Headhunter vs. Recruiter: The Real Difference

Female headhunter reading resume during online virtual job interview by video call on her laptop.

I’ve recently noticed some rather curious (aka downright bizarre) articles online that attempt to explain the difference between a headhunter vs. recruiter, so I am offering a concise and definitive explanation to clear up the confusion.

Ready? Here it is:

All headhunters are recruiters, but not all recruiters are headhunters.

Clear enough? Not at all?

No problem – keep reading.

First, find comfort in knowing that the terms are often used interchangeably, even by those who recruit for a living (or should I say, source, screen, interview, reference check, background check, drug test, negotiate, and worry 24×7 about candidates for a living).

If you’re a job seeker actively engaged with a professional using either title, the good news is that you’re working with someone who wants to help you land your next great career opportunity. We can check off the most important similarity: Recruiters and headhunters exist to match job candidates with open positions.

Feel a little better yet? Sort of, but not really? OK, let’s explore each title in greater detail.

What is a Headhunter?

A headhunter is a professional who works to fill open positions on behalf of their clients. The term headhunter can refer to an individual recruiter or a recruiting firm.

Headhunters are similar to talent scouts – They use various means to search for and identify prospective hires. Headhunters source (find), screen, and ultimately recommend the ideal candidate(s) to their client for consideration. Headhunters typically remain involved with both the candidate and end-user employer (their client) throughout the interview process and often beyond.

Many headhunters specialize in niche markets, where they develop a network, or pipeline, of candidates with skills and experience in a specific area. While many people associate headhunters exclusively with senior or executive-level roles, the term can apply to those who recruit for positions of all levels.

How Headhunters are Compensated

Headhunters are paid a fee to recruit job candidates on behalf of their clients. This professional recruiting service is performed under a retained search agreement. While specific terms and conditions will vary, these agreements all include partial payment up-front to initiate the professional recruiting effort. 

Retained search

Unlike a contingent search, where a recruiter is not guaranteed payment for their time and effort, a retained search represents a greater commitment to a successful outcome by both the headhunter and their client. With “skin in the game” from the start, the end-user client expects and should receive a dedicated, highly focused recruiting effort. For the headhunter, a retainer signals that their client is serious about filling the opening. However, receiving a fee from the outset also means increased pressure to perform. While not all retained searches result in a placement, the headhunter’s reputation is tied to their ability to perform to the client’s satisfaction.  

As with a contingency contract, several variables go into a retained search agreement, including:

  • Placement fee – typically a percentage of annual salary, sometimes a fixed amount
  • Retained fee schedule – milestones for payments
  • Guarantee period – for hires who are terminated soon after
  • Exclusivity – whether it is granted and for how long if so
  • End date – how long the search will last

Retained searches are used across all industries and position types – most commonly used when hiring executive or senior leadership roles, niche skill sets with a small candidate pool, and for openings that require a high degree of confidentiality. The more time and complexity involved in the search process, the more likely a retained agreement will be in place.

Related: What is Retained Search and is it Right for My Company?

Who are Headhunters?

Headhunters come in all shapes and sizes, from freelancers operating independently to global corporations with thousands of employees. Some headhunters consider themselves generalists, and others specialize in a specific area, an industry vertical, geography, position type, or even a specific job function.  

Several industry associations exist to support and promote the common interests of headhunters and their firms. The largest are The American Staffing Association, TechServe Alliance, and Staffing Industry Analysts.

Despite the limitless variables regarding business models and specialties, all headhunters have a particular trait in common: They all recruit on behalf of another company.

So there it is: Headhunters are recruiters.  

Where can you find a headhunter?

You can search ASA’s member directory here if you need to hire a headhunter or work with one for your job search. Also, do a quick Google search to find headhunters in your local market, or if you don’t feel like shopping around, our team of headhunters at 4 Corner Resources is always on standby to help.

What is a Corporate Recruiter?

Now that we’ve determined that headhunters are, in fact, recruiters…why aren’t all recruiters…headhunters?

Recruiters act as talent-finders or matchmakers: Recruiters screen candidates, qualify them and stay involved throughout the hiring process.

The difference…well, the only real difference…is that a recruiter can either work on behalf of another company (their client) or directly for the end-user who is hiring. In the latter scenario, the internal or corporate recruiter typically works in their organization’s HR department. Associated job titles include the phrases: Internal Recruiter, Talent Acquisition, Talent Selection, People Manager, and Talent Manager.

What are the Real Differences Between a Headhunter vs. Recruiter?

Now that we’ve covered the similarities between an internal and external (or third-party) recruiter, it makes sense to address the differences and why they need both.  Here are the four big ones:


Since headhunters are exclusively paid for performance, this role is better suited for individuals comfortable with a commission-oriented role. Conversely, while a bonus structure may be in place, compensation for corporate recruiters is salary-based.

Internal vs. external

As referenced above, headhunters recruit exclusively for their clients, while corporate recruiters fill roles directly for their employers.

Human resources vs. sales

Most corporate recruiters work within their employer’s HR department, while a headhunter performs many functions (and likely possesses many traits) that are best described as sales.

Percentage of time spent recruiting

Headhunters exist to do one thing, and one thing only: Recruit. This isn’t necessarily the case for many corporate recruiters or those responsible for corporate recruiting, regardless of their job title.  Within smaller organizations, it’s common for recruiting to be just one of many responsibilities for an HR professional (although larger companies have dedicated recruiter roles).

Looking For a Headhunter or Recruiter?

We are an Orlando-based national headhunting, recruiting, and staffing agency that helps businesses of all sizes fulfill their hiring needs. As a leading staffing agency, 4CR supports companies and organizations of all sizes by recruiting and placing top talent for various positions. It needs, everything from high-volume jobs to specialized positions that require advanced degrees and qualifications.

Contact us today to learn more about our staffing solutions!

Pete Newsome

About Pete Newsome

Pete Newsome is the President of 4 Corner Resources, the staffing and recruiting firm he founded in 2005. 4 Corner is a member of the American Staffing Association and TechServe Alliance, and the top-rated staffing company in Central Florida. Recent awards and recognition include being named to Forbes’ Best Recruiting Firms in America, The Seminole 100, and The Golden 100. Pete also founded zengig, to offer comprehensive career advice, tools, and resources for students and professionals. He hosts two podcasts, Hire Calling and Finding Career Zen, and is blazing new trails in recruitment marketing with the latest artificial intelligence (AI) technology. Connect with Pete on LinkedIn