What Is a Headhunter? What They Do and How They're Paid

What Is a Headhunter?

A headhunter is a company or individual that provides employment recruiting services on behalf of the employer. Headhunters are hired by firms to find talent and to locate individuals who meet specific job requirements.

Headhunters may also be referred to as executive recruiters and the function they perform is often called executive search. Headhunters may have a pool of candidates for specific positions or may act aggressively to find talent by looking at competitors' employees. Employers tend to enlist headhunters when there is a sense of urgency and they are unable to find the right person to fill a role on their own.

Key Takeaways

  • A headhunter, or executive recruiter, is an individual or company hired by an employer to recruit talent for an open role.
  • Headhunters are often paid on contingency and typically earn commission only when they are successful in placing a candidate in a job. 
  • A good headhunter won't ask you about your current or past salary, so it's important to address the salary range that you are seeking.

Understanding Headhunters

Finding and recruiting job candidates is often performed by hiring managers, human resources personnel, or internal recruitment specialists. But in some cases, employment agencies or executive search firms may be employed. Third parties working on behalf of a hiring company are colloquially referred to as headhunters.

A headhunter is retained to fill jobs that require specific or high-level skills or offer high pay. Headhunters working on behalf of a firm often scour international organizations for top talent. In addition, some individuals may contact a headhunter to provide a résumé or curriculum vitae (CV) or to apply for a position for which the headhunter is seeking talent. Headhunting is supported on many levels by internet technologies, including social media and online job boards.

How Headhunters Are Paid

Headhunters typically only make money when they are successful in placing a candidate in a job. Independent, third-party recruiters are often paid on contingency, meaning they do not get paid unless their candidate is hired. The typical fee is 20% to 30% of a new hire's total first-year salary. As headhunters work for the employer, they have the incentive to please them rather than the candidate.

There is no licensing necessary to become a headhunter or recruiter, so anyone can become one. Less-reputable recruiters often compete with professional ones that possess large networks of clients and candidates. They may operate in a similar way, such as an unsolicited email, call, or LinkedIn request.

What Should You Look for in a Headhunter?

The quality and helpfulness of headhunters vary. Here are some characteristics to look for and avoid:

  • A good headhunter will contact you knowing ahead of time that you are a good fit for a role based on your skills and experience.
  • If a headhunter asks for your past or current salary, this is a red flag. Rather, they should tell you the salary range of the opportunity they are calling about and then ask you whether it is a good fit.
  • An unprepared headhunter will not have done proper homework on your background and may try to interview you on the fly once you are on the phone.
  • Quality headhunters are easy to reach and communicate with, and they conduct themselves professionally. It is a bad sign if a headhunter talks fast, is rude, makes too many demands, is hard to reach, or neglects to respond to messages.
  • A good head hunter will want to stay in touch especially if you're a good candidate and will want to keep you in their network of potential candidates for openings. 
Article Sources
Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
  1. Top Echelon. "How Do Recruiters Get Paid?"

Take the Next Step to Invest
The offers that appear in this table are from partnerships from which Investopedia receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where listings appear. Investopedia does not include all offers available in the marketplace.