Employers: Tap Into “Hidden Hopefuls” for Some Hope of Your Own

I’ve heard it again and again—the same lament uttered by everyone from senior executives and functional leaders to recruiters and hiring managers:

“I can’t find the qualified talent I need.”

The tone in their voices is unmistakable. It’s the sound of lost hope. Their search for qualified individuals has become tantamount to finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. Adding to their frustration is the fact that millions of people are searching for work and employees are jumping ship at their old companies in record numbers. Despite this abundance of available talent—and despite making significant investments in their TA teams, their recruiting tools and technologies, and their candidate experiences—finding qualified candidates hasn’t gotten one bit easier. Indeed, it seems to have gotten harder.

How can this be, they wonder.

The answer to their question is the subject of a recent Harvard Business School (HBS) report, “Hidden Workers: Untapped Talent,” and an ensuing spate of articles based on the report’s findings, including’s “In the Middle of the Great Resignation, Employers Are Rejecting Millions of Qualified Workers, New Harvard Research Finds,” and The Verge’s “Automated hiring software is mistakenly rejecting millions of viable job candidates.”

I’ll be honest. Reading these pieces sent my blood pressure soaring.

Hidden Talent & Our Broken System

As a Talent Board consultant, I help organizations examine and improve their recruiting practices and candidate experiences. An alleged dearth of qualified talent has been a thorn in my side for a long, long time. I’ve found that, for many employers, it’s a self-imposed problem. The HBS report and the articles it spawned explain why:

  • From the HBS report—“An enormous and growing group of people are unemployed or underemployed, eager to get a job or increase their working hours. However, they remain effectively ‘hidden’ from most businesses that would benefit from hiring them by the very processes those companies use to find talent.”
  • From the article—“Problematic hiring software and bad job descriptions deserve a big chunk of the blame.”
  • From The Verge’s article—“Automated hiring software is mistakenly rejecting millions of viable job candidates. [And] automated resume-scanning software is contributing to a ‘broken’ hiring system in the US.”

In short, these pieces are saying that the very technologies and practices we’ve implemented to improve our recruiting results and candidate experiences are actually hindering our ability to source and hire qualified talent.

The truth is, these technologies and practices are only partly to blame. We are the real problem.

Where We’re Going Wrong

Recruiting technologies are only as good as we enable them to be. Take ATSs and RMSs, for example. These tools screen out candidates based on the parameters we set (emphasis on “we”). In fact, when our parameters are particularly narrow, the technologies follow suit. As the HBS report states, “they exclude from consideration viable candidates whose resumes do not match the criteria but who could perform at a high level with training. A large majority (88%) of employers agree, telling us that qualified high-skills candidates are vetted out of the process because they do not match the exact criteria established by the job description.”

The article in The Verge cites one company that rejected applicants for a retail clerk position because they “didn’t list ‘floor-buffing’ as one of their skills, even when their resumes matched every other desired criteria.”

Overlooking viable talent that’s hidden in our systems is hardly the only way we’re working against our own best interests. For instance:

  • We dismiss active job seekers without a glance at their credentials. I’ve had conversations with good friends and respected leaders in the TA space who’ve told me in various ways that active candidates are not worth the time it takes to evaluate them. OUCH! We post jobs and, when we’re fortunate enough to have interested job seekers apply, we ignore them. These are people who believe they meet our needs and who are interested in working for us! Granted, not all of them are actually qualified and some are hoping to land any job. That’s always the case. But invest in broadcasting our posting only to dismiss active job seekers out of hand and then complain that we can’t find qualified talent is a folly.
  • We don’t un-post positions after we’ve reached some reasonable, predetermined threshold of applicants. Say, 25 per position, just for argument’s sake. Let’s vet those applicants before we open up the queue to more. I’ve felt crazy at times suggesting this … but is it any crazier than allowing 250 or more applicants to pile up for a single job, which happens all too frequently these days? I know that there are openings too on which we would kill for that kind of applicant flow. For often professional positions though, allowing that many applicants to flow into our queue of the damned does no one any good—not us, and not our applicants. Or, to put it less dramatically, if we just uncovered the “hidden” hopefuls who are actually viable candidates for our jobs without annoying 249 other individuals unnecessarily, we’d not only accelerate our hiring but our candidate experiences and our employment brand reputation would benefit as well.

We Are the Solution

I don’t want this post to become a diatribe (has it already?!) so I’ll stop there. The point is, we can’t expect technology and processes to save us from ourselves. By not paying attention to active candidates we contribute to our qualified talent problem, which means we’re part of the solution.

We could begin solving our problem with three steps:

  1. Collaboratively identify the hard and soft skills a candidate needs to or problems they need to solve to be successful, and then write a clear and compelling job posting based on those requirements. Resist any tendency to let the requirements grow through the process.
  2. Review the candidate slate after the first 25 or so applicants. Un-post the job as needed to vet candidates judiciously. If the candidates aren’t worth further screening, return to Step 1 and see how the job posting can be clarified and improved.
  3. If the stream of candidates trickles out, return to Step 1—but, this time, consider partnering with the hiring manager and HR to discuss the requirements and the role. Consider and discussing other strategies for getting the work done #StrategicWorkforcePlanning.

Another opportunity is to ensure that your systems and tech stack are configured and used optimally to identify applicants who possess the core requirements, skills and experiences that are most likely to enable their success in the position. As the HBR and other pieces make clear, too many employers have fallen down on this step.

Recruiting technologies and processes that haven’t been carefully crafted, tested, and adjusted incrementally over time are bound to fall short at some point. They function best with some amount of human oversight and course-correction. Taking a “set it and forget it” approach means “hidden talent” is very likely going to remain hidden.

One final note from the HBS report: it affirms that companies that purposefully hire hidden talent report being 36% less likely to face talent and skills shortages compared to companies that don’t make an effort to uncover and hire hidden talent. These companies also indicate hidden workers outperform their peers materially on six key evaluative criteria—attitude and work ethic, productivity, quality of work, engagement, attendance, and innovation.

If that doesn’t convince you to go in search of the hidden talent in your own systems, I don’t know what will.


Jim Fox

Head Of Human Resources at the Family Resource Center of Northwest Ohio, Inc.

CandE Advisor at Talent Board

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