Learn How to Select an Employment Agency or Headhunter

Smiling female white collar worker talking on smart phone
••• valentinrussanov / Getty Images

What's a headhunter? What's the difference between an employment agency and a headhunter or a search firm? The terms that describe the people and companies that earn a living helping job seekers find jobs can be confusing. Before diving into when and how to use an employment agency or headhunter for your job search, first, you must know who's who and who does what in the world of employment recruiting.

Employment Agency

The traditional employment agency assists job seekers in finding work. Some firms charge the job seeker, so be sure to clarify, up front, if there is a fee. Others are paid by the employer. In most cases, I would not recommend using an agency that charges the job seeker.

Search Firm/Executive Search Firm

Search firms can be industry specific (i.e. banking or retail) or skill specific (i.e. accounting or information technology). There are two main types of agencies:

  • Contingency Employment Agency: A contingency agency is paid when their candidate is hired by the employer. These types of firms are most often used for low and mid-level searches and they often send a large number of resumes to the employer.
  • Retained Search Firm: A retained search firm has an exclusive relationship with the employer. Search firms are typically hired for senior-level searches, and for a specific period of time to find a candidate to fill a job. They are paid expenses, plus a percentage of the employee's salary, regardless of whether the candidate is hired.


    The recruiter/headhunter/search consultant (the terms are used interchangeably) is the person you will actually work with on your job search. You may be approached by a headhunter trying to recruit you to apply for a new job working for a firm she/he represents. Alternately, you may send your resume to a recruiter or apply for a position that a headhunter is trying to fill.

    Temporary (Temp) Agency

    Temporary agencies are employment agencies that find employees to fill temporary jobs. For example, temps are often hired to work during seasonal increases in business or to cover vacations or illnesses. Many temporary agencies have expanded their role in the employment sector to fill temp to perm positions where the position starts out as a temporary job but could become permanent if the employer decides to hire the candidate.

    When to Use a Recruiter or Search Firm

    When does it make sense to use a search firm or recruiter to assist with your job search? If you seem to be stuck in a rut and you are not getting calls for interviews, it can make sense to use a recruiter to broaden your job search. It can also make sense if you are in a high-level position since those jobs are not always advertised, or in an industry that typically uses search firms to fill vacancies.

    Search firms have contacts in industries and at companies that you might not even be aware of. They can help market your resume and provide you with additional exposure to potential employers. Headhunters spend their working hours looking for employment opportunities. That's time researching employers that you won't have to spend.

    Some employers are impressed by candidates who are represented by recruiters. In addition, you will have a professional representing your qualifications to the company. The headhunter can also help you negotiate a compensation package.

    Keep in mind that there's a difference between paying an employment agency to help you with your job search and using a recruiter to connect you with potential employers. I would not recommend paying for placement. Rather, you want to use a recruiter or search firm who is paid by your prospective employer. If you do need job search assistance, consider contacting the Career Services office at your alma mater if you're a college graduate or your local Department of Labor for free assistance.

    If you choose to work with multiple recruiters, it's important to let each one know you are also working with someone else. Otherwise, they may both market your resume to the same employer, which can be an issue when the recruiter wants to collect the fee.

    Choosing a Headhunter

    How can you choose a headhunter who will work effectively for you? If you are seeking employment in a specific industry, consider using a headhunter who works in that industry. If you belong to a professional association, they may be able to provide a list of recruiters.

    Use recruiting online directories to generate a list of recruiters. The Recruiters Online database is searchable by over 150 specialties, as well as by location and keyword. i-Recruit.com has a directory of recruiters listed by specialty and by location. Network with business colleagues and acquaintances to get suggestions. Check LinkedIn to see if you're connected with a recruiter or someone who can refer you to one.

    Turn the table and spend some time interviewing the recruiter. This is an important professional relationship, and you need to be sure it's going to work. Ask how long the recruiter has been with the company. Also, ask about the process and how they market your resume and present it to potential employers.

    Ask the recruiter for references and check them. Talk to clients about the services that were provided and what they thought of them. Also, ask if they would use the recruiter again. Finally, make sure you are comfortable with both the company and the individual. There needs to be a fit between your style and the style of the people who are representing you.

    Remember that using a recruiter should only be one step in your job search. There is no guarantee if, or when, a lead will turn into a job offer. So, do not stop your own job search efforts and don't stop networking or looking for potential opportunities on your own. Do let the recruiter know that you are seeking other opportunities.