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Hiring a headhunter? Choose the best type for your needs

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in Career Management,Hiring,HR Management,Human Resources,Workplace Communication

You have a job now, but you know plenty of HR professionals who’ve fallen victim to the layoff blitz. Some saw it coming. Others didn’t.

If you think you might be leaving your job, voluntarily or not, you’ll need a comprehensive search strategy because good HR slots are rare these days.

Using a headhunter for yourself isn’t the same as using one to fill an HR position on your staff. You should be familiar with the two types of search firms: contingency and retained.

1. Contingency search firms

Contingency search firms track openings as they become available and recommend qualified candidates. Companies typically pay contingency headhunters a percentage of a hired candidate’s annual salary. The firms find openings through advertisements, networking and job web sites.


  • Some contingency firms have intimate contacts and learn about openings that aren’t advertised.
  • The headhunter gets paid only if you are hired. That means the headhunter is motivated to present you to as many employers as possible.
  • The right contingency searcher can connect you to several job openings quickly.


  • Contingency recruiters are essentially salespeople shopping you as a product. They could present your application for jobs you might not want.
  • Some firms don’t notify candidates for permission before submitting their résumés for an opening. Ask for notification.
  • You are competing against candidates that the company itself recruits and could hire without paying a contingency fee.
  • Veteran contingency headhunters sometimes put young associates in charge of searches.    

2. Retained search firms

Retained search firms are consultants that help develop a company’s hiring criteria and lead the recruiting effort outside and inside the company. The search firm receives a fee from the employer no matter who gets hired. Retained headhunters find candidates in their databases and via networking and advertising.


  • Retained firms are more selective. If you are an HR manager or executive, you have a good shot at becoming a finalist for a job.
  • Companies hiring retained headhunters usually don’t bring in new candidates once they have a pool of semifinalists.
  • Retained search firms are more discreet.


  • Retained firms usually present you to one employer at a time. The headhunter sends your résumé to another employer only after the previous one makes a hire.
  • It can take more time for generalists with average experience to become a finalist for a job.

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