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Oh – You’re A Headhunter

Terminology!  I was at a seminar last week (topic not related to my profession) and was asked what I do.  I explained my business in what I thought were clear terms.  The person who asked then simply stated, “oh – you’re a headhunter”.  (He was a retired police officer; I did not say, “oh – you’re a cop”.) 

There are so many terms for what we do . . . . . and each term has its own definition and market nuances.  Here are a few definitions to help clarify what we do, what we don’t do and what services are out there. 

Retained Search Firm

  • This is a proactive exclusive relationship/partnership where the firm (Abeln, Magy, Underberg & Associates for example) partners with a client to help them find a critical employee for their organization.  The word exclusive is key – one position, one firm.  The retained firm is paid as a consultant; the consulting assignment is the search for the critical position. 

Retained Executive Search Firm

  • While similar to the above-listed term, (the proactive exclusive relationship and partnership) the addition of the word Executive provides more definition to the levels of positions recruited for.  Typical position categories are Director-level, Vice President-level and C-Suite level (CFO, COO, CEO, etc.). 

C-Suite Recruiting Firm

  • While rarely used, this term would imply that the search firm only works with C-Suite level positions. 

Executive Recruiter

  • This term can encompass each of the three above terms.  It is also a term used inside an employer’s Talent Acquisition Department to refer to a person who only works to recruit for senior positions for their employer. 

Contingent Search Firm

  • The term ­contingent actually relates to fee payment.  A contingent search firm is paid contingent upon filling a position with a candidate they recruited.  Positions are typically mid-management or individual-contributor roles.  A client with the open position can work with multiple firms and try to recruit for the role on their own at the same time.  A fee is paid only if a placement is made.

Employment Agency

  • This was a popular term and moniker in the 1970’s and 1980’s (even into the early 1990’s).  While similar to the contingent search firm definition above, some candidates would end up paying the fee when placed.  This is no longer a practice (thankfully).  (I do not believe it is even legal to offer this type of service any longer.  The employee-fee paid service was fraught with issues, especially pressured and eventually unhappily placed candidates.) 


  • This is the umbrella ‘slang’ term for each of the above services.  If you ask Google, the definition provided is, “a person who identifies and approaches suitable candidates employed elsewhere to fill business positions.”  While not inaccurate, it is indeed viewed as ‘out-of-date slang’ for the profession. 

There are more terms/labels, but we will save those for another time.  The nuances for each of the above-referenced services are many and are often the topic of much longer discussions. 

Unsure if you are engaging with the right provider for your company’s need(s)?  Simply ask!