Headhunter vs. Recruiter (With Differences and FAQs)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published April 9, 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

If you're interested in working in recruitment, you may want to know more about the differences between professional headhunters and recruiters. While these jobs both provide the same end services of helping organizations fill open positions, they employ distinct recruitment procedures and have different sourcing targets. Understanding the distinctions between a headhunter and recruiter can help you pick the job that works best for you. In this article, we define headhunters and recruiters, compare and contrast these two roles, and highlight some frequently asked questions about them.

Headhunter vs. recruiter

Headhunters and recruiters share the similar responsibility of discovering the most suitable candidates for a position in an organization, although sometimes they even work together. Despite the similarities between these two roles, it's important to point out their differences. Below are some differences between headhunters and recruiters:

Positions they fill

One notable difference between headhunters and recruiters is the positions they aim to fill. For example, while headhunters seek to fill high-level executive positions for their clients, recruiters may aim to find candidates for a range of senior and junior roles. Headhunters usually approach already employed individuals, while recruiters often approach people open to new employment.

Read more: How to Become IT Recruiter (With Salary and Qualifications)

Methods

The methods used to find candidates are also different. Headhunters are usually very proactive, as they approach people who already hold a position and aren't necessarily looking for a new job. Headhunters typically use methods like:

  • Searching their professional connections

  • Reviewing the staff rosters of companies

  • Attending professional networking events

Recruiters are typically more reactive because candidates actively looking for jobs may approach recruiters directly. Recruiters often use methods like:

  • Posting open positions on job boards

  • Collecting job applications from candidates

  • Searching for candidates on job sites

Hiring process

Headhunters and recruiters also follow different hiring processes. For companies, working with a headhunter often involves:

  • Identifying an open position: Companies usually determine a specific job vacancy before working with a headhunter. Typically, these positions are at a high level in the organization.

  • Finding a headhunter: A company usually finds a headhunter to help them recruit new hires. Usually, the headhunter works for an agency.

  • Creating job requirements: The client company and the headhunter often work together to develop a list of requirements for the applicable candidates, which can include their education, skills, and other qualifications.

  • Locating passive candidates: The headhunter also works on finding potential candidates. These professionals are potential candidates who already hold a position but may be open to working for another employer.

Working with a recruiter typically consists of:

  • Finding positions to fill: Recruiters usually receive a list of open positions from their company. These positions may be at different levels or departments in the organization.

  • Writing job descriptions: Recruiters are also responsible for writing job descriptions. They usually collaborate with other employees, including people in the human resources department.

  • Creating job postings: Recruiters typically take the job descriptions and post them on job boards and other websites. They also communicate with potential candidates on these sites.

  • Sourcing candidates: Recruiters can also find candidates through job fairs and networking events. They may approach candidates and offer to organize interviews.

Related: Interview Question: “How Do Staffing Agencies Work?”

Working internally vs. externally

Another difference between headhunters and recruiters is whether they work internally or externally. Recruiters often work in the HR department for their company and aim to fill roles internally. Headhunters typically work for external agencies and fill roles for their client companies.

Compensation

Companies compensate headhunters and recruiters differently. Companies typically compensate headhunters on a retainer or contingency basis. A contingency compensation arrangement implies that they don't pay the headhunters until they hire the candidate. Companies pay the headhunters on a retainer basis before they find a candidate. A recruiter receives more structured compensation since they usually work in the same company they recruit for. As an employee of the company, they collect typical monthly salaries. The company may also give them bonuses and incentives when they find new candidates.

Locating candidates vs. filling positions

A recruiter generally takes more interest in filling a position in the organization than a headhunter does. A headhunter's job description is to find candidates for their client company. Recruiters have more involvement in filling the position, such as arranging interview sessions and liaising with the candidate.

What is a headhunter?

A headhunter is an individual whose job description is to find eligible candidates for a company or business by conducting an extensive search. For example, a company can hire a headhunter to find exceptional candidates to fill a top position at the organization. Typically, headhunters seek employed individuals and discuss new employment prospects in their clients' companies. A headhunter doesn't necessarily hire candidates but connects them with the company.

Since their job description is to find prospective employees to fill a position at a company, headhunters work for an agency and engage in temporary contracts with client companies. This makes them a third party in the arrangement between an employer and a candidate. Because of their independence, headhunters can specialize in specific job industries and even contract with several organizations simultaneously. Before approaching a potential candidate, they typically screen their qualifications, certifications, and skills to check whether they meet their clients' requirements. After screening, they share the information with the client company.

What is a recruiter?

A recruiter is a professional who finds eligible job candidates to fill available positions in a company. The nature of their job requires them to interact with potential candidates and discuss employment at the company. They may also ensure that the potential new hires meet the job qualifications and set up an interview and other screening sessions. While they often work in a company's HR department, they may also belong to a recruiting agency and work for clients on a contract basis.

A company may employ a recruiter to fill multiple job openings through job fairs, networking sites, and other online platforms. While they may also specialize in a specific industry, recruiters typically source candidates for various positions in an organization. For example, a recruiter who works for a company may post job openings and interact with prospective employees personally. Then, they pre-screen the candidate's qualifications and conduct the entire hiring process after discussing feedback with the management.

Read more: What Is a Recruiter? A Complete Guide

FAQs about recruiters and headhunters

While many people mistake a headhunter for a recruiter, it's vital to distinguish them by their duties. Below are some frequently asked questions about recruiters and headhunters:

What are the critical operations of headhunters?

A headhunter is the best option if a company wants a full-time recruitment expert to fill a high-level position in their organization. Some key things to note about a headhunter are:

  • They typically search for top-tier candidates to fill high-level executive positions in an organization.

  • They interact with the candidates until the company hires them.

  • They specialize in a particular market to quickly discover exceptional candidates.

  • While recruiting the candidates, they don't involve themselves in the hiring process.

  • They sometimes bring an already employed individual to their client's company.

How do recruiters operate?

A recruiter is the best option if a company wants to fill multiple positions quickly. Here are some key points regarding how recruiters operate:

  • While recruiters may specialize in a particular industry, they can also work in several sectors.

  • They tend to post the job openings and let job candidates contact them.

  • They primarily manage the preliminary hiring process and set up interview sessions.

  • They assist candidates in finding the best position that fits their qualifications.

How do companies compensate headhunters and recruiters?

The compensation plan for both jobs varies depending on the client's company. For headhunters, the company may not pay them until they hire the candidate or might pay them before they begin their search. Recruiters who work for the hiring company collect regular salaries like other employees. Recruiters who work in agencies may have the same compensation structure as headhunters. In addition, the company may give incentives to both headhunters and recruiters whenever they refer successful candidates.

Read more: 12 Popular Recruitment Types Used by Employers

Are headhunters and recruiters beneficial for a company?

Both professionals can be beneficial in finding new employees for a company. When hiring headhunters and external recruiters, it is essential to find the most efficient and cost-effective ones. For instance, a company may employ a high-priced recruitment professional as long as they have a reputation for delivering the best candidates to an organization.

Related: What Does a Headhunter Do? (With Skills and How-to Guide)

Explore more articles