Recruitment Vs Search: What’s The Difference & Why Should I Care?

by Mark Ellwood

Dane Deaner I J1lw8i N Iy8 Unsplash

We’ve been handling a mix of recruitment and executive search campaigns for many years now at Ellwood Consulting and one thing that proved to be consistently misunderstood within the candidate community in general is the difference between contingent recruitment and executive search.

Today we take the opportunity to clear this up, as it not only helps candidates understand the nature of the approaches they are getting from email and phone calls, but also how to handle them and use them to their advantage. And, with Covid19 ensuring fewer people are in the office at any one time (and accessible through an office switchboard), these approaches are becoming more targeted, and more online.


What is recruitment?

Recruitment, as the name implies, is simply a campaign to gather more staff into a business. This can be run by the business itself, but frequently they will ask a recruitment firm to get involved.  The recruitment firm will search their own database of candidates and contacts, run adverts on appropriate job boards and reach out to people on social networks.  This approach is usually best for large volume hires – or where a regular skillset is needed – such as ‘software developer’. This type of recruitment is commonly known as contingency recruitment. Usually, the client business has relationships with two or three preferred suppliers and will run the recruitment programme through one or two of these agencies. By running adverts, the agency attracts active candidates (people currently looking for a new job), and by connecting with people on social networks and calling up people to have a chat with, they also find passive candidates (people not looking for a job, but who might become interested in the opportunity).  Attracting some of these passive candidates will require ‘selling’ the role to them – i.e., highlighting the attractiveness of the role and how it might benefit the potential candidate, in order to gain their interest. The agency makes their fee from the client by filling the vacancy i.e. they are paid on a success basis, their fee is contingent on them filling the position.


What is search?

Executive search (usually known by it’s more common name of headhunting) is when a business needs a person with a very specific skillset and experience profile, usually at the senior level. This type of recruitment might be performed by a recruitment agency, or by a specialist search agency that only handles these types of roles. Regardless, the approach is somewhat different from contingency recruitment in that there is a much greater focus on speaking with passive candidates.

In this instance the search firm is retained on an exclusive basis to work on behalf of a client. Usually, a search campaign will start with research into the best target companies in the market – then the agent will identify the right person(s) for the role in those businesses, and then assesses their profiles, skills and experience, compiling the best matches into what is known as a longlist of candidates.

In the second phase, the agency will then reach out to those candidates for a discussion. There is less emphasis on selling the role here, and a greater emphasis on a very close fit to the position – as the criteria will be very specific. This process will narrow the list down to those candidates who are both interested (post-discussion), and also a close fit the role profile. This becomes the shortlist. After this point the client gets involved, interviews and processes the shortlisted candidates, or a selection of them, and then decides who to hire.

Due to the more complex nature of executive search, agencies are usually paid in stages – from the longlist phase through to finally filling the role.


Why should I care?

Understanding these types of recruitment helps you to assess, as a candidate, the nature of the approach you are getting from an agency.

More often than not now, in our data-rich, AI and algorithm-driven, online society, approaches are very targeted to your skills and experience – with opportunities that could be a boost to your career or could present and interesting next step for you.

So, even if you’re not looking right now, and not really interested in a new role, it’s worth taking the time to look at the details of the approach and possibly engage with the agency representative.  Find out if this is a contingent role, or if you are being specifically targeted because of your skills and experience. Talk to the agent about your profile and what would interest you in the future – tell them if you do or don’t actually have the skills they think you do. Have a think if there’s anyone you know who might be a good fit for the role, or any colleagues or friends who might be looking for this type of opportunity.  All of this data gets fed back so that the approaches you get become even more targeted and also helps the right people get approached for the right jobs. And the old saying ‘what goes around, comes around’ has never been more true in this highly connected and networked market.

Of course, there will always be those wildcard approaches from less scrupulous and professional operators, who are simply mass-emailing everyone with a specific word in their profile, or who persistently pester candidates in order to get their CVs for roles that may or may not exist. However, as mentioned, these are becoming less frequent due to more stringent data protection laws, and are fairly easily identified and quickly closed off.


In summary, here’s a handy list of Do’s and Don’ts when you get an approach from a agent:


  • Talk to the agent about what would interest you and when you might be prepared to consider moving roles

  • Correct the agent on any misconceptions they have about your skills/experience

  • Refer anyone who might be good for the position


  • Completely ignore the approach and lose the networking opportunity

  • Reject their LinkedIn message and not tell them the reason

  • Assume that all recruitment approaches are the same


Handled the right way, engaging with recruiters in a professional and strategic manner, whether you are on the market or not, can greatly increase your chance of getting picked up for the best roles for your career progress.