What Is a Headhunter? 5 Different Types of Recruiters and How They Work
What Is a Headhunter? 5 Different Types of Recruiters and How They Work
What is a headhunter, exactly? As a job search coach, this is one of the most common questions that I encounter. While recruiters (aka headhunters) all do similar things (sourcing, interviewing, and filling positions), there are differences, and many job seekers find this confusing. 

When you are looking for a new job or are determined to advance your career, you learn quickly that there are many tools at your disposal, even in today's employment universe.

Sometimes in your job search, you may find yourself as a person of interest from someone who is representing a company with a clear objective of bringing in the best and the brightest in the field. And they want you.

In this case, it is good for you to know the different types of headhunters, to understand the pros and cons of the approach they use, and to consider how you can use their position to achieve your goals.

Internal Human Resources Recruiters/Headhunters

Remember that each time you’ve sent your resume in response to job ads, these applications have ultimately led to an actual person in an HR department who is collecting resumes for a currently open position, or one they anticipate will be open in the future. Many times companies will place an ad when they have an opening to fill and then just wait for the resumes to come in. Other times, they assign an internal recruiter/headhunter to more proactively go out and find a good candidate and approach them proactively.

When an internal HR recruiter comes knocking, they are doing so for their employer: one specific company. They’ve likely reviewed your resume and cover letter (if you sent it), or have reviewed your LinkedIn profile (if they are recruiting you more proactively), have seen what you have to offer, and are interested in making the pitch for why their company is the best place for you to move your career.

That is the greatest advantage of this type of headhunter: you’ve already captured their attention and they view you as a prime candidate for what they need. Using that fact to your advantage can tilt negotiations of the job offer and employment contract to your favor.

Employment Agencies

Another example of the different types of headhunters is the employment agency. If you have pondered the “what is a headhunter and how can they help me” questions, it was probably the employment agency that you thought of first. In the reverse of how most other headhunters work, employment agencies generally start with the candidate and then find the job.

Contracting with multiple companies, filling multiple job openings (often lower and mid-level positions), these agencies are non-exclusive and frequently send multiple candidates on interviews for each opening. Their perspective is more about volume and less about individual success.

Use discretion when working with employment agencies. Do thorough research and ensure their reputation is excellent. Be sure you completely understand any exclusivity agreement they may want you to sign. Negotiate ahead of time an agreement stipulating the agency will send you on a certain number of interviews. Never pay an upfront fee. If you are asked for one, it may be a scam. The employer pays the fee.

Having multiple opportunities available for consideration definitely has its advantages. The truth though is the employment agency has more of a loyalty to the companies in need of employees than they do to you. Their incentive, once you (or someone else) have been hired to fill the position, is the payment they receive. They will be looking out for their own best interest. Always remember this and look out for your own best interests as well.

Consulting-Contracting Firms / Job Shops

While a consulting firm isn’t a headhunter or recruiting firm in the traditional sense, it can be viewed as one of the different types of headhunters to know about. These firms will hire you directly and then contract you out to various employers.

As always, you will want to determine the reputation of the firm before working with them. The best will offer benefits and possibly will pay you a stipend when you are in-between assignments.

The worst, however, may take your money (in the form of upfront fees) and then do nothing to connect you to job options. This leads us to an important point: Never, ever agree to an up front payment when contacted by a headhunting company of any kind. The employer pays the fee. There should never be a charge to the job seeker.

Contingency Recruiters

This is, perhaps, the type of headhunter you will encounter most frequently during your search. Similar to an internal HR recruiter, the contingency recruiter starts with a job and then sets their sights on a candidate to fill the position. The difference is that they are external to the company–a third party–and will likely be trying to fill jobs across a variety of companies.

The jobs contingency headhunters try to fill are usually mid-level and higher. They work on a speculative basis, getting paid only once they have secured the winning candidate.

Contingency headhunters have access to many jobs, in part because the companies paying their fees have the option to switch to other headhunters if unsatisfied with the results. This motivates the recruiter to seek out the very best candidates as quickly as possible.

To your advantage, this means if they find your resume and you match the requirements for a job they are trying to fill, they are going to actively pursue you for the position. The downside here is, again, they are working for the company and ultimately will have their best interest in mind.

However, the very best headhunters understand that it is in their own long-term best interest to make a good match between a candidate and a company, and will usually strive to make win-win-win placements.

Retained Recruiters

Often hired to fill the most senior-level or technical-specialist positions, retained recruiters will receive an upfront fee to act as a consultant. In this role, they will then seek out the “perfect” candidate who will fill very precise specifications laid out by the company that has hired them.

Because they typically handle just a small number of positions at a time, retained firms can focus their efforts and accomplish great success for both the company doing the hiring and you, the potential new employee.

Which of the Different Types of Headhunters is Best?

What is a headhunter? Now you know the answer to that question and the reality is, each of the different types of headhunters carries pros and cons in their approach to the job search arena. The next time a recruiter calls you, you will be in a better position to understand their motivation and how they may be able to help you advance your career.