What is the Difference Between a Headhunter and a Recruiter?

When you are looking for work, you might be tempted to employ a recruiter or a headhunter to help you with your search. The terms headhunter and recruiter are often used interchangeably, but in general, the terms represent differences in who these individuals work for and how they earn their money.

Recruiter vs. Headhunter

Usually recruiters earn their money by working for one or more companies to help them fill any positions that are currently open. In this capacity, recruiters may have to screen and interview candidates. Sometimes recruiters work for employment firms on a contractual basis to help their clients find suitable employees. When you are working with a recruiter, you shouldn't be charged any fees to have them help you find a job. Instead, they are generally paid by the company that is doing the hiring.

On the other hand, headhunters often work only on a contingency basis, meaning they only get paid if they are able to find an acceptable employee for a company or organization. Since headhunters work on commission, they often have a greater incentive to find jobs for their clients than recruiters do. Headhunters can be paid either by the companies looking for employees or the job seeker looking for work. So don't be surprised if your headhunter asks for a placement fee when they successfully find you a job. 


Employment professionals can work for either retained, contingency or agency firms. Retained firms look for people who fill senior roles in companies like managers, supervisors, CEO's, CFO's, presidents and vice presidents. As a result, they do a great deal of research to make sure the individuals they are recommending have the necessary qualifications to fill these high level positions. Retained firms usually get paid in installments by the hiring company as they move through recruitment process.

Contingency firms often compete with each other to place suitable candidates with companies that are looking to fill specified positions. These firms only get paid when they successfully place someone, so these recruiters can only expect to get paid for a percentage of the cases they are working on at any given point in time.

Agencies are most often used to fill more junior roles in companies who are looking either for contract workers or permanent employees. In general, agencies fill lots more jobs than retained firms because employers need these workers immediately and don't have as much time to spend on the hiring process.


Both headhunters and recruiters are good people to know even if you are unemployed. Recruiters often work with several companies that could be looking for someone with your skill set at any given point in time. So if a recruiter has your resume on file, you have a better chance of getting job offers for positions that could advance your career. Similarly, headhunters are always looking to match the right people with the right jobs, so building relationships with these employment professionals could be beneficial to your future as well.