By: Ber Leary on March 8th, 2023

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Contingent Vs. Retained Search: Which Recruiting Option is Best?

Talent Acquisition

Finding talented people is always a challenge, and it’s harder still when you need elite-level talent. That’s why most companies look for outside when they’re recruiting for a vital role, such as highly skilled professional or a new board member.

When you look for help with talent acquisition, you’ll find two main options: contingent search and retained search. Which one is right for you? It all depends on your specific hiring needs. Before we get into that, let’s take a closer look at how each one works.

What is contingent search?

Contingent search is all about finding suitable candidates for your hard-to-fill vacancy. Contingent search recruiting firms will talk to you about your ideal candidate profile, search for matches on their talent network, and then provide you with a shortlist of suitable candidates.

The “contingency” part refers to payment: usually, these companies won’t charge anything unless they find suitable candidates. This means no up-front fees and often means a lower overall cost. However, if they can’t find the right person, then you’ll have to find another way to continue the search.

What is retained search?

Retained search (or executive search) is more of a partnership. A retained search firm will join you at the start of your recruitment process and help you define your job requirements. They’ll also give you advice on how to advertise the jobs in a way that will appeal to potential candidates.

Once you’ve engaged a retained search consultant, they will keep working with you until the vacancy is filled—and filled by the right person. Retained search is all about delivering results and guaranteeing that you get the talent you need.

Retained search does involve an up-front fee and can have higher overall pricing. For this reason, retained search is often associated with senior-level positions, such as board members and CEOs.

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What is the difference between retained search and contingent search?

The biggest difference between retained search and contingent search is the responsibility for making the hire.

In contingent search, you take responsibility for finding the right person. Contingency recruiters will help you source qualified candidates, and some of them may offer a minimum tenure guarantee (which means they will compensate you if your new hire departs within a certain timeframe). However, it’s up to you to design the role, identify the best candidate, offer compensation, and successfully onboard.

In retained search, your retained search partners are responsible for hiring. They’ll play an active role in every part of the hiring process, from the initial search right up to onboarding. If you can’t find the perfect fit, an executive search firm will keep searching until the right person appears.

Both solutions are suited to different situations. In some cases, you might be happy to oversee the hiring process, and you’ll just need a contingent search firm to help you with talent sourcing. But when you’re hiring for a senior-level role—such as a new CFO, CMO or even CEO—you’ll need an expert that will go find the right person. That’s when you need retained search.

Pros and cons of contingent search

Contingent search offers lots of advantages in certain scenarios, especially in large-scale project recruitment:

  • There are no up-front fees with a contingent search, so you have no up-front risk
  • The placement fee may be lower than a retained search fee
  • Contingent search firms are paid only upon the successful completion of a search—typically when the candidate accepts the position
  • The search firm engages with the client from search launch to candidate acceptance
  • Clients have the benefit of the search agency’s tools, such as search services and job board subscriptions
However, some things might make this kind of recruitment service inappropriate for your hiring needs:
  • No guarantee that you will find the right candidate
  • Contingent recruitment agencies are often generalists with no industry expertise
  • Contingent search firms decide what resources they will dedicate to each search
  • The contingent business model involves a one-size-fits-all talent search process, which might not fit your needs
  • Contingent recruitment firms generally won’t approach passive candidates, which means they have access to a smaller talent pool.

Contingent search firms can be very helpful, but it’s important to understand what they don’t do. If you’re conducting a mission-critical hire, you may need to speak to a retained executive search firm.

Pros and cons of retained search

Retained search is a comprehensive service that makes hiring much easier. The main advantages include:

  • The retained search model is an in-depth consultative approach where you work with your consultant to define the hiring process
  • The search firm consults with hiring managers and stakeholders from job description creation and compensation benchmarking through to the new hire starting work.
  • You have access to the retained search firm’s resources, which can include talent-sourcing tools, compensation benchmarking data, and employer branding expertise
  • Retained recruiters generally have expertise within your industry or niche, which helps them understand your exact talent needs
  • Candidates are thoroughly vetted according to your pre-agreed process
  • Executive recruitment firms have extensive talent community knowledge, so they may already know who to hire (and who not to hire)
  • Executive recruiters will explore every possible source of quality candidates, which can include approaches to passive candidates

However, there are some things to bear in mind:

  • You pay an up-front fee to retain your recruiter on an exclusive basis
  • Collaborative process means that you’ll need to dedicate time to work with your recruiter
  • Higher overall cost means that this approach isn’t suitable for project recruitment or large-scale hiring

Need help with your next big hire?

Hiring is easier when you’ve got expert help. Helios HR has a team of retained search consultants that can help you make your next senior-level hire.

Thinking about contingent hiring? Helios HR’s Recruitment Process Outsourcing service can take the hassle out of hiring. Our RPO consultants can help manage a big recruitment project—or help you find efficiencies in your current hiring process.

Book a call right now with a Helios HR expert, and let’s talk about building your team

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