Headhunter vs Recruiter: The Real Difference

Male professional looking at different professional headshots

Headhunter or Recruiter?

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

Here it is:

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

Clear enough?  Not at all, you say?

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 in touch with someone who uses 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 of all: Recruiters and headhunters exist to match job candidates with open positions.

Feel a little better yet?  Sort of, but not really? OK, let’s further explore each (I really did start writing this expecting it to be brief, I promise).

Headhunter Definition

A headhunter is a professional, third-party talent-finder who works to fill one or more open positions on their client’s behalf.  The term headhunter can refer to an individual recruiter or a recruiting firm.

Headhunters are similar to talent scouts – They use a wide variety of means to search for, and identify prospective hires. Headhunters source (find), screen, and ultimately recommend the most ideal candidate(s) to their client for consideration.  Headhunters typically remain involved with both with the candidate and end-user employer throughout the entire 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 even executive-level roles, the term can apply to those who work to fill positions of all levels.

How Headhunters are Compensated

Headhunters are generally compensated in one of two ways: on a contingency basis or on retainer.

With a contingent search, the headhunter is not guaranteed payment for their time and effort. Instead, payment takes place only after a candidate has been successfully hired. Many contingent searches involve a guarantee period; requiring the newly hired employee to remain in place for some period of time.

  • Contract terms for a contingent search can vary wildly from one headhunter to the next.  Variables include:
  • Placement fees – typically either a fixed cost, or a percentage of annual salary
  • Placement terms
  • Guarantee period or duration – how long the candidate has to remain employed
  • Guarantee type – replacement candidate or refund

A retained search, on the other hand, involves some form of up-front payment in order for the headhunter to initiate their professional recruiting efforts. In a retained scenario the end-user client has “skin in the game” from the start, which effectively creates a deeper commitment to the outcome by both parties.  Retained searches most commonly exist with executive level positions and niche roles due to the complex nature of the hiring process, a small candidate pool, and the headhunter’s expected time commitment and level of effort.

As with a contingency contract (and practically everything staffing and recruiting related), there are many variables when it comes to retained search agreements.  In addition to the considerations involved in a contingent search, retained agreements must address:

  • Retained fee schedule – milestones for payments
  • Exclusivity – whether it is granted, and for how long
  • Recourse if the headhunter is unable to find a suitable candidate

Related: What Is Retained Search and Is It Right For My Company?

Who are Headhunters?

Headhunters come in all shapes and sizes; from freelancers who have embraced the gig economy, to global corporations. There are headhunters who consider themselves to be generalists, and others who specialize in one of many areas: industry vertical, geography, position type, level of position, and of course search type (contingent or retained).

There are a number of industry associations that exist to support and promote the common interests of headhunters and their firms. The largest are The American Staffing Association, and Staffing Industry Analysts.

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

So there it is: Headhunters are recruiters.  

Where you can find a headhunter

If you need to hire a headhunter, or work with one for your job search, you can search ASA’s member directory here. You can 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.

Corporate Recruiters

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 entire hiring process.

The difference…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 will typically work 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 and a Corporate 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 there is a need for both.  Here are the four big ones:


Since headhunters are exclusively paid for performance, this role is better suited for individuals who are comfortable with a commission-oriented roles. Conversely, while there may be a bonus structure 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 employer.

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: Recruit. For many Corporate Recruiters, or those who are responsible for corporate recruiting regardless of their job title, this isn’t necessarily the case.  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).

That’s it! It really is that simple despite some of the whacky descriptions out there, but if you want to discuss further, our team will be glad to help!

Looking For a Headhunter or Recruiter?

4 Corner Resources (4CR) is an Orlando-based headhunting, recruiting, and staffing agency that helps businesses of all sizes fulfill their hiring needs. A leading Orlando staffing agency, 4CR supports companies and organizations of all sizes by recruiting and placing top talent for a wide variety of positions and needs; everything from high-volume jobs to specialized positions that require advanced degrees and qualifications.

4CR’s staffing solutions include:

Contact us today, and rest assured that our headhunters are recruiters!!

Pete Newsome

About Pete Newsome

Pete Newsome is the president of 4 Corner Resources, the nationally acclaimed staffing and recruiting firm he founded in 2005. His mission back then was the same as it is today: to do business in a personal way, while building an organization with boundless opportunities for ingenuity and advancement. When not managing 4 Corner’s growth or spending time with his family of six, you can find Pete sharing his sales and business expertise though public speaking, writing, and as the host of the Hire Calling podcast.