What is headhunting and how does it work?

Last updated:
July 21, 2021
October 25, 2022
min read
Sim Samra
Headunting definition and how it works
Table of contents

Everything you need to know about headhunters

There’s a little confusion around what a headhunter is and who they work for.

Far too often, they’re mistaken for recruiters or part of in-house hiring teams—on rare occasions, possibly down to who it is that makes the big decisions, they’ve even been confused with hiring managers.

So, in typical Recruitee style, we’re here to debunk some of the myths around headhunting and get all of our employers and potential new employees on the same page.

What is a headhunter?

A headhunter is a specialist and skilled recruiter, working independently from the hiring company. It’s their job to find premium candidates for high-level roles.

The roles they aim to fill are almost always specialized and highly-skilled, often executive-level. More often than not, these are the positions that aren’t advertised or promoted through standard recruitment channels.

Executive roles are often far too crucial and sensitive to appear on anything as basic as a job site or recruitment pages. That’s why this level of post needs a specialist that’s finely tuned to identify and persuade the strongest industry players to switch between companies.

When approached by a headhunter, it’s unlikely that you’ll have heard about the opening they’re looking to fill—and if you’re in their list of candidates, then you’ve got something they want. And, given the urgency of this type of appointment, you could be changing jobs a lot sooner than you’d expected.

What does a headhunter do?

A headhunter’s focus is filling high-end roles, and because of that, they will often have to work to tight schedules and at a break-neck pace.

They’ll have a super-keen eye, sifting through resumes in seconds, determining who might and might not work for the role in question and if they’ve got the experience and the skills to be the right fit for their client’s company.

They’ll also deliver excellent people skills and high-levels of persuasion. To win those top-end team players, they’ll be expected to make the experience as enticing as possible at every step, and each role almost impossible to turn down.

They offer a far more bespoke and specific search than a traditional recruitment agency or in-house recruiter. And that’s why they’re the specialists. They are the inside track to out of reach candidates.

How does headhunting work?

  • Analyzing the role

To understand what's expected of the potential list of candidates, a headhunter must precisely understand what the hiring company needs. This means understanding the role itself and the fine details of the contract, the company, its culture, and any confidential arrangements and information.

Only with a complete understanding of the company's needs can they track down and lure the best possible candidates for the role.

  • Source potential candidates

Armed with the relevant information, the next step is finding prime candidates for the position. That means digging through referrals, carrying out searches into those holding the same or similar roles in other companies, networking industry events, social media, trawling private databases, or meeting with their executive contacts.

Relevant: How to use Boolean Search in recruitment

  • Screening candidates

Having gathered an extensive list of possible options, they narrow their candidate search down by qualification to find the most exacting matches.

  • Outreach

With a narrowed-down target list, they make the calls and appointments necessary to inform and establish interest with those who show the most potential.

Relevant: One-stop guide to recruitment emails

  • Create the client shortlist

After interviews and background checks, the headhunter compiles a shortlist of prime candidates for the client. Where necessary, they could organize client interviews and negotiations and even help with onboarding where appropriate.

What is the difference between a headhunter and a recruiter?

There are some similarities between headhunters and recruiters—the main difference is who they work for and the appointment level.

A recruiter almost always works for the company looking to hire new staff. They’ll be part of the in-house recruitment team, closely connected to HR, or the team managers responsible for hiring employees.

Part of a recruiter’s role often means managing positions within the company, moving staff around into new roles, up or down the chain, and filling open opportunities with fresh team members.

The headhunter will work independently of the businesses they class as clients or on behalf of an agency. The roles they fill are high-value appointments, specialist positions with the highest rewards, and those with the most responsibility and importance.

The research a headhunter needs to carry out to find suitable candidates is intense and far-reaching. They’re looking for one impeccable employee, where a recruiter will be placing ads throughout far more mainstream channels, often aiming to fill a range of roles, all at the same time.

Industry specializations

Given the type of roles a headhunter must fill, they can easily find themselves specialists in a particular field or industry. Getting to know the premium players specific to say, tech, marketing, PA/secretarial or manufacturing industries, makes them the go-to agent to fill industry-based premium roles from within their network.

So, a recruiter will be looking for many possible candidates to interview for a range of jobs and positions.

A headhunter is looking for two or three exact matches for the most attractive roles—to lure them from wherever they are to where they need them to be.

How much do headhunters cost?

If you're an employer…

Hiring through a recruitment agency will cost you around 15–20% of the role’s first year’s salary.

Given the expertise and specialization, you can expect to pay more for their skills—at around 30% of the first year’s salary.

There are two standard methods of paying a headhunter. The first is on a retained basis. The 30% payment will be delivered in installments—the first 10% at the start of the research stage. The second 10% is paid at the shortlist stage, and the final 10% on completion.

The second method is on a contingency basis, where the payment isn’t made until the role has been filled.

Although the contingency method is rare, it creates an added level of determination for the headhunter to fill the roles without wasting time or carrying out unnecessary action. They’ll be exceptionally driven and highly incentivized.

If you're an employee…

It depends whether headhunters are permitted to charge employees to place you into the roles you desire.

In the US, a potential employee can expect to pay between $500 and $4,000 to employ a headhunter, according to MoneyCrashers.com. What they get for that will differ from one service to the next.

It might only offer an avenue of consideration for positions under their management, or it could provide full coaching at every level—to win the appointment you so desire.

However, in some countries, including the UK, headhunters aren’t allowed to charge potential employees to help them into the roles they believe they’re ready to take on. The fees are the responsibility of the employee once the position is filled.

Are headhunters worth hiring?

For employers, organizations, and businesses desperate to fill high-level positions without access to the network of staff they need, choosing an expert to do the job offers distinct advantages.

It’s a tried and tested way to track down the top talent for the most specialized roles. For the right roles and appropriate operations, a headhunter is worth every penny.

A headhunter can help employees find those roles that aren’t in the public domain and aren’t likely to be anytime soon.

Where to find headhunters?

It shouldn't be too difficult to locate a headhunter if you've got the right role to fill. Google is always on hand to help, and so is LinkedIn. You should be able to find them in online recruitment directories or over various social media.

If your usual recruitment agency isn't quite cut out to fill the role you need, then they could have a selection of specialists to recommend, or on occasion, they'll employ a headhunter for you and act as a middleman.

So, what have we learned about headhunters?

It’s easy to see, now, that a headhunter isn’t just a fancy name for a recruiter—they’re the experts of the recruitment industry.

To fill those big roles and land the big paychecks, there’s a lot of hard work involved and a mass of network connections.

Understanding the roles and appointments they manage should ensure that you’ll know just who to call to fill the open positions in your organization from now on.

Get the

Get the exclusive tips, resources and updates to help you hire better!

Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on Linked In
Go to the top

Hire better, faster, together!

Bring your hiring teams together, boost your sourcing, automate your hiring, and evaluate candidates effectively.