As a headhunter, I am constantly asked “oh, so you’re an HR expert?” or “how do you like HR?”. This goes to show how far we have yet to go in order to communicate to the American public what headhunting is and isn’t.
In other countries like the UK where headhunting/recruitment is as ubiquitous as real estate sales, everyone knows our job as headhunters and recruiters well. However, in many other countries with developing headhunting industries, recruitment is still bunched together with HR although we consist of completely opposite ilk.
Here is how headhunting/recruitment and HR differ:
#1. The focus of the 2 jobs are completely different.
Headhunters are professional salespeopleversus HR people who are internal administrators.
The headhunter has to cajole, push, seek out, and control client and candidate interactions and decision-making processes. Furthermore, the headhunter only focuses on one thing – how to make this next hire(s) work out, usually for a market that possesses more jobs than candidates available. Due to the high demand of this specialized talent compared to a low supply of said talent, headhunters earn a lucrative commission to complete the client’s business and staffing need for that specific job role.
Whereas an HR person is working on internal initiatives, benefits, payroll, diversity programs, etc. Although hiring is a piece of their job, it’s not their main focus. They will often outsource niche roles that they can’t fill alone to headhunters and contract recruiters. If they’re big enough, they’ll also establish an internal recruitment team who vets and manages potential candidates.
#2. Requirements to become a headhunter are vastly different than HR. A blessing and curse of becoming a headhunter is that you can come from any background as long as you can speak eloquently. Since the nature of the headhunting job is sales, hires can emerge from a range of backgrounds: fresh college grads across any major (highschoolers even!), any new or experienced customer service staff or salespeople: car, real estate, door-to-door products, telemarketing, alumni relations, wait-staff, bartenders, hospitality, call centers, etc. Age is also not as big as of a concern.
However, HR has a pretty strict hiring process and criteria. If you’re not already (1) an HR person or (2) fresh out of school grad jumping into HR or (3) have previous 9-5 corporate experience, you’ll find it hard to get a job as an HR person. For example, a highly-ranked used car salesperson at age 35 without a degree will find it easier to get a job as a headhunter, while almost impossible to get an HR job.
#3. Pay structures between HR and headhunting vary massively. A junior HR person out of college can make anywhere from $40k-$65k on base. A headhunter’s base salary alone is usually $35k-40k with high potential of commission. It’s not unusual to see headhunters in their first year make over $75-$80k. And the numbers only go up from there, very quickly headhunters out-earn HR staff.
3 years into my headhunting career, at age 25, I earned over $200k, well over the amount even senior HR people make! For the top-billing headhunters, the pay potential is incredible. For every 50 headhunters, the top 5 headhunters make more than $200k-$300k*. Since headhunting is based on performance, it’s not uncommon to meet headhunters in their mid-20s making well into 6-figures.
*This is for headhunting firms who allow their headhunters to do full-desk, aka 360, aka client-and-candidate recruitment.
You won’t ever see those numbers in a salaried position like HR!
HR people who are 2-5 years in the industry average $90k on base in major cities. People with 10+ years are probably making closer to $120k-$150k, and that’s if you somehow maneuvered yourself into a leadership role. Only at Tier-1 companies would you see HR people making above $200k and that’s usually at VP level.
#4. HR oversees all aspects of an organization whereas a headhunter is usually focused in one market niche. HR has to take care of the executives and support hiring for all the internal company departments: marketing, finance, IT, admin, what-have-you. However, headhunters specialize in usually one or a few related job functions to recruit for, oftentimes concentrated in a single industry.
While an HR person’s network is wide across many job functions, a headhunter’s network is incredibly deep in one realm. That’s why HR will often hire different headhunters for different assignments. A headhunter who covers all roles is lying or probably bad at their job (and not making much money). It’s not possible to do a great job when you only have surface-level contacts. Thus, headhunters usually need a specialty to survive and prosper.
Ultimately, the biggest difference between these two jobs is that as a headhunter, if you have the communication and sales skills necessary to excel, you will earn a lot more money than if you were to take a salaried job as an HR person. Of course, that money comes at a cost: you’ll have to learn to sustainably excel at sales.
That requires a serious commitment to holding yourself to higher communication and income-generation goals over an extended period of time. Since that’s not easy, the risk of burnout is high if not managed well or being at the wrong headhunting firm with the wrong leadership. Burnout is common across all industries and careers though; you’ll always have the option to pivot and change your career strategy once you’ve learned the people, networking, sales, and strategic thinking skills you’ll pick up as a headhunter.
Dandan is a headhunter, career coach, and speaker featured on Huffington Post, Inc.com, Apple News, Monster, and Time.
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