Headhunting vs. Recruiting: How Are They Different?

Updated January 18, 2023

Headhunting and recruiting are two terms you might hear when you are looking for a new career or position. These terms both relate to processes employers may use to find the right candidate for a role. Whether you're applying for a new role or working in an HR, recruiter or headhunter role, learning more about these hiring strategies and how they differ could help you better understand the job search process. In this article, we explain the differences between headhunting vs. recruiting, and how these hiring methods work.

What is headhunting?

Headhunting, also called performing an executive search, is the process of finding the best candidate for an upper-level position. Companies may use headhunting to fill executive roles like chief executive officer (CEO), chief operating officer (COO) or executive director.

Companies often hire headhunters or a headhunting team from a headhunting agency to fill these senior or executive positions. Headhunters often specialize in finding a certain type of technical or high-level position. They typically approach prospective candidates who are currently working in a similar role. Headhunters refer to these as passive candidates because they are not actively seeking employment. Headhunting professionals research the ideal candidates and extend job offers to entice prospective applicants to leave their current position for the new, open role.

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

What is recruiting?

Recruiting is the process of matching candidates with open roles. Recruiters can work independently, for a recruiting agency, or directly for a company or organization. Recruiters often hire professionals for a variety of entry-level and mid-level positions. They may work with a certain industry, or they can help candidates find the right role in a variety of sectors. Recruiters often use online job postings, job fairs and professional networking services to find candidates.

Related: What Is an Executive Recruiter? (And Similar Job Titles)

What are the differences between headhunting vs. recruiting?

Headhunting and recruiting are hiring processes that have the same goal, to help employers find the best candidate for an open position, but it's important to understand how these methods differ. Here are some of the main differences between these two concepts:

Types of positions

Recruiters and headhunters typically hire for different positions. A headhunter often specializes in a certain type of executive role. They learn the skills and experience needed in that role, and help companies find candidates with these skills. A recruiter often fills entry- and mid-level positions for a company.

Variability of roles

Headhunting and recruiting processes typically involve a different range of positions. A company may hire a headhunting team to fill one specific position. For example, when a business team knows its current CEO is leaving the company, the company may connect with a headhunting agency. The headhunter performs a search for that specific candidate and, after filling the position, often works with a new client.

A recruiter often helps companies find a larger variety of positions. Recruiters can work in recruiting agencies or directly for an organization. For example, a business may have an internal recruiter on the HR team. This person helps fill all open positions in the company. They work with a wider variety of skill sets and experience, matching candidates with the best position for them and helping the company build a successful team.

Candidates' availability

These two processes often involve professionals with different job availability. Recruiters work most often with candidates who are actively seeking a new position or considering moving into a new role. These professionals may connect with a recruiter at a job fair or through an online job posting.

Typically, a headhunter works with professionals who are currently working and not seeking new employment. Headhunters approach these individuals and offer them incentives to interview and potentially move into a role at a new company. They can find these candidates through their professional network or by seeking referrals in the industry. Occasionally, headhunters may also interview and evaluate candidates who are actively seeking employment while they perform their executive search.

Range of professional network

Professionals who work in recruiting or headhunting often have different professional networks. Recruiters often work to help companies fill a variety of positions, so they typically have a broader network. For instance, they may help a business find candidates for marketing, sales, information technology and management roles. They may build a wide network to help them meet more professionals in a variety of industries.

Headhunters often specialize in one industry or one type of role so they may have a more narrow and focused professional network. For example, if they specialize in the technology industry, they may have connections in this field to help them meet potential candidates.


These two strategies involve different processes. A headhunter often researches and starts conversations with potential candidates. They take an active role in finding the right candidate for the open position. A recruiter may take a more passive role during the job search process and play a more active part during the interviewing stage. They often write and create job postings, and candidates connect with them after reading the job posting or description. The recruiter then reviews the applications and may invite candidates to interview.


Headhunting is typically more expensive for companies than the recruiting process. Headhunters specialize in a certain industry or role, and they help find executive candidates for a senior-level role. This typically takes more time and effort than the recruiting process. Recruiters may use job postings and online tools to help them gather a group of candidates. Then they spend time interviewing and assessing candidates, which is often a shorter process than headhunting and therefore less expensive for HR teams and companies.

Related: How To Find the Right Headhunter (With Tips and Benefits)

How does the headhunting process work?

Companies and headhunting agencies may use their own process to find candidates, but often organizations follow these steps:

1. Identify need for new employee

A company may contact a headhunting agency or professional when they have an open executive role. They may also contact the headhunter before a transition phase when they know a current team member plans to leave the role. For executive roles, this may be confidential information the headhunter must keep private while contacting prospective candidates.

2. Determine necessary qualifications

The headhunting team often creates a list of necessary skills and experience. They can use this information to find the best candidates for the role. They may write an official job posting or create a personal candidate profile to use during their search.

3. Consider candidates

Depending on the role, the headhunting team may begin the search by creating a list of ideal passive candidates. These are professionals in the industry who are currently working in similar roles. They may contact or connect with them to discuss the open position.

The headhunting team may also consider active candidates who are currently seeking a new role. They may attend conferences, review executive job boards or share a job description online to help them find potential candidates.

4. Review and interview candidates

Once the headhunting team has gathered a set number of interested professionals, they may collaborate with the internal hiring team to review the list. They work together to refine the list to determine the best candidates for the role. They then interview and evaluate these professionals to help make a decision.

Related: A List of Executive Interview Questions and Their Answers

5. Send a job offer

After making the final decision, the company may send a formal job offer. They also handle negotiations and contracts. The professional then can begin their career in the new role, and the headhunting team can begin working with a new client.

Related: All About Job Offer Letters

How does the recruiting process work?

Here are the common steps involved in the recruiting process:

1. Identify open positions

The recruiting process often begins with the HR department or hiring manager creating a list of open positions. They may share this with a recruiting company or team. If the company has an internal recruiter, this professional may collaborate with a manager or HR team to create this list.

2. Write and share job description

The recruiting team creates a job description for each open role. They may ask current employees in that role to describe their duties, research the role online, and ask managers or HR professionals about the skills and experience required for the role. They use this information to write a formal job description. They can then share this information online on job boards and search websites.

3. Consider additional candidates

Depending on the role, the recruiting team may also find additional candidates. They might attend a job fair, conference or networking event to meet professionals in the industry. This can help them find more job seekers who might be a great fit for an open role.

4. Review and interview candidates

The recruiting team often reviews the initial applications and may create a list of candidates to interview. Depending on the company, they may conduct an initial phone interview, or they may only conduct one formal interview in person or on video. They may also share their final list of applicants with the company, and internal team members may conduct interviews independently.

Related: Understanding The Steps Of The Interview Process

5. Extend job offer

Typically, the company sends a formal job offer after selecting a candidate. The recruiting professional may begin searching for another position in the company, or they may begin working with a new client, depending on their role and work environment.

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