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What Is Headhunting and What’s the Difference From Recruiting?

What Is Headhunting and What’s the Difference From Recruiting?

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What Is Headhunting?

Headhunting (also known as executive search) is the process of recruiting individuals to fill senior positions in organisations.

This style of recruiting may be undertaken by an organisation's board of directors, HR executives or by external executive recruitment representatives known as headhunters.

They are specialists skilled in finding premium candidates for high-level roles.

Headhunting is a bespoke and specific way to search for job candidates.

How Does Headhunting Work?

Headhunters actively seek the top talent available for a specific job opening, and they do this by pre-selecting potential employees according to their experience, their transferable skills and their qualifications.

Headhunters contact the most qualified people on their list, assessing their interest in the role that is available.

They might have to convince someone that is already employed to leave their current role.

Headhunting takes a lot of time and resources. The depth of knowledge needed to be successful as a headhunter is why a company will usually hire a specialist headhunter or executive search agency.

What Does a Headhunter Do?

There are several stages to the headhunting process, and some might happen before the role is even available.

1. Understanding the Requirements

The headhunter will take some time to know exactly what they are headhunting for.

They will find out exactly:

  • What the hiring company needs from an employee
  • What qualifications and experience is needed for the role
  • What the company culture is like
  • Any other important details

2. Sourcing Potential Candidates

Headhunters have a well-developed network of contacts, especially when they are industry-specific.

There are many ways that a headhunter can search for ideal candidates, including:

  • LinkedIn and other social media
  • Industry events
  • Private databases
  • Information from executive contacts

The headhunter will search for candidates who already hold a similar position, have the right level of experience, and the qualifications and competencies that are needed.

3. Reaching Out

Most of the potential candidates who match the requirements of the role will not even be aware that there is a job opportunity available; headhunters tend to work with top-level vacancies that are not even published.

The headhunter will need to contact and inform potential candidates of the role to establish their interest.

4. Shortlisting Candidates

Using all the information that the headhunter has gathered, they are able to present a shortlist of the candidates with the right qualifications and the most potential who might be interested in applying for the role.

Headhunters might help the hiring company with interviews, salary negotiations and even onboarding when necessary.

What Is Headhunting?
What Is Headhunting?

What Are the Qualities of a Good Headhunter?

Many companies choose to enhance their pool of executive talent by using a headhunter's expertise.

Headhunters tend to work in a specific industry, looking for top-level executives.

Whether they are individual contractors or working as part of an agency, they will have a deep pool of knowledge, many contacts in the industry and a great working knowledge of the type of person that is successful in a role.

The top qualities of a successful headhunter include:

  • Deep understanding of individual industries and job specs
  • The ability to spot emerging talent
  • Good at analysing job profiles and identifying skills in others
  • Great people skills
  • Passion, drive and persistence
  • Charasmatic, persuasive and good negotiator

By virtue of their aggressive networking and people skills, headhunters today have created a niche for themselves and are frequently sought after.

A good headhunter will be friendly and approachable; they will already be up to speed on what makes a candidate perfect for the role.

They will also have to be great at negotiating, as an important part of the role is encouraging qualified candidates to ‘jump ship’ when they are already employed in another role.

If they appear pushy or unprepared when contacting you, then this could be a red flag.

What Is Recruiting?

A recruiter might work as an employee of the business (usually in the human resources or talent acquisition department) or as part of an external agency to recruit staff as part of the hiring process.

Recruiters (also known as hiring managers) work in a more passive way, accepting and reading applications from a wide range of potential candidates who have shown an interest in the role.

Recruitment is a more general way of finding candidates, relying on the right candidate to apply for the advertised role.

It can be used at all levels of hiring, especially for entry-level or junior roles.

How Does Recruitment Work?

Recruitment is a multi-step process. Recruiters often work in-house as part of the HR (human resources) department, although some smaller businesses might use recruitment agencies.

Recruiters publicly market a job to job seekers, posting to online and local job boards, and interested candidates apply for the role.

Jobseekers send in an application form or CVs/resumes for an open position, which is screened by the recruiter, and if they meet the minimum criteria, they will be taken further into the application process, which might include aptitude tests and interviews.

Recruiters, especially in-house, will often be responsible for making job offers and discussing things like salary. They may also be involved in the onboarding process.

What Is Headhunting?
What Is Headhunting?

What Does a Recruiter Do?

Recruiters tend to work in the same way whether they are part of an external agency or in-house.

1. Create a Job Description

The recruiter needs to create an enticing and informative job description to attract potential candidates to apply for a job.

The job description needs to include:

  • Duties
  • Required qualifications
  • Required skills and competencies
  • Required experience
  • Salary range
  • Location

2. Share Job Description

Depending on the type of role that is being advertised, the job description will be shared on local job boards, online job sites and, in some cases, in industry-specific websites.

The job description will also be shared on the company website.

3. Screen Candidates

As potential candidates apply for the advertised role, they will send in CVs/resumes, cover letters and application forms that need to be screened to ensure that they meet the skill set required for the role.

Once this stage is completed, there may be a requirement for candidates to take pre-employment screening tests to ensure that they have the right level of aptitude and soft skills.

The recruiter will administer the tests and collate the results to choose the most qualified candidates.

4. Take Part in Interviews

When interviews are needed, the recruiter can either conduct the interview themselves or be part of a panel.

Through the screening process, recruiters can ensure that only the candidates with the most potential are taken through to interview, saving time and money.

5. Finalise Job Offers

The recruiter will work with the successful candidate to make a formal job offer and negotiate packages, including salary and benefits.

This process might include performing background checks and collecting references.

What Is Headhunting?
What Is Headhunting?

Headhunters vs Recruiters: The Main Differences

One of the key differences between headhunters and recruiters is the way they seek the right candidates.

Headhunters actively seek the right person through searching and referrals, whereas recruiters post a job description and passively wait for the right person to apply.

A headhunted candidate may not be looking for a new job, they may need some persuasion to consider the job posting.

Headhunters focus on finding premium candidates for high-level positions, where recruiters are more likely to look for general applications to low-level or even entry-level roles.

Headhunters tend to work on a consultancy basis, helping big business as and when needed to find the right candidate. Recruiters are more likely to be retained or even to work as part of the employed staff as the hiring company.

Potential candidates who have been headhunted will have already been pre-screened before they are approached about a role, and in most cases, they won’t even know that the role is even available before they are contacted.

Potential candidates who apply for a role that has been advertised by a recruiter will have to go through a screening process to know that they have what it takes to be successful in the advertised role.

Contingency or Retained Recruitment: Which Is Better?

A recruiter is usually retained by a company to fill certain roles. But they can also work independently on a contingency basis.

An employer will often choose the type of recruiter that is most suitable based on the calibre of candidate they are looking for.

Smaller firms that do not have the budget to have recruitment staff on the books are more likely to rely on contingency recruitment, while larger businesses will have recruitment staff working closely with the HR department.

Contingency firms may seem like the cheaper option initially, but they might not have access to high-quality candidates.


In contingency recruitment, the recruiter does not receive their fee unless they succeed in placing a hire for the advertised vacancy.

This might not sound like a great deal for the recruiter, but if you consider that a contingency recruitment fee can be anything between 15 and 30% of a candidate’s salary, it can certainly be a profitable enterprise.

Contingent recruitment, also known as non-exclusive recruitment, can also mean that the recruiter is competing with other agencies, or even the client themselves, if they have also advertised the role.

Contingency recruiters have a reputation of sometimes being undiscerning when selecting candidates for consideration.

That’s because the recruiter is under pressure to send over their candidates quicker than their competitors to earn their fee.

Headhunters can work on a contingency basis, taking contracts to find top-level executives as and when needed.


It is more common for professional headhunters to work on a retained basis. Indeed, many contingency firms have also begun to receive retainers.

Retained headhunting firms are paid a retainer fee up front to start the recruiting process, another part of the fee halfway through proceedings and the balance when the candidate begins working in their new role.

Headhunters working on a retained basis get paid for the work they put in, not just for the end result they achieve.

And because they have the time to do things properly, they can tap into passive networks as well as searching through their active candidate database (for active job seekers).

Passive candidates are those not currently looking for a job; headhunters often approach them directly via social networks. Though not actively looking, they may be open to considering the new role, if the headhunter can persuade them.

This can be hard work, but it can also produce some unexpected results.

Retained recruitment firms work in much the same way, but are generally more focused on lower-level roles or those that do not require lots of knowledge and experience.

Types of Retained Headhunting Firms

Headhunting firms can be large, global organisations, but there are many regional boutique firms too.

Smaller firms can sometimes act together as a network, thus gaining global reach and being able to compete with the larger ones.

Some firms specialise in specific industries like retail, finance or IT. Others select and provide candidates only for specific roles, and some are a combination of all.

Global Firms

These cover a lot of ground geographically. They are also versatile in catering to a lot of sectors, from services to media, as well as other industries.

Because they move in such wide circles, they are likely to have access to premium candidates, which means they can find excellent candidates even across sectors.

Global headhunting firms will have many offices all over the world, and the consultants will typically be experts in certain sectors.

Boutique Firms

These tend to be more sector-specific, and they normally look for candidates for senior positions. Usually, these are roles in corporate banking, corporate finance and similar niche markets.

These firms tend to have one or more offices in the major financial centres across the world.

Executive Headhunting: How It Works

Executive headhunting is an extremely lucrative industry; hence it's competitive to work in this sector.

Typically, the approach to recruitment within this sector is broken down into three functions:

Although each person working within an executive headhunting team is needed for its success, generally speaking, the business development person receives the largest commission, while the researcher receives the smallest.

Potential job candidates are selected, scrutinised for quality and put forward to the client by the headhunting firm based on a meticulous study of the job description and job specification, which would have been developed in conjunction with the client.

It is common for potential candidates to be contacted directly by phone, often as a result of a recommendation from someone inside the existing network.

Headhunting firms are focused on identifying quality candidates and work hard to continually update their list of contacts so, when required, they will be ready to start recruiting immediately.

Talented candidates are also discovered through intense research. This might mean identifying and then contacting targeted people in specific companies who appear to fit the job profile in some logical manner.

They will also use social media, such as LinkedIn, to identify candidates who have been successful in their field.

Sometimes headhunters hear about potential candidates via referrals. Some of the best candidate referrals can come from individuals who would be ideal for the job themselves but are not interested in applying.

Frequently Asked Questions

Recruitment is the process in which a job position is posted to attract potential candidates for the role. From the list of potential candidates, a team of recruiters from a company will pick out the most appropriate applications. Recruitment requires active job seekers to interact with the advert for a job position. In contrast, headhunting does not only rely upon active job seekers. Headhunters actively pursue professionals with the exact expertise that is required for a position. A headhunter looks at both active job seekers and passive job seekers, and a headhunter can be employed by a company to find the right person.

Headhunting is a recruitment method, but it is a specialized form of recruitment. More generic forms of recruitment rely upon interaction with a job advertisement. Headhunting is conducted by a select team of recruiters to find the right people for a position. In comparison to generic recruitment, headhunting is generally used for more executive positions that require a distinct set of skills and expertise.

Headhunting is the search for the ideal candidate who has the distinct abilities to perform well in a specific role. A headhunter will find the right candidate by scouring through both active and passive candidates, meaning they will look at people who have submitted applications and who have not submitted any applications. Good headhunters will look for candidates internally and externally, and they will identify people with the specific skillsets that will lead to success in the job role. Headhunting is its own industry, and companies often bring in external headhunters to conduct the recruitment process for senior roles.

The role of a headhunter is to find and recruit individuals who are a direct match for a specific job role.

While a recruitment process may not require a headhunter, a headhunter is required to go out and seek potential candidates. If you are applying for a job through an advertised position, it is unlikely that you have been found by a headhunter.

However, if you receive an invitation to apply for a role because of your specific skill set, then it is very likely that a headhunter has identified you as an ideal fit for a position that is available.

For a company, headhunting is an assured way of finding ideal candidates for a job position. If you are conducting a generic recruitment drive, then internal colleagues will have to work through potentially hundreds of applications to find only a handful of suitable candidates. This can be time-consuming and an expense on resources. However, with a headhunter, you have someone dedicated to finding the exact candidates that will perform well in the desired role. Headhunting is also beneficial because it does not rely on the active job market. In generic recruitment procedures, your pool of potential candidates comes directly from those who have interacted with a job advertisement. However, headhunters also look to recruit individuals that have not interacted with a job advertisement, meaning the pool of candidates is potentially more suited to the requirements of the role.

Headhunters are effective because of how they branch out the job advertisement. A good headhunter will use job boards, university networks, social media applications like LinkedIn, and independent advertisements to build up a network of talented candidates. From this network, they create shortlists of candidates for different roles, and when the applicable roles become available, they pull from their shortlists the candidates who are the most appropriate fit. Sometimes a headhunter may go through a live application to find candidates, but it is much more effective for them to build their own network of candidates.

Recruitment requires individuals to interact with an active advertisement for a job position. Although this may result in finding a handful of viable candidates, the process requires recruitment staff to sift through numerous applications. For a headhunter, this is an inefficient use of time. A good headhunter will have a network of talented candidates who are versatile and are great fits for senior roles. The headhunting process results in ideal candidates being accurately located quickly.

Headhunting is a great recruitment method used by companies who are looking to fill senior positions or roles that require a distinct set of skills. A headhunter will be able to locate potential candidates for a role that are a direct fit with the job requirements and the ethos of a company. Depending on the requirements of the job role, headhunting may be a better use of resources than the generic recruitment process. Instead of dedicating staff to sift through hundreds of applications, you can employ a headhunter to find you the right candidate in a fraction of the time. This means that the staff you would usually use for recruitment procedures can continue with their work.

Final Thoughts

If you have strong skills and achievements in your industry, be aware that you might be approached by a headhunter.

Update your LinkedIn account and make it as enticing as possible. You can also attend industry events and network so that your name becomes recognised as a leader.

It's also a good idea to prepare some answers to career questions and have a strong CV ready.

If a headhunter contacts you, it means they have confidence that you are a good fit for the role.

Make sure you can live up to expectations, but don't forget you are also in a great position to negotiate a good deal.

Companies that want to hire you away from another role are usually willing to offer more money, better perks or something else to make the new role more attractive.

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