Headhunters and Executive Search Recruiters: What’s the Difference?

Have you as a hiring manager or a candidate ever wondered about the difference between a headhunter and an executive search recruiter? We’ve been asked this question many times so we thought we would share some key information about these types of recruitment professionals.

When a company lacks the internal resources, professional networks, or time to properly recruit the talent it’s seeking to add to its team, it will enter in to a relationship with a retained or a contingency search firm to fill the role. Typically, the ensuing relationship will be dependent upon which type of firm they choose to work with.

Retained executive search firms have been hired and paid in stages by the company to devote considerable time and resources to source, attract, and present candidates who have been properly screened to ensure there’s a close match to the position’s requirements and that they’re the right cultural fit.

Because of this time-consuming process, the typical replacement guarantee is one year should the placement not be the right fit for the company or the candidate. Hence, it’s important that these recruiters operate with a high level of integrity, professionalism, thoroughness, and transparency.

Typically, you will find that retained recruiters are involved throughout the hiring process from the creation of the job description all the way through to an offer letter being presented, negotiated, accepted, or rejected. As a result, executive search consultants often have long-lasting relationships with clients spanning many years.

Conversely, the relationship between a client and a contingency search firm – or headhunter – tends to be more transactional, whereby the firm is only paid upon a candidate being hired by the company. To complicate matters a bit more, a company may contract with multiple firms to fill the same position. Therefore, the rush is on to fill the hiring manager’s inbox with a slew of resumes as opposed to candidates who have been fully vetted by the typical retained search firm that aligns candidates with the requirements for the position.

As a result, headhunters are competing against each other to get their candidate across the finish line before their competitors. This may result in overlooking key search criteria, which is why these firms typically only provide a 90-day guarantee should the placement not work out for the company or the candidate.

As you can see, there are key differences between retained and contingency search firms and how each may manage the search process based on the behavior driven between their relationship with their client. There is a place for both types of strategies that companies employ to work with recruiters and hopefully, this helps provide you with some differentiation between the two so that in the future you can choose the appropriate resource for your specific needs.