What Is the Difference Between a Headhunter & a Recruiter?

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A headhunter, also called an executive recruiter, searches for specific client positions. Headhunters usually work for an executive search firm that charge hefty fees for the service. A headhunter focuses on the client's requirement until the search results in a new hire.


Recruiters may work as part of an organization's human resources team. They receive hourly or salary compensation from the employer and don't earn professional services fees like headhunters.

Key Employee Replacement

  • You need to hire a headhunter when a key executive position must be filled in a short time, according to author Nancy Garrison Jenn in "Headhunters and How To Choose Them." The executive recruiter's value to the company in such a situation is knowledge of the company's industry, markets and competitors. A headhunter should already know potential candidates for the senior post. She knows each professional's experience and potential motivation to consider a new opportunity. If she's an established headhunter, she knows precisely whom to call for her client's open position.

Costly Discretion

  • Headhunters work with clients whose open positions never get posted on job boards such as CareerBuilder or Monster. Clients pay head hunters well -- often one-third of the new hire's annual compensation -- to conduct the search process in a quiet and confidential manner, according to author Kenneth M. York of "Applied Human Resource Management." The headhunter might elect to withhold the client's name when speaking to a prospective candidate. If the candidate passes executive search muster, the headhunter informs his candidate of the client's identity.

Internal Agents

  • Recruiters, on the other hand, work within a company's human resources department, according to "Staffing the Contemporary Organization" authors Donald L. Caruth, Gail D. Caruth, and Stephanie S. Pane. Unlike other human resources workers, a recruiter helps his employer hire new and replacement staff.

    The recruiter often manages a large number of open searches. He posts job descriptions on national or industry-specific job boards, association sites and media. A recruiter might have 100 or more positions to fill. The recruiter responds to incoming job applications and usually doesn't take a proactive approach in identifying and wooing new employees.

External Recruiters

  • Agency, or third-party, recruiters at staffing and employment agencies also manage a large number of job openings. However, they manage openings for client companies. Unlike the headhunter, the agency recruiter usually works on a contingent basis. That is, the client agrees to pay a certain percentage of the new hire's salary if the recruiter presents the finalist candidate. An agency recruiter must work according to metrics. Because she isn't paid a fee throughout the recruiting process like the headhunter, she manages numbers. For example, an agency recruiter has 10 open client job orders. She believes that three orders require urgent action, so she focuses her attention on these orders. Each placement will earn her agency 25 percent of the first year's compensation. Candidates that almost start the new job won't earn the recruiter any money. She must match motivated candidates and employers.

Contract Recruiters

  • Instead of hiring an agency recruiter, a company sometimes will engage a contract recruiter. The recruiter isn't an employee of the company and works according to contract terms. The contract might have a certain term. If the contract recruiter isn't hired by the company, he must find a new contract position.

    Contract recruiters usually earn a more generous hourly wage over the contract term. Contract recruiters with a specialty focus may command hourly rates of $50 or more. Some contract recruiters receive benefits and other perqs while working for the contracting firm.

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