How Does Contingency Recruiting and Retained Executive Search Differ?

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Getting the right hire at the senior or executive level is a critical business decision. If your company is in the market for a new executive, make sure you choose the right type of firm for your organization’s pursuit and unique needs.

There are two major types of third-party agencies a company might use to identify and place candidates: contingency recruiting agencies and retained executive search firms. Below is more information about the differences between the two to ensure you identify which type of firm is most suitable for your company.

Search Target

Contingency recruiting is most often used for mid-level positions and usually only identifies candidates who are actively seeking a job. Contingent recruiters focus on placing as many candidates as possible in the shortest possible time.

On the other hand, a retained executive search firm focuses on identifying and placing the most qualified candidates, even if they are not actively looking for a new job. Retained search is often used to fill senior-level positions, executive-level positions, and board director roles.

Work Scope 

Another factor that also differentiates the two from one another is their work scope. Contingent recruiters focus solely on filling a position as soon as possible. That’s why they often use advertising or other common job-searching channels to reach out to more candidates. The scope of their work usually only involves collating the data of all applicants and submitting them to the client for assessment and selection. 

On the other hand, retained executive search consultants engage in all aspects of the hiring process. This means not only identifying top candidates but guiding prospective candidates through a thorough preliminary interview and assessment process before setting the strongest candidates up with the client. While contingent recruiters mostly work in the front-end of the recruiting process, executive search consultants are involved in every stage of the search.


Contingent recruiting agencies and executive search firms also differ in their deliverables to the client. While contingent recruiters typically only send resumes to the client, retained executive search consultants provide more detail in each candidate presentation that goes beyond just a resume.

For example, Human Capital Solutions has a unique tool called the Candidate Summary Value Proposition Matrix © (CSVP) that aims to clearly lay out a candidate’s background, highlighting their specific, position-relevant experience and qualifications in a SOAR format – Situation, Organization, Action, and Results.

Modes of Payment

Given that the scope of their work differs, the same goes for how they are paid. Contingent recruiting agencies are usually only paid once a candidate has been hired. This is one of the reasons why these firms often work on many assignments for different clients.

Executive search firms, however, are paid at the beginning of the process as they are retained on an exclusive basis by clients. Retained executive search firms may also take on limited projects given that they handle most of the hiring process, which takes time, attention, and high-touch communication. 

Talk to Our Recruiters

These are just some of the factors that will help you determine if contingent or retained executive search is the right option for your company. If you want to learn more about our executive search process, reach out to our team at Human Capital Solutions. Contact our offices in Chicago, IL, Boston, MA, Atlanta, GA, or Wilmington and Raleigh, NC to speak with our specialists today!

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