Headhunter: What It Is And How It’s Different From A Recruiter

By Chris Kolmar - Dec. 4, 2020

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You need a job, or you’re thinking about switching careers. How do you do that most effectively? You’ve heard people talk about headhunters, but what does that really mean?

The term itself conjures up images of savage tribes that are none-too-happy to see strangers. How is that useful when it comes to your professional life? Fortunately, the term doesn’t have anything to do with cannibals when it applies to business. In fact, a headhunter could be your best friend – maybe.

What Is a Headhunter?

A headhunter is a person who finds staff for a company. The term headhunter can be misleading and a turn-off for many people, but there’s a reason that term is used. You might also hear a headhunter referred to as executive search, a staffing specialist, or a recruiter. Recruitment is a little different, and we’ll get into that, but it’s so confusing that many people use the terms interchangeably.

A company typically hires a headhunter to find employees. The search usually involves employees that fall into three different buckets. These categories, by their very nature, make it difficult for the company itself to find employees. These buckets are:

  • High-level employees or executive positions. The top tier of a company includes vice presidents, presidents, CEOs, CFOs, COOs, and similarly high-ranking people. Traditional job search methods don’t work for these positions because there is no backlog of people qualified to do these jobs.

    Companies also don’t want a run-of-the-mill executive; they want the best available candidate. In fact, they often want a candidate that’s not available. This is where the term headhunter comes into play. They will often recruit top management people who are already employed. They’re hunting for the best employees, and those people typically have a job.

  • Huge competition exists, and the need is immediate. Another common situation that requires a headhunter is when the company needs someone to fill a position immediately. And there are a lot of available candidates in the market looking for work.

    In this instance, companies simply don’t have the time or resources to wade through the talent pool quickly enough. Headhunters can manage this task for them, and they’re uniquely qualified to do so.

  • Very specialized skills. Some job skills are incredibly specialized, requiring years of education and experience. If you’re someone who knows your level of professional experience is one that’s only held by a handful of people, then you know you’re a top commodity.

    You probably also have a few headhunters who reach out to you regularly. You’ve worked hard to get to where you are and earn your reputation, and you’re always going to have companies competing to bring you on board.

Active and Passive Talent

The reason headhunters are so good at their jobs and can find those top tier people and quickly fill positions is they keep a backlog of talent. This means that they’re regularly in touch with people who have the types of skills their clients are looking for.

This can include people who are actively looking for work; they’re what is called active talent. It can also include passive talent or those people who already have jobs. But they’re not necessarily opposed to another job if a better deal comes along. This collection of passive talent is what really sets a headhunter apart from a recruiter.

If you’re a CEO, you might have two or three headhunters who email you monthly. Maybe they take you out for dinner a couple of times a year. And they do this just to keep the relationship open in case there is a “better” job for you in the future.

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Differences Between Headhunters and Recruiters

While both of these careers center around finding people to fill open job positions, there are some subtle differences.

  • Headhunters. They are usually hired as a third party, not directly employed by the company looking to hire. Headhunters have many, many connections in the business world, across different professions. Some specialize in one area because it requires such specific knowledge. Their day-to-day job is keeping up their relationships with desirable job candidates. It doesn’t matter if the candidate already has a job or doesn’t; the headhunter wants to be their trusted connection to the job-search world.

    When a company hires a headhunter, they expect either fast, and qualified candidates for rush hires. Or they expect the best people in their industry for high-level jobs. Companies also like using headhunters in this situation because they don’t want to advertise that they’re looking to replace someone in the higher echelon of their company.

  • Recruiters. A recruiter also looks for people to fill roles on behalf of an outside company. They advertise the job and then scan incoming resumes of active talent that is looking for a job. They might have a computerized database of resumes, but these are also usually active talent. Their main job is to select the best candidates, and either pass them along to the hiring manager or hire them.

    A recruiter can also exist within a company and not be an outside agent. If the company is extremely large and goes through a lot of turnover, they like to have their own recruiters on staff. These people know that particular industry and company so well that they make much better hiring decisions than an outsider.

One problem in this field is that the term headhunter is often thought of in a derogatory manner. That makes people who are headhunters want to shy away from using that term. This might help them portray their profession in a better light, but it also confuses people and blurs the lines between these professions.

How Headhunters Are Paid

Headhunters typically work on a contingency basis. This means that they get paid if they find the right candidate. A company could hire several headhunters, and only the one who fills that open position gets paid. When they do get paid, it’s a considerable sum. Typically, they receive 20-30% of the new hire’s total salary for the first year. When you’re dealing with top-level executives who have salaries in the millions, that’s a big deal.

Why Work with a Headhunter to Get a Job?

If you’re looking to find work, you might want to use a headhunter, especially if you’re currently employed and/or a high-level executive. If you’re unemployed and desperately searching for a job, a headhunter might not be the best choice for you, but if you fall into the categories below, they’re worth knowing.

  • You have a high-level career or are on your way toward one

  • You have extremely specialized talent that’s hard to find

  • You have a job, but you’re willing to advance your career for the right job

  • You don’t want to wade through job listings

  • You want to avoid competition for a job and rise to the top of a list

  • You have a very in-demand degree and want to find the best first job

How to Find a Headhunter

As with any industry, there are good headhunters and bad ones. You want to work with a well-known and reputable person or agency. So how do you find them? Sometimes they’ll find you. If you genuinely are outstanding in your field and an executive, you don’t have to look; they find you.

If you want to be proactive, then a Google search will bring up many. You’ll have to do your research from there. Look for reviews, referrals – or even ask for them. Meet with the company and gather as much information as you can. The important thing is their level of professionalism. A fly-by-night recruiter will not care if you’re moving ahead in your career; they just want their payout. A good headhunter cares about your satisfaction because that will lead to repeat business.

Tips for Working with a Headhunter

If you think that hiring a headhunter is exactly what your career needs, whether you need it now or in the future, then the following tips will help you come out ahead.

  • Be careful who you work with; make sure they have a good reputation

  • If they ask you what your salary is, be a little worried. A good headhunter knows your worth

  • If they know nothing about you and are interviewing you on the phone, they’re not an experienced professional

  • Look for someone who is easy to communicate with and can be reached without much effort

  • The headhunter should be on your side. If it feels like you’re being pressured, walk away

Questions to Ask a Headhunter

If you’ve found a headhunter or got an email from a recruiter, and you’re ready to meet (virtually, on the phone, or in-person), then you should have a list of questions prepared, so you’re ready. The best ones in the business already have done their research on you.

  • Tell me about yourself and how long you’ve been recruiting.

  • What is your recruiting method or philosophy?

  • Do you have an area of specialty?

  • How many companies do you work with? (Ideally, you want to hear that they work with many different companies and not the same one over and over)

  • What is your process for setting up interviews? (Here, you want them to do prep interviews with you before sending you on an interview. They should also come back with feedback when you’re done)

  • Do you currently have a specific position in mind for me? If the answer is no, ask how frequently they encounter openings that fit your background.

  • When you see my qualifications, is there anything that stands out?

  • What qualification or quality do you think is most important in today’s market?

If you are meeting with a headhunter who reached out to you about a job, you also need to ask about the job. These questions can help open that dialogue.

  • Tell me more about the role and what the company wants?

  • Explain how the day-to-day functions line up with what I’m currently doing. (Make sure the headhunter asks what you actually want to be doing at your job)

  • Can you tell me about the previous employee, what their education level was, and why they left? (This might not be information they have, but it doesn’t hurt to ask)

  • Are you representing other people for this role?

  • Ask all of the job basics: where is the job located, hours expected, travel involved, added expectations such as ongoing education, and pay – make sure you’re clear on the pay involved.

  • When do they feel the position will be filled? (Oftentimes, a headhunter is way ahead of the game, and there’s not even an open position. It can be a waiting game.)

  • What are the next steps from this point?

  • When can I expect to hear from you again? Should I follow up with you?

FAQs About Headhunters

Other than the obvious cannibal jokes, headhunters report that they hear a lot of the same questions. Let’s tackle them here, so you’re better prepared to take the next step toward your dream job.

  • How are you paid? This can vary, but you want to find a headhunter that is paid a percentage of your first year’s salary.

  • How do you find jobs? Great headhunters are in touch with major corporations in their specialty niche – all the time. These companies then let the headhunters know when there is an opening. It’s an ongoing relationship. Basically, the jobs come to them; they don’t find them.

  • Do you work with one company or many? If someone works with just one company, they’re considered a recruiter, and they’re often only looking to fill positions with active talent.

  • Where do you find passive talent, and how do you convince them to leave a job? Finding passive talent is an art form for many headhunters, and they might not give away their secrets, but their connections in the industry are key to their success. Convincing someone to switch jobs all depends on the new job offer.

  • Can you find me a job? An odd question that gets asked a lot. Because headhunters are typically specialized in a field, and they’re looking for candidates primarily, not jobs, the answer will probably be a no. If you’re a desirable candidate and a great job opens up, they may help you advance or change your career. But don’t expect a headhunter to go out there and snag you a job next week.

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Chris Kolmar


Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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