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, often called an executive recruiter, is an individual or company hired by an employer to recruit talent for an open role.
  • Headhunters are paid on contingency; they only make money when they are successful in placing a candidate in a job. 
  • A good headhunter won't ask you about your current or past salary, but rather, tell you the job's salary range and ask if it's a good fit for you.

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 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 an 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 responding to messages.