Differentiating between a Headhunter and Recruiter
Table of Contents

Snooker and Billiards are two different games.

Yes, to a lay observer, the equipment and the play look very similar, but a player knows the difference.

Sample this: while a snooker table has pockets, a billiards table has none. Obviously then, the rules are different for both games.

Then there is the difference in the diameter of the balls used in the games, the number of balls in play, and even in the color scheme of the balls.

Similarly, headhunting and recruitment are two different activities.

No doubt both these activities have overlapping aspects, and broadly achieve the same objective – that of finding a suitable candidate for a vacant position. 

But just like the players of the two games mentioned above, a professional sees the distinction between headhunting and recruitment.

Distinctions like a mandate, its scope, types of candidates, channels of sourcing, professionals involved in the process, etc., separate the two.

Who is a Headhunter?

“Headhunting is the process of recruiting individuals to fill senior positions in organizations.”– WikiJob

A headhunter, then, comes into play when higher-level positions in organizations become vacant.

Headhunters are proactive recruiters. They search, peruse, and screen for eligible candidates even though they may not be looking for a job or a change. This type of recruitment is directly managed, supervised, and controlled by ‘the people in the corner office’ – the Top Management – to hire ‘people who will occupy a corner office’. 

Some headhunters work on a retainer ship basis. They may charge their fees upfront. Headhunters are much more involved with each stage of the process compared to a general recruiter.

Most headhunters specialize in a particular industry or niche. They have thorough knowledge about the goings-on in that specific industry.

Headhunting is also called ‘Executive Search’. It is undertaken primarily to hire the people who occupy the top rungs in a company hierarchy. Unlike recruiting, it does not involve hiring in large numbers.

Who is a Recruiter?

‘Recruiter’ and ‘Recruitment’ are broader terms. They encompass all those individuals and processes who / which are involved in hiring people to fill up vacant positions at an organization.

Unlike headhunting, recruiting doesn’t mean hiring people only for the top Management or the CXO roles. It usually involves hiring employees for positions that rank lower in the organizational pecking order.

Most recruiters themselves are employees of organizations they are hiring for. They may be a part of the Human Resource Department. Or they may be employees of a recruiting agency.

Internal recruiters (part of the HR Department) have detailed information about their organizations but may not be fully updated about the industry or the job market outside.

External recruiters try to keep tabs on multiple industries, and hence, may lack specialized knowledge about any one particular industry. 

Recruiters swing into action when organizations need to fill several open positions quickly.

Recruiters may hire the services of other employment agencies when they have a time constraint, the number of open positions is too big, or when they cannot find suitable candidates themselves.

Key points of distinction between Headhunters and Recruiters

AspectsHeadhuntersRecruiters
CompensationRecruiters hire people who are at various stages of their careers, for different roles at different levels in the organizational hierarchy.Hence, they need to develop a  wider network, which may or may not be a specialized one. This network is generally not as deep as that of a headhunter.Headhunters work for their clients. As such, they are external agents for their client’s organizations.
Internal vs ExternalHeadhunters work for their clients. As such, they are external agents for their client’s organization.Recruiters generally work for their employers. Hence, they are internal agents for the organization.
NetworkRecruiters are a part of the Human Resource Department. Hiring for their organizations is a part of their job description and may be their primary responsibility. However, they still have to devote their time to other HR activities. This restricts the amount of time they can devote to each candidate.Since recruiters are internal agents, hiring is a part of their job within the Human Resources Department.
Sales vs Human Resources Recruiters are a part of the Human Resource Department. Hiring for their organizations is a part of their job description and may be their primary responsibility. However, they still have to devote their time for other HR activities. This restricts the amount of time they can devote to each candidate.Since headhunters are external agents, every time they hire successfully for their clients, they make a sale to those clients. 
Time invested in the processFinding and hiring the right candidates for their clients’ organizations is the primary and only responsibility of headhunters.

As such, they devote their entire time to this activity. They invest much time in each candidate to ensure a ‘perfect’ fit.
A headhunter’s first responsibility is to source the right candidates for their client’s organizations. They may not be involved with the subsequent stages like interviews, compensation negotiations, etc.
Scope of Responsibilities Recruiters are a part of the Human Resource Department. Hiring for their organizations is a part of their job description and maybe their primary responsibility.

However, they still have to devote their time to other HR activities. This restricts the amount of time they can devote to each candidate.
Headhunters are given the mandate to hire for top-tier roles. They help hire people for Top Management, like CXO roles and higher.
Status in Hierarchy of open job positionsA headhunter spends an enormous amount of time understanding their client’s needs, screening and pursuing a candidate, understanding a candidate’s expectations, etc., before putting up a candidate as a prospective employee of their client.

Therefore, they focus on the quality of candidates more than the number of candidates. This saves a lot of time for everybody involved.
Recruiters hire employees for entry-level and middle-level positions.
Quality vs QuantityA headhunter spends an enormous amount of time understanding their client’s needs, screening and pursuing a candidate, understanding a candidate’s expectations, etc., before putting up a candidate as a prospective employee of their client.

Therefore, they focus on the quality of candidates more than the number of candidates. This saves a lot of time for everybody involved.
Recruiters have to deal with a large number of applications. They can devote only so much time per candidate. The focus here is on quantity as against quality.
Skills required by CandidatesHeadhunters scout for candidates who have proved themselves to be masters of their domain. More often than not, such candidates are already employed elsewhere.

They may not be looking for a change of employment. Hence, headhunters have to deal with passive candidates primarily. And this makes their task more challenging.
Candidates with diverse skills are given preference for entry-level and middle-level jobs. Such a candidate can be shifted across various roles in the organization.
Active vs Passive CandidatesHeadhunters scout for candidates who have proved themselves to be masters of their domain. More often than not, such candidates are already employed elsewhere.

They may not be looking for a change of employment. Hence, headhunters have to deal with passive candidates primarily. And this makes their task more challenging.
Recruiters deal with candidates actively applying for open positions at various organizations.

Such candidates are looking for a change if they are already employed. Dealing with such active candidates is relatively more straightforward for a recruiter.

Process & Best Practices in Headhunting

What follows ahead is a step-by-step breakdown of the best practices in the headhunting process.

#1 Due diligence about the vacant position and a prospective candidate 

This first step is indispensable. Complete knowledge about the candidate, as also the position for which they are being considered, is of utmost significance.

A headhunter should realize that the candidate, if hired will occupy one of the important strategic and decision-making positions in the organization. As such, their actions will affect the future of the organization and its employees. Such a candidate must have an impeccable record of being highly effective and loyal to their organization and be of high moral character.

#2 Employer Brand

Like begets like. Talent attracts talent. And the promise of a grand future binds employees to their organizations. 

To interest people who can grow your organization to the next level, you need to entice them with your vision of the future and how that vision enhances their (the candidate’s) current status in society.

Effective communication through proper channels is the key here.

For suitable candidates, whether active or passive, to notice your organization, you need to be visible and heard at all the correct places while avoiding the potentially ‘wrong’ ones. Establish a rapport with your potential candidate via all the direct and indirect touchpoints.

Check – How to build employer brand

#3 Balance Assertion and Aggression 

It’s exciting to come across the ‘perfect’ candidate. You are eager to make them join. But while you should not bend over backward to accommodate them, you also do not want to be too aggressive. 

That fine balance between being firmly assertive and cordially aggressive is imperative. Your attitude at this juncture acts as an indicator of the culture of the organization you represent.

While trying to make a ‘best in class’ offer, you should provide enough leeway for the candidate to present their counteroffer or even turn down your offer. The candidate should get the feeling that this is a discussion between equals. This ensures doors are kept open for the future.

#4 Follow-up

Continuous communication has no alternative or short-cut. Following up with a candidate assures them you are serious about them and are not wasting their time.

They will remember to weigh your offer before responding to other offers. Again, professional conduct will ensure ‘open doors’ for the future.

However, be careful not to annoy your candidate with over-zealous follow-ups. Once again, you don’t want to come across as pushy, or even needy. Give them their space and time within mutually accepted timeframes.

Check – How to Engage with Candidates Post Offer

#5 Verification

As always, no hiring process can be completed without a background check. Verifying the claims made in the resume is essential, no matter what position the candidate is being hired for.

Exaggerated and worse, false claims are routinely found in resumes at all levels.

Hiring and firing a candidate and then re-hiring another is a costly proposition in terms of time and money. Efforts put into diligent verification can save not only time and money but also embarrassment all around.

Wrap Up

As discussed earlier, while headhunting and recruiting may overlap, one should not be confused with the other.

The thought processes to be followed are very different for both of them. The professionals involved in the processes are at different levels in the organization’s hierarchy.

The candidates being considered are at very different stages of their careers, and they have vastly different expectations from their careers and current and future employers. 

In practice, though, things can and do get mixed up, resulting in chaos. Proper demarcation of scope and responsibilities through practical discussions and continuous communication can prevent this.

FAQs on Headhunting and Recruiting 

What is the definition of headhunting?

Definitions may vary, but the following describes a headhunter:

Headhunters are proactive recruiters who deal with primarily passive job seekers. They match talent with top-tier vacant positions in their clients’ organizations.

Headhunting is directly managed, supervised, and controlled by ‘the people in the corner office’ – the Top Management – to hire ‘people who will occupy a corner office.’

What is the difference between a recruiter and a headhunter?

In a nutshell, headhunters scout for (mostly) passive candidates who have proven themselves in their area of expertise but who may not be looking for a change. These candidates are approached for top-tier jobs like CEO, CFO, Managing Director, etc.

Recruiters deal with active candidates who are either looking to start their careers or are actively looking for the next meaningful opportunity in their careers. Recruiters hire for entry-level and middle-level positions.

Which is better, an HR Recruiter or an HR Executive?

Depending on what responsibilities one wants to handle, either role could be preferred.

By its very title, the role and scope of an HR Recruiter would be limited to recruiting employees for their organization.

An HR Executive, on the other hand, has a broader mandate and handles more responsibilities. More often than not, recruitment is part of an HR Executive’s job description.

However, ground realities are different. Most organizations do not segregate the two roles, and responsibilities are shared, more like an HR Generalist role.

What is the difference between an HR Recruiter and an HR Manager?

HR Recruiter is one of the entry-level positions within the HR Department. They are primarily concerned with hiring people for various roles in their organization.

Depending on the size of the organization, a recruiter may or may not have other HR responsibilities.
An HR Manager is a middle-level position who supervises over his subordinates in the HR Department. Besides managing the HR team, an HR Manager has a plethora of other responsibilities, which generally includes recruitment. An HR Recruiter is subordinate to an HR Manager.

What are some of the differences between headhunters and recruiters?

Consider the following points to distinguish between a headhunter and a recruiter:

Compensation structure
Internal vs External Agents
Breadth and Depth of Network 
Sales function vs Human Resources function
Time invested in the process
Scope of responsibilities
Status in Hierarchy of open job positions
Quality vs Quantity of candidates
Skills required by candidates
Active vs Passive Candidates

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