Headhunting vs recruiting: how these concepts contrast

Updated 21 July 2022

Headhunting and recruiting are two related yet distinct hiring concepts. Using the former strategy, employers actively seek the best talent for a position, regardless of whether you're currently employed. Conversely, by opting to recruit new staff, firms take a more passive approach, selecting the best candidate from CVs they receive. In this article, we define headhunting vs recruiting and provide a step-by-step guide to using each process to find work.

Headhunting vs recruiting

You might find that several factors influence an employer's hiring preferences of headhunting vs. recruiting. The section below sums up the main differences between these two hiring concepts:


Headhunting involves actively seeking the best candidate for a position. Employers can assess your suitability for a position determined by certain key factors, such as your certifications, practical experience and transferable skills. If an employer values your professional profile, they may try to convince you to leave your current role. In this scenario, you might receive a more lucrative compensation package in return for your services.

Firms often find actively researching viable candidates to consume ample time and financial resources. They thus might contract out these duties to a headhunting specialist, whose technical expertise ensures they can identify talent more quickly. You might also find that employers mainly use this approach if they want you to fill an executive-level role, such as company president or chief financial officer.


Recruiting involves publicly marketing a job opening before assessing applicants based on their professional strengths. When applying for entry-level positions, you might use general employment websites to appeal to recruiters. Employers post these listings to access a wider pool of potential candidates, before employing the applicant best-suited to the role. Alternatively, you may pursue executive-level roles through more intimate means, such as a sector-specific employment website or a job fair. You then filter your search to only include jobs related to your own skills.

Given its more relaxed nature, you may find this process to be more straightforward than headhunting. You might then find a new employer fairly quickly. You might find that recruitment models vary depending on the size of a business. For example, small businesses may use temporary recruiters to advise them on attracting you to apply for a role. Conversely, multinational firms may have their own human resources departments, whose employees are often experts in recruitment.

Related: 6 Stages of an effective recruitment process

Understanding how headhunting work

In case you're headhunted by a third party in the future, it's useful that you understand the innate quirks of the process. Unlike recruiting, you may be content with your current situation upon receiving a job offer. You can thus gain from knowing how to handle a potentially difficult situation, portraying yourself positively to employers regardless of whether you accept their offer. The following section offers a four-step guide to the headhunting process:

Understanding your skill set

If you receive job offers from a headhunter, it's important that you consider the specific qualities you already possess. You may prioritise employers whose business operates in your current industry to reflect your skills and experience. You may also consider firms' longevity, prioritising those who can offer stable and long-term employment. It's also important to enquire about the job's salary range, though the ultimate offer may depend on future negotiations with the employer.

For example, if you're offered several jobs as a chief financial officer, you might prioritise a firm with a track record of commercial success. By doing this, you can reduce the financial and personal risks associated with a possible career change.

Headhunting specialists

Once a firm defines its preferences, it might employ a headhunting specialist to identify viable candidates. They might make enquiries to different employment agencies, detailing the job's stipulations and negotiating a fee accordingly. Headhunters often receive a percentage of the successful candidate's first-year salary as commission. Firms often agree to this rate in advance, to avoid potential disputes in the future.

After hiring a headhunter, employers might offer them a detailed project brief, detailing the particular type of employee they're seeking. Both parties might discuss these stipulations at length, explaining demands and answering questions they each put forward. The employer might then leave a headhunter to begin their research autonomously, confident that they can effectively follow instructions.

Related: Essential HR skills

Short-listing candidates

After a few days or weeks, employers reconvene with the headhunter to analyse their findings. They might review each candidate's professional profile, assessing their strengths and flaws before deciding whether they're a viable fit.

An employer might then contact you via email. Here, they may detail the terms of the position and request that you contact them if you're interested. It's important to respond quickly and in a formal manner, even if you intend to reject an offer. By doing so, you show gratitude for being considered for the role. If you do wish to change careers, you might also show respect to your current firm by being transparent throughout this process, rather than leaving without warning.

Interviewing process

You complete the headhunting process by completing a series of rigorous, emphasising your professional qualities throughout. You can direct the conversation towards topics designed to prove your suitability, such as key skills and how you may react to several workplace scenarios. If you're successful, you can then negotiate your precise salary.

Related: Interviewing techniques and tips to make a great impression

Understanding how recruiting work

If you wish to be recruited by a firm, it's important to adapt your application to fit the unique specifications of the post. You might then find it easier to stand out against rival applicants, increasing the possibility that you might secure the role. The following section provides a four-step guide to the recruitment process:

Recognising context

Before you apply for an available job, it's important that you consider why you want this post. By analysing your motivations, you can tailor your CV to emphasise qualities the employer is looking for, such as key skills and qualifications. For example, if you're looking to replace a senior colleague at your current firm, you might reflect on their professional qualities. You may then use your application to prove that you possess similar qualities, using targeted keywords to convince a recruiter.

Alternatively, you might be applying for a role created as part of a commercial expansion programme. In this scenario, you can conduct research into the firm's corporate goals and ethos, such as increased revenue or linking up with potential customers overseas. You can then channel these ideas into your application, detailing how you're the ideal candidate to help achieve them.

Understanding the position

After accounting for context, it's important that you then consider the position itself. You may find that many rival applicants possess certifications and skills similar to your own. You might thus benefit from explaining how a position suits your personal circumstances and ambitions. If you're seeking an entry-level professional role, you can emphasise how a particular position fits with your long-term career goals. You might then focus on lasting benefits the role provides, such as opportunities for future career progression.

Alternatively, if you're seeking a management-level position, you might highlight perks associated with a job, such as good workplace culture. You might thus ensure you stand out to recruiters as an enthusiastic and investigative individual, worthy of due consideration.

Submitting your applications

The next step you can take is to submit a job application. Employers often a recruitment agency to market positions, particularly if you're making many jobs available at once. By doing this, they can reduce the time and resources spent attracting talent. You're then notified about job openings more quickly, which may be useful if you hope to find work urgently.

You might also adapt your application method to suit the type of position you're seeking. If you hope to secure an entry-level position in a competitive job market, you might use job boards. Here you can reach potential employers quickly and for free. When pursuing a specialist job, you may prefer more intimate methods, such as attending industry-specific job fairs. Here you connect with high-end employers directly, enquiring about a role's duties and answering any questions. You also build a rapport with managers in advance, making it easier to integrate yourself into a new organisation.

Interviewing process

Once the application deadline closes, employers might assess your CV to judge whether you're well-suited to the role. If you're successful, an employer may contact you via email, to offer you a formal interview. During an interview, you can discuss your experiences relevant to the position, such as skills or prior work. Based on these direct conversations, employers make an informed decision on whether to employ you. Even if you're unsuccessful, employers might keep your CV on file even after the recruitment process concludes. You might then receive another interview if the firm makes similar roles available at a later date.


Explore more articles

  • Logician career path (with definition and personality types)
  • Capgemini apprenticeships (definition and steps to get one)
  • Why work in retail? 8 reasons retail can be rewarding
  • High-paid jobs without a degree (plus salaries and duties)
  • How to get a chartered tax adviser qualification in the UK
  • Applying to jobs: a comprehensive step-by-step guide
  • How to write an entrepreneur CV (with an example and tips)
  • 9 forensic science jobs with salaries and job duties
  • How To Become a Football Manager: A Comprehensive Guide
  • How to become a detective without being a police officer
  • How to become a chaplain in 8 steps: guide plus skills
  • How To Become a Mobile App Developer (Plus Salary Info)