What Is Headhunting and Recruiting? Definition and Process

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 30 August 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Companies use different processes to find and hire employees depending on the position the company is trying to fill. Headhunting and recruiting are two processes a company may use. Learning the differences and how each of these processes work can help you understand the selection and hiring process for a career you have an interest in. In this article, we define headhunting, discuss the main differences between this process and recruiting candidates and share the steps in each process to show you how companies may hire employees.

What is headhunting?

Headhunting, also known as an executive search, is the process of finding the best possible candidate for a position. Companies use this strategy to fill executive positions, or the head roles of the company, such as chief executive officer. A headhunter is a professional who can help find highly qualified individuals to potentially fill vacant roles. Usually, they work for agencies, but companies may also hire them when they need to hire for executive positions.

A unique characteristic of this process is that it is aimed at professionals who work at another company or are not currently searching for a job. These are passive candidates rather than active applicants. While this can pose a challenge, it is a great method for finding professionals with the right qualifications and talents. Companies often pay competitive wages and offer benefits to persuade a candidate to join their team.

What is recruiting?

Recruiting is a process companies use to find job candidates and fill open positions. Recruiters use methods, such as attending job fairs and making job posts online, to attract applicants. They review candidates who are seeking jobs or approach professionals who may want to make a change in their career. Job seekers typically find the job opening through a job search rather than the recruiter finding, or headhunting, the candidate. Sometimes recruiters work for agencies, but often they are internal employees who work for the human resources department at the company.

What is the difference between headhunting and recruiting?

Headhunting and recruiting serve the same purpose, which is to fill an open position with the best candidate. The approach to each of these processes differ in several ways, including:


Headhunters search for the best person to fill the position. They may seek referrals from other high-level employees in the company or find candidates through their extensive network. Recruiters typically only work with candidates who are looking for a new position. Recruiters typically post open job positions online. In many cases, recruiters find potential candidates by attending career fairs or consulting with others in their professional network.


To fill executive positions, companies use headhunting because these roles often require many qualifications and finding the best candidate requires more effort. For these reasons, it can be more challenging to fill upper-level management or more specialised roles than it is to fill other company positions. Recruiters can help find candidates to fill these executive positions, but most often, the recruiting process seeks to fill open positions at the mid and entry-levels of the company.

Related: What Is a Job Title and Why Is It Important?


Headhunters seek potential candidates who are not actively applying for a new position, so they often use a proactive approach. This includes contacting professionals in their network to find leads and researching employees in competing companies to ask them to apply. Candidates are seeking the job a recruiter tries to fill, so recruiters can typically use a reactive approach. This means recruiters can find candidates based on the applicants who react to job postings.


It typically costs a company more to headhunt than it does to recruit job candidates. This is because headhunting requires more investigative work to look at active and passive candidates, while the recruiting process involves looking at only active candidates. Since headhunting most often seeks to fill high-level and specialised positions, this can also cost more than recruiting for entry and mid-level positions. Attracting applicants with higher qualifications for these executive roles may require more marketing.

How does the headhunting process work?

Every company might manage the specifics of their headhunting procedure differently, but in most cases, the hiring process with a headhunter follows these steps:

1. Determine the need for a new employee

Usually, the CEO or other company leader approaches the hiring and headhunting team about the need for a new employee. Occasionally, the transition between the current employee and the new employee is confidential, particularly in the case of high-level executives in large corporations. Sometimes, the headhunters involved in the search process must use considerable discretion when looking for candidates.

2. Establish the necessary skills and experience

Working with human resources and other company staff, headhunters determine which skills, experience and other qualifications the company seeks in a candidate. Understanding the role for which they are finding applicants is essential to finding the best candidate. It is useful to create a profile and write a job description to ensure clarity for their search.

Related: Top HR Skills and Activities

3. Identify passive candidates

A passive candidate is a professional who is not seeking a job and might be working in a position elsewhere already. A headhunter may search for these types of candidates and convince them to switch companies. Usually, the team of headhunters create a list of potential candidates and approaches them to gauge interest in the open job.

4. Consider active candidates

Sometimes, the headhunting team pursues a search for active job seekers in addition to their passive candidate search. To find active candidates, they use methods such as posting an open position on job boards like Indeed or attending job fairs. Candidates then submit application materials such as resumes, cover letters and reference lists so that the hiring team can review their qualifications.

Related: Guide: Using Indeed.com Job Search

5. Review and vet

Once they find a group of potential candidates, headhunters review applications with the HR department and hiring managers to select the best applicants. By comparing each candidate to the job description and initial list of requirements, they can narrow the search. This helps select candidates to move to the next step of the process, which is usually an interview.

6. Interview and assess

To hire employees for high-level positions, employers often require a series of interviews in order to find the best candidate. After interviewing all applicants, the hiring team meets to discuss who has the most qualifications and fits best into the role. If the team cannot decide, they may call candidates back for another interview.

Related: Interviewing Skills: Definition and Examples

7. Extend job offer

It is the company's responsibility to offer the candidate the position. The negotiations rarely involve headhunters, but they may assist with negotiations if they recruit a passive candidate from another company. A job offer includes compensation, benefits and a description of job role expectations.

How does the recruiting process work?

Recruiters often use a relatively formulaic process to find and vet potential candidates. These are the most common steps for recruiters:

1. Identify open positions

Recruiters begin their process by requesting a list of the open positions in a company. They may meet with HR to develop a list of necessary qualifications and discuss what each position involves regarding duties and expectations. Sometimes, recruiters may be seeking candidates for multiple positions at a time.

2. Create a job description

Using specifications from HR and managers, a recruiter writes job descriptions and posts online for job seekers to find and learn about the open positions. Usually, the job description includes these elements:

  • Job title

  • Key job duties and responsibilities

  • Necessary education

  • Required and preferred experience

  • Applicable skills

  • Steps for how to apply

3. Post on job boards

Most recruiters use the internet as their primary resource for recruiting potential candidates. They may post on job boards and websites where potential candidates most often look for career opportunities. It is important to manage these posts and remove them once the company finds a candidate to hire.

4. Seek other applicants

Some recruiters engage in additional recruiting methods to broaden their talent search. They might attend job fairs or industry-specific conferences or networking events. Sometimes they review past applications to find potential candidates, but it is uncommon for a recruiter to review passive candidates.

5. Interview and assess

The interview process is very similar to interviewing in the headhunting process. Since recruiters are reviewing active applicants for roles in the company that are often entry or mid-level, employers do not often require a series of interviews. One round is usually sufficient to find an excellent candidate. Hiring managers and recruiters meet to discuss candidates who interview with them and select the most qualified.

6. Extend job offer

The company makes an employment offer to the chosen candidate. The company and candidate then agree on a salary and complete the hiring process by signing a contract. This step of the process rarely includes the recruiter.

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