How to find a headhunter. And what is a headhunter anyway?

Do headhunters still exist? That depends on which headhunter, executive recruiter, or HR professional you talk to.

“Headhunter” is out-of-date slang for search and recruiting professionals who work outside a hiring organization to find talent says, Maureen E. O’Malley Rehfuss, SPHR, SHRM-SPC, Owner and President of Career Partners International Twin Cities.

“Most modern search professionals prefer not to be called headhunters,” Rehfuss continues. “More appropriate terms are Staffing Professional, Executive Recruiter, Recruiter, Executive Search, or Talent Consultant, depending on the business model.”

“I’ve never met a headhunter who liked that term,” echoes Laura Handrick, HR Analyst for Fit Small Business. “It’s old school and derogatory. They prefer recruiter, executive recruiter, or recruitment firm.”

On the contrary, Chris Murdock thinks the term “headhunter” is making a comeback and has become synonymous with executive recruiters. Murdock is a Co-Founder & Senior Partner at IQTalent Partners, a San Francisco Bay Area-based corporate recruitment agency that partners with clients to build effective in-house talent acquisition organizations.

“Headhunters were once exclusively known as executive recruiters, or those who solely hired for positions in executive suites using old school recruiting tactics,” says Murdock. “Headhunting skills are now pretty transferable to other roles in HR and recruiting like the sourcer, who will fill roles in all job levels. Headhunters generally work on a case by case basis to fill specific roles needed by a company, not for individual job seekers. As for the actual title itself, headhunter is still a title that’s in effect.”

Sean Gill, Managing Partner of Conexus Talent Acquisition Solutions, says headhunters absolutely still exist but they are now known as executive recruiters.

“The word headhunter is still used – even though it’s misunderstood by many job seekers,” says Gill.

What is a Headhunter?

A headhunter is someone that works for a company and will actually go out and hunt “heads” – the passive candidate who doesn’t respond to ads and isn’t actively seeking a new opportunity, says Karen A. Young, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, President of HR Resolutions, LLC, a company that provides HR resource services and solutions in Central Pennsylvania.

“Recruiters absolutely will accept your resume, but their ultimate job is to get to the passive job seeker,” says Young.

Handrick explained further: “Headhunters work for the employer (not the job seeker) and serve as the recruiting arm of the HR department,” she said. “They’re typically outsourced, and paid a percentage of the job placement’s annual salary (10%-35% or more) based on the job being sourced and the contract they’ve negotiated with the business. Headhunters are experts in finding great talent. They know top players in their field.”

Headhunters vs. Recruiters

Other than title, there is no real difference between headhunters and recruiters says Young.

“Headhunters are recruiters who don’t mind being called a headhunter,” says Handrick. “Recruiters are headhunters who don’t like that term. In general, the job is the same.”

How Do Headhunters Work?

“Employers hire headhunters to help fill positions – not the other way around,” says Young. “Headhunters work for the employer – that’s who pays their bill.”

Murdock elaborated: “Once the headhunter reaches out to the job seeker, they’re working to source details on your professional skill set to see if it matches the exact demand of the role their working to fill. Headhunters are often working under tight deadlines, therefore leaving little room to make friends. If they find your job skills or background don’t fit exactly what they’re looking for, it’s not personal, their sole purpose is to fill that executive seat. They are paid by the organization who hired them, therefore their loyalty is solely dedicated to the company, not the job seeker.”

Headhunters, or executive recruiters, typically focus on finding highly-skilled talent for hard-to-fill jobs. In many cases, these jobs may never be advertised, or are confidential.

“Since the business pays the headhunter, it’s in the headhunter’s best interest NOT to focus on every candidate, but to focus only on the candidate that best fits the job opening requirements,” says Handrick. “If you work in IT and have experience with building mobile apps, your ‘headhunter’ will want to place you, not because they’re helping you, but because they’re helping the client find the right talent to fill the job.”

Hiring a Headhunter to Find You a Job

There are job seekers today who still think they can contact a recruiter or headhunter whose sole job is to place the job seeker and find them a job. That’s false.

“Years ago, job seekers could pay placement firms to help them land a job,” says Rehfuss. “This model disappeared years ago. Today there’s no one who searches the marketplace on behalf of job seekers like an agent does for actors, athletes, or select senior executives, areas where the law permits such an agreement.

“Today it’s clear that recruiters work for the hiring organization, which pays the full cost of filling a position,” Rehfuss continues. “In fact, in many states it’s illegal for licensed staffing and search firms to charge job seekers for their assistance.”

Simply put, “a job seeker should never pay a recruiting or search a fee for presenting them as a candidate to a hiring company,” concludes Rehfuss.

How to Find a Headhunter

Ideally, a headhunter will find you during your executive job search, says Young. But if you find an executive recruiter or headhunter that recruits for the type of job or industry of interest, reaching out via LinkedIn is a good start. Making an introductory email is a good way to reach out. Don’t be surprised if you don’t hear back – executive recruiters are extremely busy and only respond to those that may fit their hiring needs. Networking, being an industry leader, or active with professional organizations is another way to stand out.


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But that still doesn’t mean one will get a return call or email, or even noticed. Good executive recruiters have specific needs and know exactly the type of candidate they want to go after.

Minnesota-based executive recruiter Rick Deare once said he received about 150 resumes per day – and he does see them all. But he only contacts those who are a specific fit for his specific needs.

So remember, executive recruiters and headhunters work for the employer, not the job seeker.

Do Headhunters Ever Help Job Seekers?

“Headhunters help fill open job positions for companies,” says Handrick. “They’re recruiters.”

However, they’re a great resource for job seekers because they know where the open positions are, adds Handrick. That’s why so many job seekers want to connect with headhunters, executive recruiters, or recruiters. Recruiters know what jobs are open, including hidden jobs, or jobs never advertised since many companies hire the recruiter to search/fill their openings.

Recruiters can also provide interview tips, insight on a company culture, and/or help job seekers prepare for an interview or meeting with the employer. Don’t expect every recruiter to do this. It’s rare – they are busy and work for the employer. They often only do this to better prepare the job seeker for presentation to their client (the employer), not because they simply want to help the job seeker.

Can Headhunters or Executive Recruiters Guarantee Candidates a Job?

No. Never. Case closed.

“No one can,” says Young.


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