Meet the Passive Candidates You Are Probably Missing Out on

By Steve Ward

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repatriates passive candidates

The recruiting and HR world is a competitive one, and it’s hard to stay ahead of the game. In a recession when we are flush with jobseekers, it can be even more difficult to identify the hidden gems in the stacks of resumes we have to screen. Applicant tracking systems help, as do social network recruiting and employee referrals, but keeping an eye out for this one thing can help you snatch up the true unicorns before someone else does.


What if I told you there is a group of hundreds, probably thousands, of mid-career professionals at your fingertips? They have the empathy, grit, creativity, and perseverance needed for today’s (and, maybe more importantly, tomorrow’s) workforce and very few folks in the HR world are even aware of their existence.

Sit back and get ready to take notes, because I’m going to introduce you to them, explain why you need them, and then tell you how to find them. And I won’t even ask for your email address or force you to sit through a webinar to find out.

Introducing the next unicorn candidate: The ‘Repatriate’

Everyone in the HR world is familiar with the term ‘expats.’ For most of us the word brings to mind an image of a high-flying VP or C-level executive and it costs a small fortune to draw them away from their penthouses in Paris. However, there is a  whole subset of expats that do not fit this characterization.

The group I am referring to are expats that left their home countries right out of college as a personal challenge. They were young, idealistic, and wanted to test themselves by jumping into a completely foreign environment. Most of them teach English in Asia for a year or two, travel extensively during their vacations, then go back home and go to law school. Others, however, truly thrive under the bureaucratic, linguistic, and cultural challenges and stay longer. Much longer.

Well aware that ‘iron sharpens iron,’ these people choose to build careers in foreign countries while forging outstanding communication, problem solving, and creative skills. They are forced to be quick studies; they learn the ins and outs of complex immigration and tax laws (sometimes for more than one country at a time), often with no clear way to find the necessary information in English, and under conditions of high stress.

Starting to get my point? Figuring out how to fix those pivot tables in Excel is a cakewalk compared to narrowly talking your way out of deportation because of a bureaucratic mix-up.

Here’s the thing: after a decade or so abroad, they’ve settled into life. They’ve learned the language, but they’ve also formed communities and started families. As great as technology is, you can’t capture the magic of carolling with your kids on Christmas Eve over Skype. Further, many are finding that their careers have hit a roadblock, as many countries in the world discriminate against foreign workers far more than in North America. In other words: They are primed and ready to come home.

In fact, some of them already have, and their resumes may be in your inboxes right now.

Why you need a repat (or two… or ten) in your organization.

It’s not hard to find blog articles proselytizing the benefits of travel, and that twenty two-year old that just finished backpacking around Europe to find herself may truly be a creative genius,  but from an HR standpoint there are an awful lot of unknown variables.

How is she going to handle working out of a cubicle instead of blogging from a rooftop cafe in Prague?

Is she going to be loyal to the organization when she’s been enjoying the freedom to bounce around to different countries whenever she feels like it?

The repats I’m talking about have already seen the world and come full circle to understand what’s really important to them. The exotic has become routine. Being dazzled by cities that never sleep has been replaced by looking forward to getting home by 7 p.m. to have dinner with the family. At the end of the day they are mature, self-actualized adults. What’s more, even though they clearly have an explorer’s mindset, after settling into a country and career, they have simultaneously developed the kind of loyalty and sticktoitiveness that’s hard to find in the current market.

You don’t have to take the word of random internet guy for it though, because behavioral scientists have started to weigh in.

My own wake-up call about this population came when I read an article in Aeon titled How Loneliness Generates Empathy and Shapes Identity. As an expat myself, I realized that although I long ago stopped feeling regular pangs of homesickness that I might consider ‘loneliness,’ as integrated into the local community, language, and culture as I am, I will always be, at some small level, culturally isolated.

The article went on to overview several scientific studies that pointed to creativity and empathy in particular, but also to the related traits of grit and persistence, as I discussed in my own interpretation of the research.

Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind (and several other books popular in the HR field), talks about the Information Age in the past tense, arguing that the modern economy has now entered the “Conceptual Age.” This is a time when “...specialized knowledge work can quickly become routinized work--and therefore be automated or outsourced away.” Pink specifically singles out creators and empathizers as the types of workers that will be most valued in this new age. In other words, exactly the traits that long term repats have developed.

Pink also quotes Designer Clement Mok as saying “The next 10 years will require people to think and work across boundaries into new zones that are totally different from their areas of expertise. They will not only have to cross those boundaries, but they will also have to identify opportunities and make connections between them.”

As Pink told me in an email: “Bordercrossers... sound a lot like expats.”

Finding your diamond in the rough

Luckily, some of the social media tools and strategies you are already using to find people will also work when you focus those efforts on finding yourself a repat with the right mix of hard and soft skills for your organization. LinkedIn, for one, is as popular with expats as it is with everyone else. Check out groups like Toastmasters that are located overseas for starters. Many times the membership of foreign Toastmasters branches is made up mostly of the native population using it to practice their English, but inevitably there will be a few expats in these groups. In fact, I know more than a couple that were founded by expats.

It’s still relatively small, but the LinkedIn group that I run is a good example of the types of organization that spring up organically with the initiative of expats themselves. More often than not, the more industrious of us have to take professional development into our own hands and it’s much easier to bounce ideas off of each other as group. When you find a group like this on Facebook, LinkedIn, or maybe even an expat-run English-language local online news or events website (yes, they exist. I used to run one myself), offer to write an article or do an AMA about resume preparation, or workplace skills that can be learned through online coursework. Help out the community and they will bend over backwards to help you out in return. You’re not just expanding your network to these people, but also to the people that THEY know.

Civic and volunteer organizations also often have expat-driven presences overseas. If you are looking for U.S. citizens, as an example, Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad are both active organizations focused on the nonpartisan volunteer activity of registering American expats to vote. In other words, they are already actively reaching out to the community of US citizens living in that country. Organizations communicating in English related to things like fostering abandoned/stray cats and dogs in countries where having animals as pets is not as culturally accepted is likely to turn up some self-motivated expats with exceptional organizational skills.

Finally, if you follow the advice of, you are already using Facebook and AdWords advertising as part of your social recruiting efforts, so you know just how deep the targeting can get. Try setting some ads to run targeting English-speaking people residing in linguistically homogenous nations like Japan or Korea. Think about what “interests” the type of person you are looking for would have. Try obscure celebrities and political issues that only someone that grew up in your country would know. Start with any of the interests or organizations I’ve already discussed abroad, but you can also try things like comedy shows or movies. Culturally comedies are very difficult to translate, so an English speaking fan of Arrested Development living in Moscow is probably an expat hailing from North America rather than a Russian that speaks English.

Bonus: these ads running in English in foreign countries are a good bit cheaper than you are probably used to too.


I’m not going to sit here and tell you that hiring a repat is risk-free. There will be challenges just like there would be for any other candidate. It takes time for them to get visas for their loved ones and they will go through a cultural adjustment period themselves. A joke or idiom might fly right over their head making everyone feel awkward for a minute. But I’ll tell you one thing: they are ready, willing, and able to do the work.

As you sit through strategic planning meetings and bounce ‘out of the box’ ideas off of each other to try and recruit for those hard-to-fill roles, keep repats in the back of your mind. Even if you find one that doesn’t quite have all of the hard skills you need, and you find yourself hesitating to give that formal offer, remember that of all those soft skills I went through in detail above, the one I left out may be the one that makes the biggest difference: they have mastered learning itself. They've learned laws, languages, lifestyles and cultures most people will never know about. But that curiosity and openness to the world with a drive to bring value to their lives will translate easily into a motivation to bring value and expansion to your organization

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