Sourcing people for a company has never been easier. While there are at present, several options available for a person to apply to any position online, some people choose to take an entirely different approach to a job hunt. These people rely on their relationships with trusted recruitment consultants to get placed in lucrative roles.

Should You Use a Headhunter for Winning New Talents

© | Sira Anamwong

In this guide, you’ll learn about 1) what is head hunting, 2) advantages of using headhunters, 3) disadvantages of using headhunters, and 4) how to make the most out of headhunters.


What is a headhunter?

A headhunter is an entity that assists a company in sourcing talent, especially in executive or specialized positions. A headhunter can be an individual or a recruitment corporation (known formally as an executive search firm).

Differences between a headhunter, a recruiter and a sourcer

Not every person that recruits for executive positions on behalf of a corporation is a headhunter. In fact, there are three distinct roles that such a person can play in a corporation:

  1. Headhunters are either independent consultants or employees working on behalf of a corporation to look for and induct candidates with desired skill sets. Consulting headhunters may simultaneously work for multiple corporations.
  2. Recruiters on the other hand, are either employees on the payroll of the company or third party consultants that take part in the recruitment of talent. Recruiters take on a much more focused and comprehensive role in the recruitment process, compared to headhunters. It is the responsibility of a recruiters to be a part of every step of the recruitment process, including job advertising, candidate screening and induction.
  3. Sourcer: As opposed to headhunters and recruiters who hunt for any individual(s) fitting their requirements, a sourcer only locates and lists out particular individuals. A sourcer’s job is much less comprehensive in that he is exclusively responsible for tracking certain individuals that are deemed fit for particular roles within the corporation, and he is in no way a part of the actual recruitment process.

Forms of search

It’s not just executive search that a corporation is interested in; in fact there are several different forms of searches that a corporation may conduct to find suitable candidates to fill in vacancies. Some important forms of search are:

Delimited or Engaged Search: Delimited/engaged search is a search method applied by corporations where an exact sum of money is agreed upon prior to the commencement of the search. This sum is, however, refundable if the consultant is unable to find a suitable candidate for the job. Generally, a part of the sum is paid in advance and the rest, upon fulfilment of the task. In any case, however, in a delimited search, the consultant always states a deadline by which he would either fill up the vacancy or refund the amount to the corporation.

Retained Search: Retained search is a form of high-level executive search where a consultant or an executive search firm is retained to assist in the search for a senior level employee, most commonly, a CEO, VP or a COO. An upfront fee is usually charged by the consultant or the firm. Compensation for such a high-profile search isn’t meagre – a retained search may cost anything from 16.67% to a whopping 33.33% of the yearly remuneration of the selected executive. A retained search is extensive and not at all deadline-oriented. The recruiter is much more concerned with inducting the most suitable candidate by employing tried and trusted procedures, rather than working at a tight schedule and accruing as many candidate profiles as possible. Retained searches can be lengthy and sometimes non-productive, since the recruiter is tied to the particular vacancy at hand.

Contingent Search: A contingent search is a form of search where the recruiter is entitled to a promised sum of money only after the candidate that he has selected is hired by the corporation. Unlike retained search, in contingent search, the recruiter is not entitled to any kind of advance payment for conducting his search. By engaging in a contingent search, your business can minimize upfront costs. There are also added benefits like utilization of extensive advertising campaigns, locating and engaging the most efficient search teams available and making effective utilization of all available candidate referrals and market networks. There are two distinct domains of a contingent search – they are:

  • Responsive Contingent: A responsive contingent search is usually chosen for its sped and effectiveness in tracking down the most eligible candidates for any position that are available in the market. This type of search is best suited for non-executive positions, especially when vacancies have to be filled at a short notice.
  • Comprehensive Search: A comprehensive search, on the other hand, deals mostly with vacancies in more executive or elite roles. Comprehensive search methods facilitate a meticulous examination of every prospective candidate before they are deemed eligible. Such extensive assessments are vital to selecting the perfect candidate for high-profile placements, since the stakes are undoubtedly, very high.

Unlike a retained search, a contingent search is much more prompt in that the recruiters try to accumulate as many candidate profiles as possible in order to have a better go at successfully making an appointment. Also, unlike retained searches, in the case of contingent searches, a recruiter is not tied down to a single vacancy – if suitable candidates are not at hand to fill up a vacancy, the recruiter simply moves on to another available job.


In this era of cut-throat competition and employee poaching, the advantages of using a headhunter to source the perfect candidates for your company are manifold. Some of the advantages of using a headhunter are discussed below.

Increase in efficiency: A noticeable benefit of using a headhunter to source candidates is enhanced efficiency in your search. Headhunters help your business conduct a well-organized candidate search by performing the following tasks:

  • The primary objective of hiring a headhunter is to fill in job openings, and efficient headhunters do just that – they take over all responsibilities of locating and inducting talent and use their tried and tested methods to scan for the most suitable candidates for the vacancies.
  • Headhunters gather and evaluate all job applications and list out the most prospective candidates. You are then able to cherry-pick the most suitable candidate(s) from that list.
  • Headhunters typically have a wide network of prospective talent to choose from and this talent pool often comes in handy in getting access to the perfect candidate.

Segregation of HR from the hiring process: It is always a time-consuming job to advertise the vacancies in your company through your HR department and then get them to peruse the hundreds, or even thousands, of applications from prospective candidates. This puts a lot of burden on the HR department and their regular activities are affected. Hiring a headhunter segregates your HR from the hiring process. Also, in case you are a small business owner, you may not have the luxury of having your own HR team. In that case, you would have to partake in the candidate screening process yourself. Hiring a headhunter significantly reduces your search effort and lets you concentrate on your daily activities.

Reduction in hiring costs: It is always a painstaking job to scan through all the job applications that you receive. But more importantly, it is also very capital-intensive, since a lot of worthwhile production time is spent in perusing hundreds of CVs to just pick a few. Hiring an efficient headhunter can substantially reduce hiring costs for your business. Since headhunters do a pre-selection of prospective employees and only send through resumes of the most suitable candidates, you save a lot of productive time and thus, money.

Recruitment of reliable employees: Headhunters use their sourcing skills and years of talent-resourcing experience to induct the most reliable of employees. It is always a wise decision to trust the judgment of an experienced headhunter to locate employees who not only fit the bill, but are reliable as well. An experienced headhunter is capable of identifying and rejecting job hoppers, thus saving on imminent future losses in the form of inducting and training costs on unreliable job-hopping employees.

Recruitment of passive job seekers: The role of a headhunter is invaluable to your business in that they try and recruit passive job seekers. It is difficult, if not impossible for any business to locate prized employees who are passive job seekers. The main reason why it is difficult to locate such employees by yourself is that these people are already in lucrative employment and are as such, they are not formally looking out for better opportunities. Headhunters use their profound networking skills to proactively seek out such employees and make offers to them on behalf of your business.

Maintaining confidentiality: Confidentiality is one of the biggest perks of hiring a headhunter. There are certain scenarios where job openings cannot be publicized – it may be that you are looking to replace existing non-performing employees but are not able to openly advertise, since that may create an attrition. Headhunters help you look for a suitable replacement discreetly without having to let the underperforming employee be in the know.


Hiring a headhunter comes with its set of disadvantages. The most generic shortcomings of a headhunter are listed below.

Headhunters aren’t experts in your industry

You will need to address the fact that however good a headhunter is, his skill level and experience isn’t cut out specifically to address the precise requirements of your industry. After all, headhunters only locate talent; they themselves are quite alien to your line of business. Headhunters typically source employees to match requirements on paper – the actual efficacy of the selection depends a lot on how intricately you have been able to describe your specific requirements to your headhunter.

You are far removed from the hiring process

Since hiring a headhunter practically eliminates you from the hiring process, it is possible that you might end up getting unpleasant surprises in the form of unsuitable candidates. From the perspective of the headhunter, these employees might seem to be perfect for the job on paper, but the reality may be far removed from that. Such a wrong selection might turn out to be a big risk for your business.

It is expensive to hire a headhunter

It is not always cost-effective to hire a headhunter. Headhunting firms on average charge up to one fourth of an employee’s yearly remuneration as commission. In the case of senior executives, the percentage of commission is even higher. This high rate may not always work to your advantage. Thus, in many cases, you would be better off sourcing talent single-handed, and use a headhunter only in specific scenarios.

Hiring a headhunter does not necessarily ensure you get the best talent

For a headhunter, the requirement of your business is just another set of hiring criteria written on paper. A headhunter isn’t able to differentiate between the minute intricacies when it comes to highly-specialized job portfolios. For example, the most a headhunter can do is scout for a “finance guy” for example, but he cannot discern between various fields within the finance domain, and as such, his selection of talent may be of little or no value to your business.

Hiring a headhunter might cause a conflict of interest

Some employees are wary of headhunters because they perceive that headhunters are bound by contract with certain corporations and will only offer jobs in those corporations, irrespective of better opportunities elsewhere. From the perspective of your business, you risk losing out on prospective candidates just because they do not happen to trust the headhunter appointed by you.


A headhunter, if chosen wisely, can be of immense value to your business. However, it would not be wise to shift all your hiring responsibilities to your headhunter and completely detach yourself from the talent-sourcing process. Below, we discuss a few necessary steps you need to take so that you can make the best use of a headhunter.

Search for the right headhunter, screen him and understand his areas of expertise

Although one of the foremost reasons why you might hire a headhunter is to avoid wasting valuable production time in looking for prospects, there are a few searches that you will have to conduct by yourself anyway, and that is to locate the perfect headhunter for your business. Locating the right kind of headhunter is an intricate and time-consuming task – after all a lot rides on his talent and experience. It is absolutely essential to hire a person who you can confide in and be completely convinced that his level of skills and industry experience works to your advantage.

Select using a formal process

It is in your best interest to set up a formal process for selection of a headhunter. Having a proper selection procedure in place like for example, an RFP (Request For Proposals), coupled with an organized bidding system will place you in an advantageous position when perusing and contracting with individual headhunters as well as recruiting firms. Having an RFP in place will put the onus on the applicants to provide detailed descriptions of their recruiting experience as well as submit proposals that are comprehensive. Such detailed applications will not only contain various data about the applicant’s competence, but will also make it clear to you if they have satisfactory references for all the candidates they have placed in the past. This will go a long way in assisting you to decide on the best headhunter for your business and give you added confidence in endorsing your judgment.

Arrange a professional interview with a headhunter and prepare in advance

As much as you might want to avoid the prospect of having to interview candidates for available jobs, you will still need to conduct a few interviews to choose the right interviewers (the headhunters, of course) for your future employees. If the headhunter is a recruitment firm, make sure that you visit their premises to understand how they work and whether their procedure of functioning will suit your requirements. Conduct exhaustive interviews, but always prepare in advance – you will need to have a set of questions that are specific to your industry that you can put to the headhunter and scrutinize if their response is satisfactory.

Agree on requirement for a new talent

As a business owner in a specialized industry, your requirements are bound to be highly specific. In such a scenario, it would be a futile attempt to work with a headhunter that provides only generic placements. You would instead, need to look for recruiters that not only cater to your industry, but to your specific domain of expertise as well; which is why it is imperative that you specifically define your exact requirements on paper well in advance. In case you are looking to fill only executive positions, there are headhunters who specialize in that as well. Once you find the right type of headhunter for your business, it is imperative that you both agree on your requirement for new talent.

Compensation negotiation

You will need to talk money in specific terms with the headhunters. This not only includes the salary expectations of the candidates that they send through, but also all additional benefits, compensation and packages that you are able to offer to your future employees. Also, make sure that the headhunter is able to and willing to negotiate yearly compensation with employees on behalf of your business. It is also imperative that you negotiate and state in very clear terms, the fees that you will be paying to the headhunter for their search efforts. This is usually calculated in terms of a percentage of the employee’s yearly compensation. It also depends a lot on what kind of search the headhunter is assigned to undertake.

Take active part in the recruitment process. Never get detached

Lastly, it is very important for your business that that you remain an active part of the search process – after all, it’s your business and you can never afford to detach yourself from the recruitment process, irrespective of how good your headhunter is. It is absolutely essential that you routinely supervise the recruitment process to ensure that it is always aligned with the strategic goals of your business. You will also need to make sure that your headhunter isn’t ‘poaching’ employees from corporations that you do business with – that would create a serious breach of trust issue that you will need to avoid at all costs.

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