Career Path

How Does Recruiting Really Work?

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison breaks down the categories of recruiters, how recruiters get paid, and why you want to get on their radars.

4 min read

One of your career goals should be getting to know the recruiters who specialize in your industry. The fact that recruiters specialize in certain areas—technology, retail, financial services—really isn’t understood. They also zero in on specific functions, such as legal, human resources, or chief executives. As with any networking relationship, it’s best to be introduced by someone, particularly if that person has been successfully placed in a job by that recruiter. Coming with a “stamp of approval” from a recruiter’s past client is a real positive for you.

"Recruiters are hired by companies to staff specific positions."

Many people, when starting out, are weary or confused as to how recruiters work, or why workers need them. The best way to think of working with recruiters is to stop thinking of them like real estate agents, who have listings on multiple houses for sale and are waiting for you to make an offer and move in. Instead, think of them as being able to help you put your best foot forward, knowing how to distinguish great candidates from very good ones. That’s what Korn Ferry, as a top executive search firm, is known for. Here’s a primer on the three basic camps recruiters fall into, categorized by how they work and the level of talent they specialize in.

Contingency recruiters.

These recruiters work for companies on a contingency basis. That is, they only get paid if a candidate they identify is hired. Thus, contingency recruiters have a big incentive to cast a wide net and identify a large number of potential candidates. This also explains why they’re often referred to as “headhunters.” Within the contingency recruiter category is a subgroup of mostly junior people, who typically are tasked with searching online to identify potential candidates who will then be passed on to more senior recruiters. If you make less than $100,000, most likely the recruiter who contacts you is working on a contingency basis. These recruiters’ need to identify candidates creates a networking opportunity, even if you may not be interested in the position they’re searching for. That’s why it’s a good habit to always be responsive to a recruiter’s email or call. Over time, you can develop the relationship by keeping the recruiter informed of job changes and promotions—and keep your information up to date in the recruiter’s address book.

Internal recruiters.

Companies may have internal recruiters, who are often paid a salary but may receive a bonus for successfully bringing in talent. Sometimes they work with external recruiters—i.e., the “headhunters”—to source talent for a specific job. When dealing with an internal recruiter, be sure you treat him or her the way you would treat the hiring manager.

Retained recruiters.

When a company needs to find top talent to fill a position, particularly on its leadership team, it will turn to Korn Ferry or other executive-search firms. The firm is paid a retainer fee (hence the term retained recruiter) for conducting the search, even if the company ends up hiring someone not identified by the recruiter, such as an internal candidate. On average, Korn Ferry undertakes 5,000 executive searches a year. In addition, our Futurestep division, which engages in talent searchers at the professional level, makes more than 40,000 placements a year. Retained firms typically do searches for only seasoned professionals. For senior executives, that means making a minimum of $250,000 a year in salary and bonuses. In addition to search firms, there are many specialty outfits focused on specific industries or positions. Combined, these firms might conduct more than 20,000 executive searches a year. But the number of potential candidates can be in the millions.

The best way to get a recruiter’s attention, no matter the category, is by responding when you receive an email or call, reaching out to recruiters who work in your sector and at your level, and maintaining ongoing relationships. Making a successful placement depends on knowing the candidates and determining which are best suited to a position and the hiring company’s culture, mission, and purpose.

Adapted from Gary Burnison’s book, Lose the Resume, Land the Job.

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