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Advice / Job Search / Finding a Job

Headhunters, Recruiters, and Hiring Managers—What's the Difference?


In my previous life as a recruiter, I found myself having to explain (and re-explain) my role to people all the time. They’d often ask, “Oh, so you work for an agency?” Or, “Oh, so you’re a headhunter?”

Neither one of those things was true—I was an in-house recruiter for a nonprofit.

But it got me thinking about that fact that most of the people in my life still were unsure of the difference between headhunters, recruiters, and hiring managers.

So, I decided enough was enough. And the result was this guide on what each person does in the process.

What Is a Headhunter?

Headhunters tend to leave a negative impression on candidates, mostly because people don’t really understand their role in the process.

Here’s the deal: Often, they work on behalf of outside agencies that have been outsourced to companies looking to fill particular roles. The open positions sent to a headhunting company tend to be urgent, and organizations that rely on headhunters are sometimes at their wits end, leading them to say, “We need some extra help to get someone into this job!” And typically, the agency doesn’t get paid until the gig’s been filled.

That level of urgency often trickles down to the headhunter, which then trickles down to the candidates. Often, these people have access to roles that aren’t as publicized as others, so there is a lot of value in speaking to someone who reaches out. However, since they work on behalf of a client, they often won’t have specific details about the roles they want to discuss with you.

As Forbes writer Deborah Jacobs says, there are a handful of things you won’t be told. So, don’t rule out a conversation, but also be prepared to do some extra due diligence about the roles they present to you.

How to Find a Headhunter

Because they’re so eager to fill their clients’ roles, headhunters aren’t too difficult to find.

During a particularly difficult job search a few years ago, I searched Yelp for “best headhunter in New York” and ended up with a meeting at an agency that afternoon.

That being said, it’s important to set reasonable expectations for any meeting. They don’t necesarily have a position that’s right for you, so proceed with caution if you don’t see any interesting openings on their website.

What Is a Recruiter?

So, this is more along the lines of what I did. While the term “recruiter” can sometimes be applied to someone working on behalf of an agency, you’ll more often find that they work in-house for just one company.

If a role internally opens up, they’re tasked with partnering with hiring managers to find incredible people to work on their teams. And in my case, I was responsible for making sure every single candidate we interviewed had a positive experience, even if we decided not to hire that person.

Unlike headhunters, who will often introduce themselves to you as a representative of their external recruiting agency, in-house recruiters will identify themselves as employees of the company they’re hiring for. This means they’ll often have more information about the role itself, as well as any other questions you have about their business.

And while they have hiring goals internally, they’re also concerned with selling you on their open position and making sure you have all the information you need to make a solid career decision.

How to Find an Internal Recruiter

Lucky for you, internal recruiters aren’t difficult to find on LinkedIn. Often times, their titles alone give it away—although they’re not always that straightforward, my previous title was talent development manager.

However, resist the urge to reach out as soon as you identify them. Following up on an application after a week or so is one thing, but if you begin pestering the person, you’ll ultimately take yourself out of consideration.

What Is a Hiring Manager?

The term applies to anyone responsible for making a final decision about candidates. These people will be supervising the candidate who gets the gig, so in most organizations, hiring decisions ultimately go through this person.

However, most are not full-time recruiters. So, a lot of times, these people are not the ones who are actively searching candidate databases—that’s where their relationships with internal recruiters or headhunters come into play.

More often than not, you’ll hear from a recruiter about where you are in the interview process, rather than your potential boss. In my experience, the hiring manager doesn’t reach out to candidates at all unless they’ve decided to hire someone, or if they’re taking a pass but felt compelled to deliver the news personally.

So, if you hear from one, it’s probably a good sign that you were pretty awesome. And if you are offered a job, this is the right person to go to if you have any questions about working at the company, role responsibilities, or any concerns you have about accepting it.

How to Find a Hiring Manager

In addition to the aforementioned LinkedIn tip, Muse Career Coach Jenny Foss suggests tapping into your network and trying to identify a connection who works for a company you’re interested in. Doing this can be especially helpful when your dream job is at a popular company.

Because if you’re lucky enough to get an intro to the hiring manager, it could be the difference between getting an interview and getting left in the cold.

Yes, this is a lot of information to digest, but it will help you navigate conversations with each one of these hiring professionals. They all have a role in getting you that dream job, but as you can see, work in different capacities. Plus, you can refer to this whenever someone comes to you and says, “I got a call from a headhunter, so I’m probably getting a new job within the hour.”

Most importantly, though, knowing the difference will better equip you to ask the right questions at the right time.

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