What is a headhunter?


A headhunter is a company or individual that provides specialised recruitment services.

A headhunter or recruiter is a company or individual that provides specialised recruitment services on behalf of an employer. Headhunters are usually enlisted when there is a sense of urgency or difficulty in filling an open position. While headhunters often work on behalf of an organisation to scout top talent, some individuals may contact headhunters directly to provide a CV or apply for a position. 

History of headhunters   

While recruitment was first used in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome to bolster a country’s military forces, the modern-day recruitment industry and practice of headhunting have a much more recent past. Modern-day recruitment got its start during World War II, when employment agencies began advertising to fill the vacant roles left behind by soldiers going overseas. Headhunting, on the other hand, began after war – as rapid industrial development in America resulted in a surplus of open positions that needed to be filled. As the troops returned home, many companies started seeking out former soldiers with highly specialised skills, such as proficiency with weapons or machinery, to roles where their skills and experience in the military could be applied. Headhunting spread to Western Europe, Australia, Argentina and Chile shortly after, and is now a commonly used practice worldwide.  

Recent trends in headhunting 

Negative perceptions 

The term ‘headhunter’ often has a negative perception. This can be attributed to several factors, including their aggressive tactics, willingness to poach talent and overall lack of personalisation and transparency. Headhunters are known for their proactive, and oftentimes aggressive, approach to recruiting. This may involve cold-calling or approaching candidates directly – regardless of whether they already have a job. In fact, many headhunters are hired to identify and recruit top talent from their competitors – a practice known as talent poaching.  

In their pursuit to find candidates, some headhunters may send generic messages that are not tailored to an individual's skills, interests or career goals. This impersonal approach can give the impression that headhunters are not genuinely interested in the candidate's needs or aspirations, further contributing to their negative perception. There have also been instances where headhunters have misrepresented job opportunities or provided false information. This lack of transparency can create mistrust, which has caused many to view headhunting as dishonest and manipulative.  

It's important to remember that not all headhunters exhibit these negative traits, and there are many skilled professionals who genuinely strive to connect candidates with suitable job opportunities. However, the negative experiences and practices of a few can shape the overall perception of the profession. This has led many professionals and companies within the field to opt for ‘recruiter’ or ‘recruitment’ instead of ‘headhunter’ or ‘headhunting.’ 

Advantages of headhunters 

Headhunters possess a vast network of industry connections and in-depth knowledge. This allows them to identify top talent efficiently, including passive talent who may not be actively searching for new opportunities. They also excel in sourcing specialised talent that may be difficult to find through traditional recruitment channels. Partnering with a headhunter can save time and money by delegating the initial stages of the hiring process to the experts, which allows the hiring company to focus on core operations. It's important to note, however, that headhunters can be valuable to individual job seekers as well – as they can minimise the time spent on job applications, broaden the range of available opportunities beyond what would typically be accessible, and provide valuable feedback to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of a candidate’s job search.  

Disadvantages of headhunters  

While headhunters offer several advantages within the recruitment process, there are potential downsides to consider. One drawback is the cost involved. Engaging a headhunter often requires paying a fee, which can be substantial, especially for executive-level or specialised positions. It’s also important to note that headhunters work within a commission-based system – meaning they only get paid when they are successful in placing a candidate in a role. This can create a potential conflict of interest, as the headhunter may prioritise their own interests over those of the company. Therefore, it’s important for recruiters and clients to establish a relationship built on trust. This relationship will also ensure that the recruiter is familiar with the distinct culture and values of the hiring company, which eliminates the risk of placing a candidate that is not a cultural fit.   

Use case 

Many big tech companies have been known to employ headhunters, or use headhunting tactics, to fill positions – often finding and taking talent from their biggest competitors. Among the biggest poachers in the industry are Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple and IBM. According to a study conducted by Talentful in 2017, 

  • Google poached 12,798 employees from other major tech companies 
  • Microsoft took 896 employees from Google, while Google took 4,151 from Microsoft 
  • Amazon lost 152 employees to eBay, but took 218 
  • Apple poached 1,334 employees from its main rival, Microsoft 
  • IBM lost 2,302 employees to Dell, but only managed to take 1,753 

Taking talent from competitors means that these companies can bring in new ideas, approaches and networks – as candidates often bring team members with them – without having to train these individuals from scratch. It's important to note, however, that while these companies have been associated with headhunters in the past, their recruitment practices may vary over time, and they may also use internal recruitment teams or other methods to attract talent.