An Inside Look at Headhunters Work

Headhunters or external recruiters. What do they do? How do they earn money? And most importantly: can they be useful for you in your job search? I will answer these questions today, as well as correcting a few misconceptions people often have about my work as headhunter.



Headhunters search for candidates at the request of an employer/firm. A firm has a recruitment need – they may have a vacancy or want to launch a new position, or want to fire somebody they are not happy with and replace them with someone else A firm’s HR department might well be able to look for candidates themselves, but decide instead to hire an external recruiter.  Reasons for this might be that they want to keep the search secret, or that they know potential candidates are unlikely to check job boards. Candidates need to be headhunted – found, contacted and convinced to move jobs. And this is a job of a headhunter.

A headhunter, therefore, works for a company, not for a candidate. They might be in touch with several candidates – meeting up, interviewing, building up their network – but until a firm asks them to provide a candidate matching its needs, a headhunter is very unlikely to earn money.


Headhunters can make money in two different ways: contingent and retained. Contingent means that the first (and only) money a headhunter earns is when a firm decides to employ a candidate they have presented. Retained means that a firm pays a headhunter in two or three instalments – the first usually when they start looking for potential candidates, the second when they present selected ones and the third when a company decides to employ one of them. This difference in payment model reflects differences in the way contingent and retained headhunters conduct their searches. As I have always worked as a retained headhunter, I will focus on describing this model.


When I speak to friends about my work, they are mainly interested in understanding how I look for candidates. The process in which a candidate is not actively looking for work and is instead identified and approached about a job by a potential employer is very intriguing to everybody. The candidate search is the part of a headhunter’s work that to me most resembles that of a detective.

The search starts with a profile of the candidate we are looking for. It should contain the qualifications required, previous experience, skills, certifications, etc. This profile can be provided by the client, but in many cases it is composed by headhunters, based on description of the role the client has given us. Having a profile, we go on to decide which positions and in which companies people can be found that match the profile. As a result a list of target companies is determined. – companies in which we will try to identify (i.e. to find their names) employees that work in positions we consider relevant. Lastly, we use all possible (but ethical J) ways to contact and present them a job offer. We contact them via social networks if they use them (i.e. LinkedIn), we email them at their work account, and we even call them at their desk or on a company mobile. How do we get this data? It very much depends on the market, but in many cases a switchboard will connect us directly to the relevant person – sometimes they will even give us a mobile number when the person is not present in the office. And for the email address – we follow the format that the company uses to create email aliases for its employees and in 9 out of 10 cases we reach the person we want to speak to.


Now, at this point my friends usually ask me if I am very persistent. The simple answer is: it depends. If the potential candidate is of great interest to me (because, for example, there is a limited number of people with comparable skills in the market, or a client has requested this particular candidate ) I can be quite persistent. I will be leaving voicemails or sending emails until I have started a conversation. However, once we have had the conversation and a candidate tells me they are not interested in the job offer, I won’t push them to change their mind.

The other question I am asked is if headhunters buy out employees from other firms. And here too the answer is: it depends. Sometimes people change jobs for purely financial reasons – they want to earn more and their current employer will not increase their pay. In this case, if my client is willing to pay the amount candidate expects, you can say that yes, I do buy them out.

Much more often, however, candidates are motivated by more than just money: people feel their career prospects are limited, or they don’t feel appreciated by their bosses, or they get tired of their environment and desire a change. One thing I can tell you for sure, though: when a candidate I’m trying to win over is happy in their job, they will tell me straight away if they are  not interested in changing jobs when I call them. And that’s the end of my hunt, then. Usually, in each project, around 50% of candidates are not interested in changing jobs because they are happy in their current ones.


Now, should you be in contact with a headhunter and can one help you with your job search? It depends on the level you are working at. Headhunter services cost money. Usually 20-30% of an employed person’s annual salary – a significant sum. And (I hope my colleagues will forgive me for writing this) though a headhunters’ job is not rocket science, it is still a lot of sweat and hard work. It makes sense for a firm to spend money this way if they can’t easily and cheaply do the job themselves. And if the cost can be justified as a “return on investment”. This means that headhunters are usually hired to hunt for very skilled, niche employees or high-level management. If you fall into one of these categories and are looking for a job, get in touch with good headhunter today. If you’re not in such a category, you have more chance of finding a new job using traditional methods such as job boards and networking.

What is your experience of headhunters? Have they ever called you at work? How was it?

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