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What Is a Headhunter?

What is headhunting and is it right for your business? When you need to fill job positions quickly, headhunters offer an alternative to the in-house recruitment process. There are many reasons why hiring a headhunter to fill open roles is beneficial. When deciding whether to hire internally or outsource to a third-party headhunter, consider the unique needs of your company.

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What is a headhunter?

So what is a headhunter? Headhunters are much like recruiters in that they approach highly skilled people to help companies fill specific job roles. These target candidates are already employed by other companies but are open to new opportunities. Headhunters are experts at networking and understanding the current job market, which makes them highly effective at recruiting candidates.

You can also define headhunter professionals as executive recruiters, and their practice of finding qualified candidates is commonly known as an executive search. They work for agencies or as freelancers, getting hired by companies as a third-party resource. While they only make money upon the successful placement of a job candidate, their compensation may amount to 30% or more of the new hire’s total first-year salary.

Benefits of using a headhunter

Understanding the headhunter meaning helps you start imagining what one can do for your business. Potential benefits of using a headhunter include:

Market expertise

Headhunters know the job market, with some specializing in certain industries. This helps them work efficiently to find the best candidate for a specific position. Companies that are short on time and resources often realize the value of a headhunter and see their assistance as a worthwhile investment.


Because headhunters typically work on commission, only getting paid if the people they find get hired, they’re driven to deliver top talent. They recognize the importance of finding the best candidates and won’t waste your time. They refer top candidates who meet certain requirements.

Fast results

Headhunters devote their days to finding candidates and matching them with the right companies. They likely already have candidates that might work for your opening. Even if they don’t, they can find someone with the skills you need quickly because it’s all they do. This is especially helpful when you need to fill a position quickly and don’t have the time or resources to devote to recruiting.

Free up HR staff

Outsourcing the recruiting process makes your HR department more efficient. If you don’t have a dedicated recruiter, the job of finding candidates falls on other HR employees. It can spread the staff too thin and take them away from other important HR responsibilities. When you use a headhunter, you save time with fast results and free up HR staff to do other tasks.


Paying for a headhunter can be costly, but it can also be worth the expense. You eliminate the very time-consuming task of searching for candidates and sorting through the options to find people who match your needs. This can take several hours over multiple days or weeks. Headhunters know how to match candidates and employers, so there’s a good chance the hire will stick around for a while. This cuts down on turnover costs.


Sometimes, you want to keep your hunt for a new employee under wraps. For example, if you’re replacing a current employee who isn’t doing a good job, you might not want the position advertised publicly. If you want to keep the candidate search discreet for whatever reason, a headhunter can do that.

Professional network

Headhunters have a large network of professional contacts. Their role in sourcing potential candidates with a specific level of expertise and experience has exposed them to a wide range of industry professionals. By hiring a headhunter, you’re essentially tapping into their network in your search tofill the desired role.

Beneficial in difficult markets

Finding candidates can be difficult in certain situations. In times when there aren’t many applicants for any job, headhunters can help you find the people who are looking or are open to change. The opposite situation can also be difficult. Receiving hundreds of applications is time-consuming, and you might have difficulty weeding through the applicants to find the best options. Headhunters are experts at dealing with difficult market situations.

Captures passive job seekers

Traditional candidate search methods often rely on job seekers finding you and applying. However, many of the best prospects are passive job seekers, or people who aren’t actively searching for a job but would apply if the right opportunity came along. A headhunter is better able to identify and connect you with these passive job seekers.

How do headhunters get paid?

As the company looking for an employee, you pay for the headhunter service. That typically happens as a commission, but some headhunters also work on a retainer basis. Here’s the difference:


When a headhunter works on a commission basis, sometimes called a contingency arrangement, they earn a percentage of the hire’s salary for the first year. They only get paid if they find a candidate who accepts the job. This gives you some protection, since you don’t pay unless the headhunter is successful.

However, the fee can add up if you’re looking to fill a high-paying position. The percentage the headhunter takes can vary, so make sure you know the figure before you enter an agreement.


Other headhunters work on a retainer basis. This means you pay an agreed-upon fee, and the headhunter works until they find the right candidate for you. The headhunter also does the search on an exclusive basis, which means you’re not using any other recruitment agencies at the same time.

How to select a headhunter for your company

Choosing the right headhunter for your company’s needs yields better results. Before hiring a headhunter, consider these steps:

1. Know what you need

Getting clear on your needs for the position and what you expect from the headhunter helps refine your search. This helps you communicate your needs to prospective headhunters and research their backgrounds to see if they’re a match.

2. Search online

There are many online directories that populate a list of recruiters based on your specific needs. Search by location, keyword and industry to find the best options for your company. Check with any professional associations you’re involved with to see if they have a list of recruiters.

3. Network with colleagues

Reach out to professionals you’re connected with who can provide insight into an individual’s job title and experience. You may find that you’re already connected with a recruiter in your industry. Contact this person to let them know about the position to be filled. Ask the headhunter for recommendations if they’re unable to help you directly.

4. Assess your options

Review the options that seem like a good fit. Don’t go with the first person you find out of convenience. Vet the headhunters to learn their qualifications and how well they can meet your needs. Request an interview with the headhunters you might hire. Consider the headhunter you choose as an extension of your human resources department. As you speak with this person, think about the overall impression you get and if you’d feel comfortable using them as the voice for your company.

Before you hire a headhunter, ask questions like:

  • How much do you know about our company?
  • What is your level of experience recruiting talent in this industry?
  • What does your qualification process look like?
  • How many people have you placed in roles similar to this specific job listing?
  • How large is your network?
  • What is your fee structure?

Taking the time to carefully vet your hired headhunter can alleviate any concerns you have regarding the recruitment process and helps you to trust their selections.

5. Contact references

Ask for at least three references to help you choose a headhunter. Firms with a solid reputation and good reviews won’t delay this request if they have a long list of satisfied clients. If you experience any hesitation, consider this as a warning sign.

6. Define your expectations

Before you officially hire a headhunter service, discuss the details of the arrangement to ensure both sides know what to expect during the recruitment process. Hiring managers looking to outsource the hiring process to a headhunter, who often works for dozens of employers at one time, need to settle the specifics regarding the final fees, job description and desired length of the contract.

FAQs about headhunter services

Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about headhunters:

What is the difference between a headhunter and a recruiter?

Although headhunters and recruiters perform similar roles in finding top talent for the companies that employ them, the headhunting definition is slightly different. Headhunters are third-party recruiters who work on behalf of a firm or as freelancers. They typically get paid commission once their recommended talent receives a job offer. They’re only involved in the initial hiring phase and leave the hiring process as soon as the recruited individual assumes the job position.

Company recruiters typically work in-house, within the human resources department of a company, although you can hire a recruiting service as well. Once they’ve hired the right person for the job, they may continue communication with the individual regarding salary negotiations and second interviews. After the position gets filled, the recruiter may periodically contact the new hire on behalf of the human resources department, when special requests regarding benefits, pay or other needs arise. Recruiters receive a salary just like other professionals employed by the company.

What is the difference between a freelance headhunter and a headhunter company?

Freelance headhunters are self-employed just like other freelance professionals. They don’t work for headhunter firms. Headhunter companies employ professionals to represent their firms.

Do headhunters need a license to operate?

Headhunters don’t need a special license to work in this role. Headhunters come from many educational backgrounds and have unique relationships with their clients. There are no traditional programs designed for learning the art of headhunting. Everything they learn comes from experience in the field as they work with clients and network with other professionals.

How do headhunters begin their careers?

Most headhunters start as recruiters who have a background in human resources. Once they have an impressive network of client contacts and proficient skills in finding top talent, they commonly start working in an entry-level role for headhunting firms before creating their own business.

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