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How to access the hidden job market

When MI6 recruited spies during the Cold War, they didn’t sift through piles of CVs and scrutinise application forms. Legend has it that the call to British espionage usually came from a discreet tap on the shoulder, usually at an Oxbridge sherry party. A suitable undergraduate was identified by the spymasters with the help of the university dons, and a whisper in the ear would be the invitation to serve the nation.

The hidden job market is not as secretive (or as murky) as the underground world inhabited by ruthless spooks, but it is a fact that not every job is advertised.


The truth of the matter is that many vacancies are regarded as ‘hidden’: never to be seen by even the most active of candidates. Actually, this does not just happen in recruitment, it is also a common practice in upmarket real estate, known as a ‘pocket listing’.

On the face of it, this can appear unfair and be contrary to the spirit of transparency and openness. The US magazine Forbes notes that, “It seems almost a cruel joke being played on people desperate to find work: Most jobs getting filled these days aren’t even advertised.

“Instead, they’re typically part of the hidden job market – those millions of openings that never get formally posted.”

Why would a job be ‘hidden’?

It’s not as sinister as it sounds. There are often very good reasons why a job may be ‘hidden’. These include the following scenarios:

1. Senior level appointments may need to be discreet

Ed Moore, Harvey John’s Senior Tax consultant, says, “There are several reasons why a role wouldn’t be publicly advertised. Most commonly, it’s based on seniority. For example, it would not in a Board’s best interest to let the market know they’ve got an outgoing CEO!”

The succession process for a CEO can require sensitivity. If a CEO of a well-known business is about to depart it can prompt gossip and speculation. Was the CEO sacked – if so why? Is the business in trouble? Does the CEO know something that we don’t? All such uncertainty can play havoc with the share price and reputation of the business.

It is far better to announce a new CEO at the same time as releasing the news that the old Chief Executive is stepping aside. To achieve this, the recruitment process needs to be discreet. And most likely, they will already have in their mind who they want.

2. The best candidates don’t always apply

Job boards serve a purpose, there is no denying that. But with the use of aggregators to fill up certain job listing sites and poor administration of advertised vacancies, it can be off putting to even the most active of candidates to scrawl through the endless job posts. It certainly is not the case of posting a job vacancy and sitting back waiting for the market’s best or most suitable candidates apply! It just doesn’t work like that.

Most of our successful introductions are through direct approaches either through our trusted network or following a period of research, fully aware of our client’s requirements and expectations.

There is also an established etiquette (and dare I say, ego) involved where someone at a certain seniority would not consider applying for an advertised job. If a rival business wants his or her services, then it is up to them, or their recruitment contact, to make the approach. Like the MI6 spies, a tap on the shoulder is expected!

3. An opportunity built around the candidate!

It is not always the case that a position becomes available and then a candidate is introduced to satisfy the requirement. Often, when a firm discovers or is made aware that a specific candidate, or one with desirable skills, is open to new opportunities outside their current employer, they often proceed with the hire then work out the role afterwards.

4. The position is highly specialist

With some roles being particularly senior, specialist or location specific, the pool of suitable candidates is restricted to very few people. A job posting can result in hundreds of speculative applications, the vast majority of which will be unsuitable. It takes time to sift through the CVs, and then to reply to unsuccessful applicants. 

It can be more cost and time effective to directly approach the people who meet the criteria, rather than going public.

How to reach the hidden job market 

Although there can be perfectly valid and sensible reasons for jobs to be ‘hidden’, this is scant consolation for those looking for work, especially in the current climate.

The key is to find a way to access the hidden market. There are many suggestions about how you can make yourself available to opportunities with advice largely focussed on making yourself known in an industry through networking or by attending conferences (remember those!).

A more direct route to accessing the hidden jobs market is to utilise a specialist recruiter. At Harvey John, we know that it is essential to have in-depth market knowledge and to be constantly ahead of the game. We have to know when an opportunity is likely to develop and have the insight to understand what a business is looking for a potential candidate.

We’re obviously aware of a client’s urgent requirement to add to their team, but what about the requirements over the next 3, 6, 12 or 18 months? We encourage these conversations so we can pipeline candidates as we go about our day to day work.

When a candidate comes to us, we know where their skills and experience will be most desired – that’s our job.

A job market is only hidden if you don’t know where to look. Talk to us and we can do the searching for you.

David Waddell is Managing Director at Harvey John.

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