What is the Difference Between a Headhunter and a Recruiter?

wiseGEEK Writer

Headhunter and recruiter may be used interchangeably but they often express a difference between the relationship and the way in which each individual or firm is paid by companies. Often, a headhunter is a person who works on what is called a contingency basis only. They may have numerous relationships with business professionals in a certain field, and being paid by contingency only — working on commission — may provide greater incentive to get their clients hired.

Headhunters often work on commission, while recruiters work for a specific company.
Headhunters often work on commission, while recruiters work for a specific company.

On the other hand, recruiters may be specifically employed by a certain company or more than one, to fill positions at the company. They may be responsible for things like screening employees and interviewing them. On top of that, a recruiting firm may be employed by a company on a contractual pay basis, rather than a contingency basis, to essentially assemble an entire team of employees, with all screening and advertising as the responsibility of the firm.

Should you be paying either a headhunter or a job recruiter to find you a job? Generally neither type should charge job seekers, although some headhunters do charge for their services. Most don’t, since they want to build an attractive roster of potential clients to build their credibility. Recruiters should in general not be paid for their services. You can think of them as an extension of the company for which you might get hired. You wouldn’t pay the human resources department at a company to take your resume, and you usually should not pay anyone claiming to be a recruiter for a company; this would be highly unusual and should provoke some suspicion on your part.

Most often, the headhunter works alone, and is not part of an agency. They maintain an active list of people skilled in certain professions, and they may look for a job for you, even if you’re not actively seeking employment. Building relationships with headhunters who are gifted is a great thing to do. It tends to cost you nothing, and a surprise job offer might be in your future if you do.

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Job recruiters who work for companies, or are contracted by companies, are also good to know, even if they don’t have jobs available for you. First, there’s always a chance that a job recruiter might begin working for another company that does want to hire you, or if a job opens up, the recruiter has your resume on hand to determine if you’d be a good fit with the work.

Both the headhunter and job recruiter or recruiting firm can form an important part of your contacts with other businesses. They can also be looking out for you, even when you’re not. Especially in competitive fields, both types of workers can “get your name out there,” which is sometimes all it takes to land a more exciting or lucrative job. It’s worthwhile to have the acquaintance of at least one skilled headhunter, and also possibly a job recruitment firm, especially one with a large clientele. Both can, in the end, serve your career well, particularly if you stay in touch with them, and send them an updated resume every now and again.

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Discussion Comments


@Recruiter: How did you get started? Looking for some more inside information as this may be a viable career for me.


The above article is slightly inaccurate:

Recruitment Consultants: Spend most of their time working on a contingent basis.

Headhunters: Spend all of their time working on retained mandates (i.e. their fees are spread across specific project deadlines such as initial retainer, shortlist presentation and project completion).


It is an informative article, but there was no clear differences of the job /responsibilities of the head hunter and recruiter, i.e., the other main differences.


this article helped me to know the difference between recruiter and headhunter, which was difficult for me to do.


Good article. I have been a home based recruiter and do not know of any recruiter that charges for their services.

Recruiters are an excellent free resource to assist you with your job search when you are ready.

Feel free to write a post to me should anyone have any additional questions.

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