What is the point of retaining a recruiter?

//What is the point of retaining a recruiter?

What is the point of retaining a recruiter?


No, it’s not a dirty word. Some hiring managers and internal recruiters will tell you it most certainly is.

A retained assignment in the world of recruitment is a detailed search process to find the right person for a company’s staffing requirement. It differs from contingency, which is a success-only form of recruitment.


Being retained is common practice in a myriad of sectors. It is effectively a deposit on your time.

In the property market people selling land are retained, people buying land are retained, planners are retained, architects are retained, lawyers are retained, cleaners are retained (actually cleaners have a contract, even better).


So why then is the majority of recruitment done as contingency?

Here are some common objections:

Retained assignments can cost more:  They don’t necessarily need to cost more, it all depends on the fee agreed. Contingency recruitment doesn’t always find the best person, so you may end up paying more than one fee, which is a hell of a lot more expensive. Full-scale searches offer incredible value for money.

Retained assignments take longer: They can take longer than a 3 agency CV-race, true. In this scenario you will only be getting people “on the market” who 9 times out of 10, are not the best. Again, you may end up going back out to the market 3 months later, wasting even more time.

Retained assignments require money upfront with no “guarantee” of success: I can guarantee success, and I haven’t failed a retained assignment in 6 years. I’ll explain why later on (it’s not because I only work easy assignments, honest!). Good headhunters should not be failing assignments.


Contingency recruitment is rushed, disorganised, and ad hoc. When a CEO or hiring manager sets several consultancies on a role (or even one, for that matter), it’s a race against time.

Even if a consultant has the role exclusively, after several conversations with potential candidates, word can get out. Then the opportunistic hyenas appear and start speculatively firing over CV’s until one finally hit’s the mark, and bang, placement.


This can and does happen regularly. It’s demoralising for consultants knowing full-well after a solid week of writing a good advert, identifying people to approach and then making the calls, that some Ed Hunter reading sales-bro (I actually like Ed Hunter, by the way) has secured the fee using unscrupulous tactics. They don’t even have to be unscrupulous tactics, they may also have be a legitimate recruiter who has been given the role as well.

The point is, how can any self-respecting recruiter give the time it really takes to find a good fit, on a contingency basis, if they know all their work could go down the drain at any moment? They can’t, and don’t.

This leads to sloppy recruitment all round, and largely devalues the industry. If a consultant says they will put in as much work on a contingency basis as they would on a retained assignment, they are lying. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day for contingency recruiters to do what they say.

Agency recruiters need to work from a high volume of jobs to have have any chance at making money, so if you think they’re going to spend hours drawing up lists, interviewing stakeholders, meeting every candidate in person, you’re wrong.

Do not link the poor and rushed work of agency/contingency recruiters to that of a proper search consultant – they are world’s apart.


With culture/personality fit being so important these days, it amazes me that retained assignments are as uncommon in the market as they are.


The point of a retained assignment isn’t just to match a candidates skill and experience – it goes much further than that.

The point of a retained assignment is to find the best possible person for that role. One of the most important parts to the perfect hire is getting the culture-fit right – without that, you’re taking a real gamble. When you get the culture right, you are far more likely to retain that person for the long-term.


To do this requires time, it requires meeting lots of people, it requires competency-based questions, it requires a detailed brief, it requires interviewing senior management and direct reports, it requires personality profiling (our approach to headhunts can be found elsewhere on the website).

A good headhunter will be able to get a good feel for your office and company culture, and understand the type of person who would fit in. This is what sets apart top search consultants and agency recruiters; the ability to partner the personality with the culture of the office/company.


Back to why I haven’t failed an assignment (you thought I’d forgotten?!).


It’s because I’m really that good. OK, that’s only partially true. There are a couple of reasons:

  • I take an incredibly detailed brief (2 hours with the relevant Hiring Manager and MD)
  • I interview other internal stakeholders that will work with this person closely (they really need to get along)
  • I’ll meet with their direct reports to find out what they seek in a new manager (no megalomaniacs please)
  • I’ll even speak with HR to understand the company values, and to make sure everybody is on the same page

That gives me the best possible start – but it doesn’t end there. I may find out I need access to other relevant parties (depending on seniority of the role) and will make sure I cover them off – if you don’t know all this, how on earth are you going to find the best fit?


One more thing; I will not take on impossible assignments. If you want a unicorn, expect to pay a big chunk of cash for pony with an ice cream cone cellotaped to it’s head. Too often consultants take on retained assignments knowing full well they will be near impossible to fill, wasting the clients’ money in the process. You should never waste a clients money (they’ll drop you like a sack of shit if you do).


A long list, needs to be long!


With our market knowledge we should be able to tell fairly quickly what the candidate pool with the right experience is like. If it’s light, then we would look to widen the brief, as it’s unlikely a long list of 10 people is going to contain somebody with the right culture-fit AND experience.

This is paramount. Ultimately the company needs to make a hire, and the best possible hire. Read, best POSSIBLE hire. Sometimes the all singing, all dancing Sales Director who only wants a 50k salary and brings in millions of pounds business every year, may not exist, or if they do, they might be happy where they are.

You need to have a sensible pool of people to work from, otherwise finding the right culture-fit may not be possible. Ultimately this should be why you are using a headhunter or search consultant.

With expectations managed, a detailed brief taken, the requisite senior management interviewed, then the consultant has the best chance at completing the assignment successfully.

Not only should they have found somebody you are happy to hire, but the people presented on the shortlist should all be a good fit for your company. This gives you piece of mind when it comes to the interview stage – if they’d all get on with you and your team, then you can start nit-picking about skills and experience.


As you can see, all of this takes time. When you retain a consultant, you are putting a deposit down on their time, the time it takes to do the job properly.If we get to the point of agreeing an assignment, chances are, I’m going to find the best possible person.


It doesn’t have to be about Land Director’s, Commercial Manager’s, Regional Chairman, Sales Director’s – I can apply these principles to any role, including more junior position’s like Land Buyer’s, Development Surveyors, and Project Manager’s (there are lots more roles we cover, but I can’t be bothered listing them here).

If you need to hire the best possible person, you’re going to need a search consultant who knows your industry. If it’s property and construction, that person is me.