressive) contacts need to be made, it essential that only top managers, top performers, or your very best recruiters are used at these passive events.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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