What Is Headhunting? (And How It Differs From Recruiting)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 7 October 2022 | Published 27 September 2021

Updated 7 October 2022

Published 27 September 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Headhunting is an important strategy for companies to fill high-level positions. Headhunting involves a specific process, including preparing a list of candidate criteria and screening candidates. If you're hiring for or applying for high-level positions, it's important to understand how headhunting works. In this article, we explain what headhunting is, the stages of its process and how headhunting differs from recruiting.

Related: How to Respond to a Recruiter Email (With Templates)

What is headhunting?

Headhunting, which is also referred to as an executive search, is a hiring process that aims to pinpoint candidates for high-level positions. Usually, when organisations are searching for employees to fill these upper-level positions, they use a headhunting strategy rather than traditional recruitment.

Headhunters are professionals who help companies fill their top-level, specialised or technical positions. Usually, these professionals work for an agency that works with client companies. Headhunters typically only approach passive candidates—people who are actively looking for another job. Headhunters present job offers to these targeted candidates, who are usually leaders in their field or industry, to entice them to leave their current positions.

Related: How To Work With a Headhunter To Find a Job (With Tips)

What is recruiting?

Recruiting is a similar term to headhunting, but it has a different definition. Recruiting is the process of finding the best possible candidate for a position by engaging with those who are open to switching jobs or actively seeking employment. These candidates might apply directly for the position, or the recruiter may speak with them at a job fair or meet them through a professional contact. Job seekers typically find the job opening through a job search rather than the recruiter finding, or headhunting, the candidate. Recruiters may work for an agency, but they may also be internal employees of a company. For example, recruiters might work in a company's human resources department.

Related: What Is Recruitment? (With 7 Stages of Recruiting)

Headhunting vs. recruiting

Headhunting and recruiting sound similar in that they both seek to find job candidates, but here are their differences:

Headhunting

The process of headhunting is often for hard-to-fill, top-level positions. Headhunting differs from recruiting in these ways:

  • Activity: Headhunters search for the best candidate to fill an open position. They might look for referrals from other high-level employees in the company or find candidates through their professional network.

  • Position: In most cases, businesses use a headhunting strategy to fill C-suite or other high-level positions. A company typically does not use headhunting to fill lower-level roles in their organisation since it usually takes more time and effort.

  • Methodology: Headhunters use a “proactive” method since they are the ones approaching a non-job seeker. They can use a variety of resources and methods to find the best candidates, including their professional connections and competitor's employee rosters.

  • Cost: Headhunting is usually more expensive than recruiting since headhunters have to take additional measures to identify passive candidates.

Related: What Is an Employee Referral Programme? (With Benefits and Tips)

Recruiting

Recruiting is a common strategy for filling open positions. Recruiting differs from headhunting in these ways:

  • Activity: Recruiters typically only work with candidates who are looking for a new position. They usually post open job positions online. Sometimes, recruiters find potential candidates by attending career fairs or consulting with others in their professional network.

  • Position: Recruiting is the most common practice for finding potential employees. Most companies use a recruiting strategy to fill the majority of their open roles. Some companies only use recruiters, even to fill their executive-level positions.

  • Methodology: Recruiters use a “reactive” method since potential candidates typically come to them. They use several tools to find their candidates, but the most common is posting job descriptions on online job boards and gathering applications from interested potential employees for review.

  • Cost: Recruiting is almost always a less expensive endeavour than headhunting. Since recruiters are only seeking active applicants, they can do far less investigative work when looking for candidates and instead devote their efforts to reviewing the potential of those who have submitted their applications.

Related: What Does a Recruiter Do: Duties, Skills and Salary

How does the headhunting process work?

Headhunting processes used by different companies can vary, but the process typically follows these key steps:

1. Identify an open position

The first step of the headhunting process is identifying a company's open position. Usually, a company leader approaches the hiring and headhunting team about the need for a new employee. Occasionally, the transition between the current employee and the new employee is confidential, particularly in the case of high-level executives in large corporations. Sometimes, the headhunters involved in the search process must use considerable discretion when looking for candidates.

Related: What Does a Recruitment Consultant Do? (Definition and Skills)

2. Create job requirements

Another important step in the headhunting process is to outline candidate criteria. Usually, headhunters collaborate with the company's hiring staff and executive team to create a set of requirements for job candidates. The hiring team might also create an official job description or a candidate profile. Some common requirements include:

  • Education: Many executive positions have educational requirements. For example, many of these positions require master's degrees.

  • Past positions: The hiring team may include specific past job titles as criteria to ensure that candidates have relevant experience.

  • Specific skills: Depending on the field or position, the hiring team might want candidates to have specific skills. For example, the ideal candidate for a managing director position at a tech startup might have programming skills.

  • Years of experience: A certain number of years of experience is often a requirement for high-level positions.

  • Personal qualities: Depending on the organisation and position, the hiring team might be looking for certain personal qualities, such as a positive attitude.

  • Leadership skills: Leadership skills are essential for executive positions, so hiring teams may list these as necessary candidate criteria.

Related: Soft Skills: Definition, Examples and Tips

3. Search for passive candidates

Often, headhunters start by searching for passive candidates, who are candidates that may leave their current position for the right offer. Usually, the team creates a list of potential candidates and then approaches them to gauge their interest in the open job. If the candidates express interest, then headhunters may follow up by scheduling a job interview.

Related: Show Hiring Managers That You're Ready to Work

4. Consider active candidates

Along with passive job candidates, headhunters sometimes look for active candidates, who are candidates that are currently searching for a job.

Headhunters may post the job on job boards or attend conferences or hiring fairs to look for qualified potential applicants. They'll ask these candidates for application materials like resumes, cover letters and reference lists to better review their qualifications.

Related: 10 Essential Recruiter Skills (With Steps to Improve Them)

5. Evaluate candidates

Once the headhunting team has created a list of candidates, they usually collaborate with the company's hiring team to evaluate each candidate. This step usually doesn't go as in-depth as formal candidate screening. During this stage, the hiring team simply aims to narrow their selection of candidates. They may use applicant tracking systems, which are software programs that make it easier to organise candidate information.

Related: What Are Applicant Tracking Systems? (Including Tips)

6. Screen candidates

Candidate screening is another essential step of the headhunting process. Candidates for high-level positions often complete multiple stages of interviews with stakeholders. Interviews for these types of positions are usually very in-depth. Interviewers may ask candidates about their work style, their leadership qualities and their career accomplishments. Additional screening methods can include:

  • Reference checks: Reference checks involve contacting people who have previously worked with a job candidate. Completing reference checks can help gauge a candidate's work style and how they would fit with the employer's culture and values.

  • Background checks: Background checks are a screening technique that helps hiring teams learn about a job candidate's personal history. This can help them determine whether the candidate would be suited to a high-level role with the employer.

  • Internet searches: Internet searches can include scanning a candidate's social media accounts and reading through any media coverage related to the candidate. Internet searches often uncover more information about the candidate's values and how they align with the employer.

After screening candidates, the hiring team typically reconvenes to come to an agreement about the best candidate. They review the notes collected during the screening process to compare candidates and choose the ideal candidate for the open position.

Related: How To Prepare for an Interview

7. Negotiate a job offer

After making a hiring decision, the company extends a job offer to the top candidate by phone or email. They also complete any additional negotiations needed to complete the hiring process. During this step, the hiring team often contacts other job candidates to politely inform them that they weren't chosen for the job.

Related: Offering a Job (With Tips, Template and Example Script)

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