The challenges with recruiting are well known at this point. 2022 felt like a particular watershed for many recruiters, beset with issues from candidate shortages to the great resignation. It felt as though week after week last year, we were reminded of unbelievable statistics, like the fact that there were more job vacancies than unemployed people for the first time since records began.

For organisations actively looking to recruit new talent, 2023 is not promising a huge degree of change. Those hiring challenges are likely to persist long into this new year, with the UK workforce shrinking and remote working here to stay, competition for the best talent is likely to remain as fierce as ever.

Sourcing high quality candidates for senior positions will be even more difficult, with traditional recruitment techniques having very little success in filling roles in the C-suite. For roles at this level, publishing a job advert and waiting for candidates to come to you is too passive an approach. Capturing the attention of those high-calibre candidates who can fill those roles requires a different, more active approach: to find those candidates, many organisations are instead relying on headhunting.

This more specialised approach looks to take chance out of the equation of candidate attraction, and in some ways, is more akin to selling than traditional recruitment.

Is headhunting the right approach for your business? Well, let’s explore that together.

What is Headhunting?

Headhunting, also known as executive search, simply describes the process of sourcing the best possible candidate for a position. This does sound a lot like typical recruitment, but it is a different process. One that usually requires identifying and targeting high level employees at other organisations for roles that have significant importance to your business.

Frequently, businesses turn to external head-hunters to fill senior positions that are highly specialised or highly technical. If the process is undertaken internally, it usually involves the board of directors, HR leaders, and senior executives.

The headhunting process will usually focus on candidates who are already employed and not actively searching for a new role. Targeting these ‘passive candidates’ requires casting a large net, building a wide pool of talent so that businesses can try to ensure they are finding the best person for a role.

It is also a more involved process at the granular level – one that requires significant research into every candidate you consider and a strong employer brand – both of which will enable you to sell a passive candidate on the role you are looking to fill and more broadly, on your company itself.

At this point, you might be asking ‘what is the difference between this and traditional recruitment?’ – and that’s a good question.

What is the difference between Headhunting and Recruitment?

What can frequently make things more confusing is that the terms ‘headhunting’ and ‘recruitment’ can often be used interchangeably, but there is a key difference between the two.

Headhunting is a much more proactive process than traditional forms of recruiting. Within a normal recruitment process, you post a job ad, and wait for applicants to come to you. It typically involves sourcing and screening candidates who are actively looking for a new position, either because they are unhappy in their current role or because they are out of work and seeking new employment.

With headhunting, companies are targeting candidates who are not yet seeking a new role; they are typically very senior within their organisations, with highly specialised skills and experience. This means that, in the case of headhunting, the criteria are frequently a lot narrower in terms of what the right candidate looks like.

Within typical recruitment cycles, it is not uncommon for applicants who do not wholly match the criteria in terms of skills or experience to be shortlisted and considered for a vacant position. This is rarely the case with headhunting, as the demands of the roles that are usually filled in this manner require very specific skills, experience, and often even temperament and personality.

This also impacts the amount of time it might take to fill one of these positions. Within a general recruitment cycle, the goal is to try and attract a wide quantity of applicants within a short space of time. While this can also be a lengthy process, the aim is generally to try and fill the position quickly. In fact, reducing time-to-hire is key for a lot of recruiters, with top candidates generally only in the market for a new role for around 10 days. Around 57% of candidates lose interest in a role if the process takes too long, making speed a top priority for recruiters.

In contrast, the headhunting process can be a long one. Its not unusual for executive search firms to spend months working to convince a single candidate to change their mind and accept a role at a different organisation. This is because the emphasis, above all, is on a very specific set of qualities, and because the candidate is not looking for a new role.

Time must be devoted to scouting potential candidates, building a rapport, convincing them that the role is the right opportunity and ensuring they are a good fit for that role. This means that speed is rarely a priority when it comes to headhunting, with many of the typical recruitment metrics simply not applying to the process.

With many executive roles generally considered hard-to-fill in the current climate, headhunting is something that more and more organisations will turn to, whether in-house or with the use of an external headhunter or agency such as an executive search firm.

If you are looking to hire for a role that will require headhunting, what do you need to know?

Headhunting Best Practices

Leverage Existing Contacts

Headhunters need to be able to source candidates that they can trust. When prioritising quality over quantity, that level of trust is integral.

By contacting people you already know, the hiring process becomes simpler: you can have greater confidence in the skills and abilities of the person you are looking to hire if they are already familiar to you.

Find the Right Social Channels

While LinkedIn has become the go-to channel for recruiters, it is not the only valuable platform for recruitment.

Headhunters should use the platform that the person they are targeting is most active on – whether that’s Facebook, Twitter, or any other – its best to engage a potential recruit on the platform that they are most comfortable with.

Build and Nurture Relationships

Consistent and transparent communication is key – it can make all the difference between someone being interested in you as an employer or forgetting who you even are.

While it’s not unusual for recruiters in typical recruitment cycles to be unable to respond to every single applicant, with headhunting, all candidates must be communicated with regularly.

Passive candidates who are not actively searching for a new role can easily slip through the net – keeping in touch regularly means that this is a less likely outcome.

Prioritise Your Employer Brand

Ensuring that your brand makes the best possible impression on a potential hire can make all the difference, no matter what position you are looking to fill. For hard-to-fill roles that require headhunting, it’s essential.

High quality candidates are more likely to be interested in a role when they have a strong perception of the employer’s brand. Getting your recruitment strategy right can make all the difference when trying to convince a senior executive to join your company.

If you’re thinking of headhunting a candidate to fill an executive role in your organisation, and want to know more about how an ATS can help you manage that process in-house without an agency, book a demo today to find out how Hireserve can help you find the right potential candidates.

About the author

Tristan Potter

Tristan has a decade's worth of experience writing content and copy for organisations across Bristol and the Southwest of England. He has written on a diverse range of topics, including technology, philosophy, politics, and recruitment. His writing has appeared in The Drum, HR Grapevine, and The Guardian, among other publications. He joined Hireserve in March 2022.