What Does a Headhunter Do?

My daughter once asked me if I was a headhunter and I was a little bothered by the question. I really don’t like the term headhunter because it makes me feel dirty. Why?

  • I know a lot of headhunters who are like those annoying insurance salesmen who give the rest of us a bad rap.
  • Headhunter… doesn’t it make you think about some cannibal on a deserted island waiting to cut off your head for a souvenir?
  • Headhunter…. yes, I have a dirty mind so I’ll just leave it at that.

But her question was not whether or not her dad was what someone would call a headhunter but more around what does a headhunter do?

I’d like to give some perspective from two different angles: for their client and for the candidates.

What does a headhunter do for the client?

Headhunters are merely recruiters who work for recruiting agencies. Some companies are not equipped with the staff or the internal acumen to have their own recruiting function so they go to headhunters to help them find talent for the organization. Even if a company the size of mine has the recruiting function in-house, there are times when a headhunter should be engaged to work on important or hard to find roles.

The benefit for companies that hire headhunters is that they are hiring a specialist. For example, if you are a tech firm specializing in a particular type of tech, you might seek out a search firm that is considered experts in that space. I know for my firm, we’ve gone to a search firm on some key roles that were more like Purple Monkeys and my team had neither the capacity or acumen to find the needed talent.

The headhunter will most often charge either a percentage of the base salary/total compensation of the role as their fee or charge a retainer. It usually depends on the search firm you engage and what your appetite is.

Contingent firms will only be paid once the talent is placed whereas retained search firms charge a fee for you to work on the role over a specified period of time.

Although most internal talent acquisition teams have a love/hate relationship with headhunters, I tend to see them as a valuable asset.

Let’s say I get a project that needs 20 people in 30 days for my firm and my team is already beyond our capacity limits to meet that goal. Engaging a search firm is a no brainer for me and I work closely with the firm more as a partner than an adversary.

Photo by Negative Space

What does a headhunter do for a candidate?

Some headhunters work like talent agents for candidates. If the headhunter is smart, he or she will have a pipeline of qualified candidates for the niche they serve. They can alert you to jobs that may not have been posted online and can help you get in the door quicker and with the right people.

If you choose to work with a headhunter, be sure you know what they’re getting paid. I know I’ll piss a lot of search firms off by giving you this advice but you should know that companies do consider the fee they have to pay for talent when offering a job. You want to be sure the headhunter is there to represent your interests and not just get a fee.

Another great benefit from a headhunter is the feedback you receive. Unfortunately, too many internal recruiters fail to close the loop with disqualified candidates, hindering them from learning what they could do better the next time they’re up at bat.

Headhunters tend to have less administrative BS to deal with and it behooves them to keep great candidates in their pockets…even if they didn’t get the job.


There is definitely a time and place to engage a headhunter and only you will know when the time is right.

For all of my fellow corporate talent acquisition compadres, don’t be so adversarial with your headhunters. Remember, they’re usually dialing for dollars more than you are and more in the know.

If you piss them off, you can get a bad rep and not even know it.

Oh and a major shout out to the handful of headhunters I work with! You have saved my butt more times than I care to admit. I do truly see you as a partner!

Disclaimer: I hate the term headhunter but I noticed it’s a term most people know more than recruiting search firm or a recruiting agency. If you don’t believe me, type in “what does a search firm do” into google and see if you get any suggestions on topics.

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Published by Trent Cotton

I joined the HR industry in 2004 after working as a sales leader in the Financial Services Industry for eight years. After spending his first couple of years in HR trying to fit in, I found my voice. Now I leverage all of the things I once hated about HR to become a consultant and invaluable partner to the businesses I support. My passion to lead, innovate and engage the HR industry. I use my blog at NakedHR.me to reach thousands of readers and provides unique insights into a range of HR and business topics. I currently write for NakedHR.me and SprintRecruiting.com. I contribute to the HRGazzette and to DataDrivenInvestor on Medium. WARNING: my writing style is raw and in your face, not what you would expect from an HR executive. Connect with me on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/trentcotton or on Twitter @TrentCotton.

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