What’s the difference between a headhunter and recruiter? And how to choose between the two

Although they are often lumped together, headhunting and recruiting require distinct sets of skills and serve very different purposes. Ordinary recruiting acts as a general filter, typically vetting a large number of candidates for a given job; it is much more passive, as each open position attracts many candidates who are then interviewed, given background checks, sometimes re-interviewed, and eventually matched with employers who wish to fill relatively generic roles.

A subset of this effort involves recruiting passive candidates, who are already employed elsewhere but could be persuaded to take an interest in newly-available positions that are a better match for their talents and career goals than the situation in which they currently find themselves. For all cases, however, recruiters take special care to learn more about the candidates and their business clients, in order to seamlessly fit new recruits in with the culture of the organisation they will be joining.

The pursuit of passive candidates is a step towards the responsibilities of a headhunting agency, but headhunting is a more rarefied pursuit. Whereas recruiting satisfies the client company’s need for new employees across all departments, headhunting typically involves the more delicate search for those who would head those departments – or the entire companies to which they belong.

The search for CEOs and other top-level managers belongs to the realm of headhunting. In a reversal from general recruitment, headhunting situations never involve a large number of active candidates sending in their CVs. New executives must sometimes be found for an organisation, but pursuing them is an entirely different process. You will never stumble upon a CEO’s LinkedIn page and see a profile that reads, “I’m bored with my company and I want to find something better.” To conduct a successful search for a new CEO or top manager, much more intricate methods must be applied.

Headhunting is able to bridge this gap by precisely targeting qualified individuals. A headhunter contacts them discreetly and confidentially, and takes a proactive liaison role to sound out both sides. The negotiation process is time-consuming and overwhelmingly focused on mediation and effective matchmaking skills. Instead of a large number of candidates chasing job opportunities, the headhunter chases a small number of candidates.

Headhunting need not be a search for a CEO, or even a top manager, although filling these positions makes up a large fraction of the headhunter’s responsibilities. Any position requiring extensive experience, or a specific and rare skillset, can fall within the domain of the headhunter – because these efforts would need to follow the pattern of actively pursuing a tiny number of qualified candidates. The search for distinctive visual artists, experts at special types of 3-D modeling, cryptocurrency programmers, supremely talented musicians, and other highly specific and demanding positions would all be ideal for a well-established headhunter.

The headhunter’s own reputation, of course, is an essential ingredient to success as well. A CEO or world-class visual artist is unlikely to put their future in the hands of an amateur headhunter. To catch a big fish, you often need to be a big fish yourself. This reality goes a long way toward explaining why, in contrast to recruiters, headhunters normally charge a significant deposit before they embark on a new search. Headhunters are well known in their field, and therefore charge a premium for their services.

At Criterion, we provide both recruitment and headhunting services to organizations in and around Bangkok. Get in touch today to learn how we can help you find your next C-level or senior level candidate.