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Step-by-Step Guide to Headhunting

Kristin Bachman
7 min read

Headhunting is a term used during the hiring process. However, many people are not clear on exactly what headhunting is and what it means to a business. They may think human resources or the company's hiring managers handle headhunting, but they don't.

Below, we’ll break down the headhunting process, examine the differences between it and recruiting, and weigh the pros and cons for your business.


What Is Headhunting?

When there are open senior positions within a company, there’s usually a different process for finding someone to fill those roles than for lower-level positions. These vacancies require a headhunter. Why? Because these roles are vital to the company’s well-being, typically require specialized skills, and are almost always too confidential to recruit candidates by traditional means.

Various people can lead the headhunting process (also referred to as an executive search): the company’s board of directors, members of the executive staff, or senior HR professionals may be responsible for finding a headhunter and setting the process in motion.


What’s the Difference Between Headhunting and Recruitment?

It’s a common misconception that headhunting and recruiting are the same thing. After all, both objectives are to find top talent and bring them into the company. However, there are marked differences between them, which we'll cover below.

Type of Positions

The recruiting process looks for high-quality candidates to fill low- and mid-level roles. Headhunters focus on finding upper-tier talent with specialized education and skills to step into executive positions.

Who Handles the Process

A hiring manager or member of the human resources department typically handles the recruitment process. Since headhunting involves filling a higher-level position, the board of directors and executive-level staff are usually involved. They may oversee it themselves or hire an external agency to handle the process.


In a traditional recruiting strategy, you post a job description on job boards, sift through resumes, then call the best choices for interviews and make a decision from there.

Executive recruiters rarely post the jobs they’re working on to job boards because of the nature of the positions. Confidentiality is important. They use other means of finding great candidates, like tapping into their professional networks, finding referrals, and strategically choosing and engaging with targets from competitors.


8-Step Guide to the Headhunting Process

It takes talent to be successful as a headhunter. These professionals must be great listeners, tenacious, dynamic, smart, approachable, and resourceful in order to fill roles with high-quality talent. 

But even the greatest headhunters don't pull candidates out of thin air — they follow a certain process to ensure they find the best person for the role. Here are the eight steps for conducting a productive headhunting process.



1. The Leadership Team Decides They Need a New Employee

Start-ups and long-established companies alike can find themselves needing to hire senior-level staff. When an upper-level position needs to be filled, the CEO or board of directors reaches out to the executive hiring team. Keep in mind this team may be internal (typically part of the HR department) or an external headhunting firm.

Discretion is paramount when headhunting top-level talent. Sometimes, the role is still filled by the current person, so the headhunting efforts need to be kept confidential. Company leadership and the headhunters work together to set expectations for the process.


2. Identify Clear Roles and Responsibilities for the New Employee

Finding the right candidates for any position isn't easy if the role isn’t properly fleshed out. This step has even more impact on high-level roles.

The headhunter and other stakeholders in the hiring process must work together to create a skill-set blueprint for their ideal candidate. What education, certifications, and experience are required (or preferred)? Which soft skills would help make the new hire successful?

Since the pandemic, what companies need from senior executives has shifted. When hammering out the hiring strategy, tailor your requirements to hiring in the current landscape.

Even if you won’t post the role on job boards or LinkedIn due to confidentiality concerns, creating a job description is still beneficial. Headhunters can use it to focus on the most important aspects of the role and ensure they engage with the most fitting candidates.


3. Start Sourcing Applicants

The way headhunters source candidates to fill these roles differs from filling regular open positions. Some common recruitment methods include:

  • Professional networks: Headhunters can tap into the networks where they’ve built professional relationships. These may be in-person or online groups and associations. By having conversations, they may uncover qualified talent that would successfully fill the role.
  • Database of contacts: One of the most successful headhunter recruitment methods is mining their own databases. Professional headhunters have worked with established, high-level job seekers before. Their long contact list may hold one or more people who would be a great fit for the role.
  • Referrals: If there aren’t any viable candidates in a headhunter’s professional networks or database of previous candidates and clients, some of those contacts may know someone they’d recommend. A "colleague of a colleague" referral system puts headhunters in touch with a wider field of candidates.
  • Targeted social media searches: While there typically won’t be posts on social media, headhunters may still use the platforms for candidate sourcing. For example, they can employ the target keywords from the job description and search for profiles that contain them. (This works especially well on LinkedIn.)

4. Reach Out to Potential Candidates

Approaching these candidates is different from traditional recruitment methods. For one, the headhunter is operating without a cover letter or resume. For another, there’s no clear-cut understanding of whether a candidate would even be interested in the open role.

Headhunters can reach out via social media, email, or phone. They typically explain the position they’re looking to fill, briefly describe the skill set required, and gauge the contact’s interest.

Headhunters want to identify more than one potential candidate — but not as many as lower-level roles. There’s usually no need for a dozen or more of these candidates moving forward in the hiring process.


5. Identify Passive and Active Candidates

Passive job seekers are currently employed but may be open to hearing about new opportunities. Sometimes, a pool of active job seekers doesn't give headhunters the candidate quality they need. Instead, they may need to dig into their contacts to find talent that fits the bill, even if they’re happily employed elsewhere: passive candidates.

While it’s obvious that active candidates are interested in new job offers, passive candidates take a little more finesse. However, headhunters aren’t shy about approaching a passive candidate if they believe that person would best fill the role they’re hiring for and may interview both active and passive candidates.


6. Vet and Narrow Down the Pool of Potential Candidates

Once the headhunter has curated a solid group of candidates, it’s time to focus on the best matches. Typically, the headhunter works with the hiring manager during this step. They look at the candidates' backgrounds and achievements and compare them to the open role’s job description. It’s normal to mark a few candidates off the list during this step.

Once the list is reviewed and vetted, it’s time to move to the interview stage.



7. Interview Candidates and Perform Background Checks

Companies hiring an executive or other high-level candidate will want more than one interview and multiple people involved. However, it’s vital not to drag the process out longer than necessary because it can damage the candidate experience and frustrate your potential new hire — which isn’t the impression you want to make.

After finalizing the interview list, the hiring manager and headhunter must work together to lay out an interviewing timeline. Determine everyone who should be included on the interview panel and decide which stage to bring each person into the mix. After each round of interviews, the stakeholders should get together and discuss the information they’ve gathered.

Once you identify the top candidates, it’s time to begin their background checks. Request they sign an authorization form agreeing to be the subject of a background check and use a third-party provider to look into and verify criminal history records, employment and education, and other references as needed.


8. Make Your Decision and Send Offer Letters

After the stakeholders choose a candidate, it’s time to extend the offer. The company can make a verbal offer but should also send a written offer letter that includes the position, salary and benefits, and a timeline for accepting the position. Many candidates will negotiate for higher salaries and other perks, which the company may or may not agree to provide.

It’s good etiquette to notify the candidates who weren’t selected that the position has been filled. You can use a template letter so this step doesn’t consume more time than it needs to. Don’t leave candidates hanging; they can trash you on social media and online employer websites. These negative comments and reviews can damage your employer brand.


Advantages and Disadvantages of Headhunting

An agile, forward-thinking, experienced C-suite is priceless to a company’s success. Other high-level positions are also pivotal to its viability, so ensuring the right hires for these roles protects the company and its vision.

Is using a headhunter the right choice? Here are a few advantages and disadvantages to help you decide.

Advantages of Headhunting

  • Maintains confidentiality: Hiring for upper-level positions is often a sensitive matter. Companies that want to keep it private have limited ability to advertise the role to find viable candidates. Headhunters can advertise the job to their contacts directly without divulging confidential details.
  • Improves efficiency and reduces hiring time: Professional headhunters tap talent every day — it’s their job. They know what works and how to find and engage with the right people. Using a headhunter helps companies find talent and fill positions faster than handling it in-house.
  • Attracts passive candidates: Companies may not have the contacts or resources to find passive candidates, but headhunters do. Reaching these candidates helps organizations have a wider talent pool, making them more likely to find someone who meets the role’s needs.
  • Elevates your talent acquisition: It takes dedication and real work to find the candidate who will go above and beyond satisfying the responsibilities of the position; who will thrive in it, and offer positive contributions. Headhunters know how to uncover the best talent, which gives companies a better chance of hiring high performers. An in-house headhunting campaign may never reach these candidates.

Disadvantages of Headhunting

  • Lack of industry understanding: If a company doesn’t research its headhunting firm well, it may end up with one that doesn’t know or understand its industry's unique intricacies. Headhunters who don’t get the industry will have difficulty conveying details about the position and attracting the best talent.
  • Loss of some control: Since headhunters are responsible for advertising and engaging with the talent, company leaders may feel like they have no say in filling the position. That’s why the headhunter-to-company relationship must be built on trust. It’s also valuable to keep company stakeholders involved by setting check-ins and expectations before the process begins.
  • More pressure to place candidates: Headhunters must meet performance goals similar to salespeople. When their sourcing efforts don’t pan out, they may be tempted to fill a role with a candidate who isn't a good fit — just for the sake of filling the position. Again, you can minimize this situation by establishing trust between the company and the headhunting agency.

Recruit Better Candidates With Hunt Club

By finding a headhunting firm that is experienced in the industry and trustworthy, companies can feel confident they will receive a well-vetted list of top talent to fill their role. Understanding what headhunting is, how it differs from traditional recruiting, and how to set up a successful process can help your organization proactively set itself up for success. 

Hunt Club’s proprietary technology runs a nationwide search of professional networks to give our clients access to top talent in their industries. Leverage our expert team to find your next hire.

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