Executive Search versus Recruitment Consultants - what's the difference?

  | James Innes

A common misperception amongst job candidates is that “head-hunters” or executive search firms are one and the same thing as recruitment consultants. However, there is a big difference and candidates should be aware of it.

With recruitment companies, they are often used by a company when they have a job to fill. The recruiter will then turn to its current list of active jobseekers, those who have contacted them or posted their CV on a job board, in order to produce a list of candidates for interview and, hopefully, eventual employment.

An executive search firm works completely differently. They will look for individuals that best suit a role, and then will approach them directly, whether they are actively looking for a new job or not. In fact, in the majority of cases, the individuals concerned were not considering moving jobs until the approach from the head-hunter.

Typically, executive search firms are used to recruit for senior, executive or highly specialised positions, where finding top talent can be difficult. They will use a range of personal contacts, as well as in-depth industry knowledge, to find suitable candidates for clients. In-depth interviews are then conducted before a suitable shortlist is then presented to their client for consideration.

The relationship between a client and executive search firm can be either contingent or retained. Contingent recruiters are paid only if a search is successfully completed; retained ones are paid for the process involved.

From a candidate viewpoint, executive search firms rarely will accept an unsolicited  CV from candidates. This is because they rely on networking to identify individuals whose credentials and experience fit the client’s requirements. They prefer to work with people they know and trust.

Many people may never come into contact with an Executive Search firm. This is not because they do not have the skills and experience that would be of interest to them necessarily, but because of the nature of executive search firms. At any one time, very few openings will be filled by executive search firms, and, consequently, the likelihood of a search firm matching your background and experience is quite rare.

There is also a question of remuneration, as the fees paid to an executive search firm are typically much greater – up to a third of the first year’s remuneration of the recruited executive – than those paid to a normal recruitment agency.  As a result, executive search is usually only used to fill the most senior roles where the cost of a hiring mistake is greater.

However, if you are approached by an Executive Search firm it is likely that they are already actively considering you for a specific role, so tread carefully!

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