Sourcing vs. Recruiting: What Do You Do Best?

I’m a talent sourcer. And if I had a dime for every time I was confused with a recruiter, I’d probably be building a giant "Sourcer vs. Recruiter" flowchart out of dimes. Lacking dimes, I’ll do the next best thing: finally settle this sourcing vs. recruiting debate.

What is Talent Sourcing, and How Does it Differ from Recruitment?

I like to define “sourcing” as finding, identifying, and the initial engagement of non-applicants to turn some of them into applicants. The operative term here is non-applicants (NOT passive candidates), individuals who haven’t applied for an open position.

On the other hand, recruiting refers to the entire process of identifying, screening, interviewing, and selecting applicants to fill open positions. Recruitment primarily deals with applicants.

Why the distinction between "non-applicants" and "passive candidates"? Passive candidates may be open to the right opportunities but are not actively seeking them. Conversely, non-applicants can mean individuals who are not looking for jobs and have no intention of leaving their current role.

The confusion or lack of clarity between the two functions isn't without merit. Recruitment, in its broadest sense, encompasses sourcing. However, over the past three decades, sourcing has emerged as a specialization in its own right. It has become more technical and complex owing to the sheer number of sourcing channels available today.

When I talk to someone who recruited 30 years ago, they’ll say that they had only a Rolodex, a stack of resumes and a telephone. They sourced the limited data they had. With the emergence of internet job boards and social media, the data available to recruiters exploded. This led to sourcers developing a particular skillset of research and outreach (think Boolean search or cold emailing) to expedite and improve talent finding and identification.

A Liam Neeson meme from the film Taken created for the sourcing context
The sourcing skill set summed up

It takes a specific combination of skills – the ability to mine the web, manipulate search engines and relentless creativity – to be good at modern sourcing. Conversely, recruiting requires other skills ultimately. Most full-cycle recruiters are better at managing the actual process of hiring from start to finish, which demands a massive chunk of their time and resources (think rolling out an offer or scheduling a candidate for two rounds of in-person interviews with four people each).

Can Recruiters Source and Sourcers Recruit?

The short answer, it depends.

It would be easy to plug an analogy here, saying recruiting is like fishing - casting wide nets and sorting the fish they catch. At the same time, sourcing is more like scuba diving, where the focus is diving deeper into the talent pool to uncover otherwise hidden talent that the net will not catch.

But in practice, the distinction between sourcing and recruiting is more nuanced.

In different organizational contexts, the lines between sourcing and recruiting can blur. Some recruiters are skilled sourcers, actively engaging non-applicants. Others excel at managing the hiring process, ensuring a seamless journey for candidates and hiring managers. While some professionals become masters of both roles, many find their sweet spot in one or the other. This isn't about needing every recruiter to be an expert sourcer, but instead recognizing the unique value each function brings to the talent acquisition table. The bottomline line is that recruiters can get by without being expert sourcers; similarly, sourcers can enjoy phenomenal professional success without ever having to manage recruiting.

I’ve compiled a list of activities all relating to hiring and split them into what I perceive as the domain or sourcing vs recruiting.

Activity Sourcing Recruiting
Target Population Non-applicants Applicants
Main Goal Attract and engage non-applicants Screen, interview, and select applicants
Focus Building talent pipeline, identifying hidden gems Matching candidates to open positions, managing hiring process
Key skills Research, outreach, creativity, social media savvy Process management, communication, interviewing, negotiation
Typical activities Building candidate personas and target lists Posting job descriptions and advertisements
Sourcing tools Boolean search, social media platforms, talent databases, professional networks Applicant tracking systems (ATS), job boards, career websites

Now that we’ve looked at the skills and activities recruiters and sourcers undertake, it’s time to closely examine the job roles to understand why recruiters may not be sourcing and sourcers seldom recruit.

Let’s take a small business, for instance—a small business looking for a database administrator. You most likely have a one or two-person recruiting team, often directly reporting to the business owner. In this case, the recruiter may be doing all the sourcing and running full-cycle recruitment, extending their relationship with talent to close the database admin vacancy ultimately.

But in most large organizations, recruiters do not have the time to do extensive research and craft compelling and creative outreach to engage non-applicants. Most corporate recruiters carry the requisition load that does not allow them the time to source, even if they have the skills.

Here’s a comment I found from an old forum that sums it up nicely:


A screenshot of a comment on how sourcers and recruiters prioritize and specialize in separate activities.
A recruiter's take on sourcing vs. recruiting


As hiring evolves, sourcing and recruiting are set to grow as complementing but distinct organizational functions. I believe we’ll have fewer recruiters who can source and sourcers who can recruit. As more and more agencies and corporate hiring departments separate sourcing from recruiting, it becomes unnecessary for a recruiter to know how to be good at "sourcing" and vice versa.

At ChatterWorks, a tool purpose-built for sourcers and sourcing teams, I help our customers navigate the ever-evolving world of talent search. If you are struggling with sourcing, let's discuss how our technology and tailored search services can empower you to discover your desired talent.

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