Retained Search vs Contingent Recruitment: The Differences

In the ever-changing landscape of talent acquisition, businesses are presented with a variety of recruitment approaches. Two prominent methods that are often used are retained search and contingent recruitment. Whilst they both aim to connect employers with the best candidates possible, they offer different advantages.

Retained Search

Retained search is a recruitment strategy where a company partners with an executive search firm to identify and secure high-level candidates. In this arrangement, the search firm is exclusively retained and conducts an executive search. Within this, they utilise their industry expertise and network to identify the most suitable candidates. This method is often employed for critical roles where finding the right candidate is of paramount importance.

Key Characteristics of Retained Search:
  1. Exclusivity and Dedication: A significant characteristic of retained search is the exclusivity that it offers. Substantial time and resources are dedicated to understand the organisation’s culture, values and requirements. Therefore, they are able to pinpoint candidates who align perfectly.
  2. In-Depth Evaluation: Retained search firms go the extra mile to evaluate their candidates. For example, they conduct rigorous assessments, background checks, and interviews. This ensures that every candidate presented to the client is not only qualified but also a strong cultural fit.
  3. Specialisation: Firms who operate in retained search often focus on niche industries and executive-level positions. Their specialised knowledge allows them to target passive candidates who may not be actively seeking new opportunities.
Contingent Recruitment

On the other hand, contingent recruitment is a more common approach of recruitment. This is when multiple recruitment agencies are asked to identify various candidates for a specific role. These agencies work simultaneously, and they are only paid if the candidate they source is successful in securing the role. Contingent recruitment is often used for roles at various levels within an organisation.

Key Characteristics of Contingent Recruitment:
  1. Wide Candidate Pool: As multiple agencies are involved, contingent recruitment provides access to a broader pool of candidates. When hiring for roles with a specific sill set, this can be a huge advantage.
  2. Speed and Competition: It can lead to a faster hiring process due to the competitive nature of multiple agencies competing to present the best candidates. However, it is important to note that this can result in a higher volume of CVs and applications to sift through.
  3. Transactional Nature: Contingent recruitment is often more transactional in nature. These agencies strive to present potential candidates as quickly as possible to increase their chances of securing a fee. Consequently, this might lead to less emphasis on understanding the intricacies of the company culture.
Choosing the Right Approach to Talent Acquisition

There are multiple factors that can sway the decision in choosing the right approach to talent acquisition. These include: the nature of the role, the organisation’s priorities, and the level of expertise required for the role. Here are a few considerations:

  • Criticality of the Role: If you are hiring for a critical position that demands industry-specific knowledge and an impeccable cultural fit, retained search might be a better choice.
  • Level of Expertise Needed: Executive positions often require a deep understanding of an industry and deep evaluation of candidates. In these cases, the specialised knowledge that comes with retained search firms is invaluable.
  • Budget and Risk Tolerance: Retained search typically comes with a higher upfront cost. If budget constraints are a concern, contingent recruitment could be seen as a more viable option.
  • Urgency and Volume: If an organisation has the need to fill multiple roles quickly, contingent recruitment might be more suitable. It provides a wider reach and allows for a faster influx of candidates.


The choice between retained search and contingent recruitment can significantly impact an organisation’s ability to secure the right talent. While retained search excels in identifying top-tier candidates through its dedicated approach, contingent recruitments offers a broader candidate pool. Ultimately, the decision boils down to the unique needs of the organisation and the specific demands of the position.

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