What is Sourcing? vs. What Does a Sourcer Do?

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Humpty_Dumpty“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass


A definition of a term works, if the majority of practitioners agree to it. It’s quite remarkable, that with Sourcing becoming hugely popular and necessary, we still lack a definition. Sourcing still “means so many different things”.

Back in January Glen Cathey wrote:

“It believe it would certainly be helpful and beneficial to have a universally agreed upon definition of exactly what sourcing is.”

The question “What is Sourcing?” remains unanswered, because, apparently, at this moment in time our definitions still vary dramatically. Yet conferences, discussions, and classes on Sourcing very much exist and bring together like-minded people.

Not wanting to go into a useless round of arguments yet another time, at a panel at the recent Sourcing Summit Europe I replied to someone from the audience: “Sourcing is what we do”:) 

…But then, it occurred to me that we may be stuck simply because we mix “Sourcing” with “What a Sourcer does”, and those are two different things!

I was reminded about this topic again, looking at today’s SourceCon tweets:



To add to this, here are some definitions from elsewhere on the web:

That is all over the place!

Below I will try to provide a suggestion that may lead us to agree on what Sourcing is (or not – who knows!).

Let’s pause with definitions for a moment and let’s imagine a sole Recruiter serving a small, growing start-up. With a job requisition in hand, the Recruiter:

  1. Searches for matching professionals
  2. Calls them and tries to engage
  3. If all goes well, interviews follow, etc.

Everyone agrees so far?

If during the step 1 (searching for potential candidates) you walked up to the Recruiter and asked what she is doing, what do you think she’d answer?

  • “I am sourcing”
  • “I am recruiting”

I bet you expect her to say “I am sourcing”.

Attention, please! Now, if during the step 2 (calling potential candidates and trying to get their interest in the company and the position) you walked up to the Recruiter and asked what she is doing, what do you think she’d answer?

  • “I am sourcing”
  • “I am recruiting”


I think she is recruiting.

What do you think?

Now, let’s go back to what a Sourcer’s job functions are? – which is a different question from what is Sourcing?

We may say that part of the job is Sourcing and part of it is Recruiting. (Maybe part of it is also making good coffee for the office.) What a Sourcer does, obviously, varies from place to place.

It’s a fact that many Sourcers engage candidates on the phone before passing the information on. I’d say many Sourcers recruit as part of their job.


Comments 5

  1. Ah, that’s interesting!

    It depends also on how we define recruiting: does recruiting mean the entire hiring process or only one step in the process chain?

    For my understanding there is no recruiting without sourcing. And, hiring success without in-depth, all-over sourcing is mere luck.

    As a recruiter I did a poor job, if I’d pay only little attention to thorough sourcing in the first place. Web profiles, resumes, social web engagement & interaction are a person’s background I check as part of the sourcing process. Before the internet, I doubt that sourcing could have been clearly separated from recruiting, but today we can dig deep without a need to get in touch with the targeted person. For my understanding sourcing is one-directional in communication, making data available and checking it against some evaluation criteria. The evaluation piece is the “intelligent” part of sourcing, digging deep to find a sufficient number of high potentials is the “creative” part of it.

    Evaluation is part of sourcing as I understand the process, but interaction is not. Finding contact data still is sourcing. By using it, I start engaging with the person, taking the process one step ahead and into recruiting. For my take sourcing as on one-person related task ends, once I have decided that the person is worth while getting in touch with or that I’d better drop all data found into some storage or just leave it. Or, as part of the entire hiring process, it ends when the targeted number of candidates are on board.

  2. Irina, as always, I appreciate the conversation on this topic, and if we always agreed, one of us would not be necessary. 🙂

    I want to stress that when I developed my definition of sourcing (“The proactive identification, engagement and assessment of talent focusing solely on non-applicants (typically passive talent) with the end goal of producing qualified, interested and available candidates.”), I looked outside the sourcing/talent community and into procurement for a precedent as to how “sourcing” was defined.

    In procurement, sourcing does not stop at gathering information – it includes “qualifying suppliers; driving product validations,” which most certainly involves engaging suppliers to qualify them and validate their products and/or services.

    If you go out to Indeed and search for strategic sourcing jobs in procurement, you will see that these roles are responsible for qualifying and recommending sources and negotiating with suppliers.

    Rather than relying on opinion alone, I believe it is helpful to get clues from the precedent set by other positions and functions that use “sourcing” as a title and a description of the work they perform, which clearly includes engagement, interaction and qualifying.

    Without engagement and qualification, I believe “sourcers” are only performing research.

    Merriam Webster defines research as:
    1: careful or diligent search
    2: studious inquiry or examination…
    3: the collecting of information…

    Even so, if you look up jobs for researchers and research analysts, some do involve much more than collecting information and include interacting with, engaging and gathering information from people.

    Regardless, I am not sure why some folks think that sourcing and recruiting are or have to be mutually exclusive, and that sourcing cannot involve engaging and qualifying candidates much as strategic sourcers in procurement engage and qualify suppliers.

    Additionally, if someone is claiming to source “candidates,” I’d argue that you can’t determine if someone is a “candidate” unless you’ve spoken with and screened them to determine if they are qualified, interested and available (QIA), and if you have produced a QIA candidate, I’d argue that you’ve recruited them. 🙂

    Leveraging data, such as SourceCon’s state of sourcing survey results, the majority of people who have “sourcer/sourcing” in their title (68%) are responsible for engaging and “recruiting” candidates – they don’t submit people/invite people to apply who are not QIA. If you contact someone who wasn’t looking to make a change in their career and after your conversation they are interested in being considered for an opportunity, you’ve definitely recruited them, IMO.

    I’d love to see responses from others and look forward to considering differing perspectives.

    Thanks for keeping the conversation going!

  3. Glen, as someone who has been in HR since the days of the fax machine, I’ve seen and gone through many, many changes, especially related to Sourcer vs. Recruiter job descriptions, functions, etc. In my opinion, your post provides a clear and concise answer. have been active in these type of discussions and I’ve found that many people view sourcing as ONLY doing company research and preparing list of names. While I can easily see this as part of sourcing/recruiting candidates, I totally agree with your statement that you can’t consider them a candidate unless you’ve had an initial conversation with them. Thanks for posting this!

  4. Hi there,

    I think that “sources role” is relatively new in a recruitment and selection chain.

    It seems to me that “sourcing/resourcing” in a HR perspective has an active role to play to identity passive potential applicants to become candidates for the positions available in the labour market.

    In addition, once the “sourcing/resourcing” individuals are trying to identity potential applicants they can automatically start collecting information about the market, industry, trends to the area to understand deeply the labour market.

    More specifically in terms of actions: the “sourcing/resourcing” could engage the potential candidates through different types of communication: email’s; networking; calls….events in general.

    Once the potential applicant formalises his/her interest in go head for applying for a position.

    The “sourcing/resourcing” individual (obviously he/she had already pre-screened the potential applicant in terms of CV, experience,qualification,etc) they transfer the role now to recruiters who will deal with the ‘candidate” which was in the first moment only an ordinary professional and then potential applicant (sourcing/resourcing approach) and then candidates ( does it matter if they will be shortlisted or not to interviews).

    I think that “sourcing/resourcing” has active role in finding potential candidates for positions available not necessarily for passive professionals. The can investigate and exploring potential candidates who are trying to find a new position but they are searching jobs in an inefficient manner.

    Finally, I think that “sourcing/resourcing” can assume as well a “headhunter hat” once they identify potential applicants who are working at present. But the difference would be in a gentle approach to the potential candidates rather than something more aggressive as headhunters do…

    It is my thoughts.

    Fabio Loyola

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