Finally Defined: Headhunter vs. Recruiter vs. Agent

All recruiters are not created equal

In this day and age, it’s common for people inside and outside the industry to throw around the terms headhunter, recruiter and agent like they are interchangeable – but there actually is a difference, which I will cover now.


My big disclaimer before I explain them is that some people may define them differently, and that’s fine with me. Getting any two “headhunters” to agree on something like this is like trying to get two personal trainers to agree on the best way to work your abs. And, more importantly, I speak in generalizations, so just because I say one outfit is “impersonal” doesn’t mean it’s true for 100% of firms in that category. Having said all of that, here we go:


An agent works at your garden-variety employment agency. An establishment of this type is designed (by choice) to be a “jack of all trades” business. In short, they try to be all things to all people. Companies who are hard-pressed to get a candidate quickly go to their local agency to do so.


Most employment agencies make their bread and butter from temps, so if an executive goes to work and finds out his assistant called in sick, he can easily get a last-minute replacement from a batch of pre-qualified temporary employees – of which are all hoping to land a full-time job through the agent who represents them. Most job seekers will agree that working with an employment agency is high-volume and quite impersonal.


Because agencies work for free (up front) in the hopes of scoring a 20% commission on a full-time hire, they essentially are running a numbers game. They may tout themselves as being personal and caring, but good intentions are not enough to combat the fact that hundreds of candidates a month are herded through the agency like cattle – and those candidates are usually organized by sales teams, under-qualified part timers or college interns.


Lastly, because the volume is so high at employment agencies, coupled with the fact that they have short attention spans, the service suffers for both the clients and candidates.


A recruiter, essentially, does the same job as an agent at an agency, except they are captive agents – so they only recruit for the company they work for. Many of the recruiters in this part of the field have formal training, perhaps even through a university (most agents do not).


Recruiters work in the human resources department of their companies and there is a hierarchy, so the newest or least experienced screen the applicants before they are passed on to the higher-ups. With some hard work and successful placements within the company, the recruiter can become an HR Manager or eventually even a VP of human resources (at large national or multinational companies).


Interviewing through one of these channels is a lot more structured than being shuffled through your local employment agency, and usually a little bit more personal (but sometimes less). It may seem ironic, but the recruiters at companies regularly hire employment agents to help them find a candidate if they are under pressure to fill a position quickly, or have been unable to do it on their own.


A headhunter often works on retained search, which means they require money up front because they actually do more work. In my humble opinion, a headhunter is the best alternative for both employers and candidates because it’s the most personal and professional. It’s like Jerry Maguire’s philosophy: “Fewer clients, less money, more personalized service”.


Headhunters specialize in particular fields; in my case, personal assistants and executive assistants. Because retained search firms like mine aren’t working for free in the beginning, we can spend a great deal of time working with clients and candidates to ensure a proper match can be made. Finding the perfect candidate takes time, and the high-volume format at employment agencies prevents this from occurring (that’s why they are good for temps and headhunters aren’t, so there are pros and cons).


While it’s true that headhunters do offer more personalized and specialized service, it’s exceptionally rare to find a one that actually comes from the field in which they make placements. In my case, I was a personal assistant, chief of staff and executive assistant before I became a headhunter, so I’d like to think I have a special kind of understanding that most of my contemporaries and competitors don’t have.


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