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Headhunting In Recruitment: Definition, Types, Process

Asavari Sharma

January 23, 2024

Simply put, headhunting in recruiting refers to the process of seeking and hiring highly qualified candidates for senior-level and executive job positions across private and public sectors as well as non-profit businesses. Headhunting is also called “executive search.”

Let us say someone mentions to you: “We are actively headhunting for our junior software team.” On the surface, nothing wrong with this sentence, right? Maybe you have used the word ‘recruiting’ yourself, but everyone uses them interchangeably, so it means the same thing. Except - it does not.

Headhunting and recruiting are highly distinct functions, and headhunting requires a degree of sustained effort and deep-dive that goes far beyond regular recruiting.

Read on to know more about how headhunting works and the difference between these two apparently synonymous concepts. But first, let us get the fundamentals right:

What is headhunting?

Headhunting involves finding the best possible candidate for an executive-level position or the head role of a company, such as a Chief Executive Officer.

This hiring process is usually undertaken by a headhunter who has the experience and expertise to find qualified candidates for potentially filling high-end vacancies. Headhunters usually work for agencies. However, they can hold in-house full-time positions in organizations.

A unique trait of headhunting is that it is aimed at recruiting professionals currently employed with another company or not actively looking for a job change. Companies often pay competitive wages, amazing perks, and other benefits to persuade candidates to join them.

What is the difference between recruitment and headhunting?

At a broad level, both recruitment and headhunting have to do with filling up open job positions, and both involve effort from dedicated recruiters to search, screen, and evaluate potential candidates. Let us get into more specific definitions:

Recruitment refers to the process of sourcing and identifying the right candidates from a vast pool of job seekers to fill open roles in the company.

Professional recruiters and hiring managers work together to define job roles, source and screen resumes, evaluate shortlisted candidates, and then offer jobs to a select few. Recruitment applies to most entry-level and mid-level positions across job descriptions.

Headhunting, however, focuses on finding individuals with the right skills and experience for highly specialized roles, including critical managerial and executive positions. For this reason, it is also known as executive search.

A headhunter for Company A may, for instance, reach out to the marketing director in Company B and offer them the role of CEO at Company A. Headhunting is reserved for a few key positions, generally in the C-suite or relating to highly specialized industry expertise.

Recruitment vs. headhunting: A comparison

Recruiting and headhunting may seem to serve the same purpose, i.e., to fill a job vacancy with the best approach. However, the approach to these processes differs significantly. Here is how:

1. Niche

Headhunting is an exclusive activity focusing on hiring for a few critical roles at the company in question. Recruiting is more of a mass hiring affair for lower-rung positions at the company.

2. Scope of work

The scope of headhunting is more limited, as those key senior roles are open only for a limited time and need to be filled as soon as possible. Recruitment has a broader scope, and the number of vacancies is large, so it is more of ongoing activity.

3. Hiring managers and stakeholders

Headhunters are often the senior executives at the company itself, as filling those key positions requires an extensive understanding of what it takes to do the roles justice.

The company board of directors may often be involved too. Recruitment is more general and focuses on lower-rung jobs and can thus be outsourced to recruiting agencies with some input from department managers.

4. Time to hire

One of the most significant differences between headhunting and recruitment relates to the time to hire. Yes, that is right!

Time To Hire

Given how specialized the top positions are, headhunters need to spend considerable time researching and identifying prospective candidates, building a rapport with them, ensuring that their skills match the job in question, and nurturing the relationship up until the point of making an offer.

With recruitment, however, the focus is more on quantitatively filling up open positions, which means that recruiters spend much less time evaluating each individual candidate.

5. Passive hiring

In headhunting, the company representative proactively reaches out to the qualified individual in question to fill the position, regardless of whether the individual is actively seeking a new job. In recruitment, most of the candidates are already looking for jobs.

In recruitment, the recruiting agency often acts as a middleman between the company and the job seeker, providing shortlisting services while presenting suitable job opportunities to the other. A headhunter, however, works exclusively for the company and the role in question.

6. Cost

Obviously, it costs more to headhunt for high-end job roles than it does to hire job candidates to fill generic vacancies. That is solely because headhunting requires more investigative work to identify active and passive candidates on various sourcing channels such as LinkedIn, job portals, and online groups.

On the other hand, in recruitment, one only needs to consider active candidates. Attracting applicants with higher qualifications for executive roles also requires aggressive marketing - which may or may not be the case in conventional recruiting.

Types of headhunting

Typically, there are three ways an HR team might headhunt for a job:

1. Direct

This involves connecting one-on-one with prospective candidates in person or over a call.

2. Indirect

This involves leaving a message or email for the prospective candidates, stating the company’s interest in hiring them, and including the relevant contact information. The candidate can then reach out if they are interested in the role.

3. Third-party

This method involves collaborating with special recruitment agencies who scout for the best candidates for each job title. HR managers only contact the ones whom the agency has shortlisted. A lot of companies prefer to engage third party agencies for CXO roles. For e.g., to find a CTO, you would engage CTO recruitment agencies who scout for the best candidates for that role.

How the headhunting process works

Given how specialized headhunting is, every company may have its own way of filling up key roles. The general process, however, goes as follows:

1. Identifying a need

Generally, headhunting begins when the company CEO or someone equivalently senior reaches out to the top team about a job need. This could be to head a new department or venture or replace someone currently exiting the company.

2. Establishing a job description

The senior team will work together to establish a clear, comprehensive job description detailing the duties, abilities, and experience needed. Highlighting the job designation can make a huge factor that attracts potential candidates.

This needs to be a compelling profile rather than a mere laundry list, as the candidates being approached need to resonate with the role as well. This is also when an official headhunter is named, with the other senior executives to assist as necessary.

3. Reaching out to candidates

Headhunting primarily involves connecting with passive candidates, i.e., those who are not currently looking out for new jobs. Typically, the headhunter will make a list of suitable candidates occupying high-profile roles, seek them by leveraging multiple talent sourcing strategies, and then reach out with the intent of convincing them to switch.

At times, active candidates with the right qualifications and experience may be contacted too. Often, companies will establish a connection with the prospective candidate via the social media platform they are most active on. This is often LinkedIn but could be Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram as well.

4. Reviewing candidates

After an initial conversation, the headhunter will carefully review the candidate and the other senior executives. Given the need for quality when headhunting, this vetting process requires concentrated effort and may involve rejecting the candidate and starting over if there is not a strong enough fit. Depending on the nature of the job role, you could check for their competency by conducting pre-employment assessment tests.

Pre-Employment Assessment Tests

5. Interviewing candidates

Once a candidate has passed the review, they will be called in for interviews. There tend to be several when headhunting for a key position, as everyone on the team must be convinced that the candidate is the best for the role.

6. Extending an offer

The final stage involves making an offer to the selected candidate, including compensation and benefits. There may be a few rounds of negotiations at this stage, as candidates at that level of seniority have high expectations for their next career switch.

The headhunter may or may not be involved at this stage, as it is the company’s responsibility to make the offer and sign the deal.

Over to you

In conclusion, headhunting is a far more specialized activity than recruitment and requires careful, deliberate effort to ensure that the best people come on board to lead the company. When headhunting, therefore, patience is vital.

Even minor differences between role requirements and the candidate’s abilities could have a significant impact, so hold out until you have established beyond doubt that the person you are talking to is the ideal one. Good luck!


1. Why is headhunting important for any organization?

Perhaps the most significant benefit of headhunting is that it enables outsourced recruiters to source and identify the most qualified candidates to match your job requirements. They have contacts and wide-ranging networks from which they can identify, filter, and approach suitable candidates for the job.

2. How effective is headhunting?

Headhunting is very effective as a headhunter is more likely to be able to persuade potential candidates to switch jobs directly. The headhunters take the time to understand and advise a candidate in a way that instantly sells the advantages of the potential job opportunity over their current position.

Asavari Sharma

Asavari is an EiR at Adaface. She has made it her mission to help recruiters deploy candidate-friendly skill tests instead of trick-question based tests. When taking a break, she obsesses over art.

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