What is Retained Search?

15 February 2022

Contingency vs. Retained Recruitment

Which is Better?

In nearly every conversation we’ve had recently with executives across industries, we keep hearing that great people are harder to find and it’s increasingly difficult to convince them to make a move.

Many companies realise they would benefit from the knowhow, experience and connections of an Executive Search firm, but often have misconceptions about the way we work.

When talking with a prospective client, we are often asked whether we would consider a contingency search model without exclusivity. Sometimes it is because a client has not experienced retained search before and on the surface the main difference appears to be simply an issue of how the fee is paid.

But that difference drives a completely different approach to assignments and it often necessitates an explanation.

While we believe there are merits of both, a clear understanding of the differences is critical to making the right decision for a specific search.

  • Non-Exclusive Success based fee /Contingency Search: the provider is paid only after filling the role and in addition to that, other recruitment companies and internal recruiters may work on the same assignment.
  • Exclusive Retained Search: the client engages only one search firm and the fee is paid typically in three instalments. The first, when the search is assigned, the second when a defined milestone is met and the remainder when the chosen candidate accepts the role.

At first consideration, the non-exclusive contingency model may seem better for the client - there is no perceived risk because there is no upfront payment and engaging more firms casts a wider net to elicit faster and better results? This thinking, while common, actually works against the clients’ interests, it will seldom ensure access to the best talent and can create damage in many ways.

It is important to realise that the contingency model makes the provider to work with a large number of positions at the same time and to focus on the roles that are most likely to be filled quickly. Though high speed can be a good thing, quality and service will be compromised and the client will get CVs of the most easy to reach candidates who are currently available, yet not always the best for the role. A contingent search means that when the recruiters get bored, frustrated or tired, they can quit, there is no commitment from any side.

While contingency firms would ideally like to create a positive candidate experience, the focus will be on the transaction - just getting a number of suitable resumes in the door first. But because the best candidates are generally passive, busy, usually just casually looking at online opportunities (if at all), they will seldom respond and apply, except those actively searching for a job and that is only about 5% of all potentials.

To get the attention of passive candidates, a search requires careful engagement strategies and personalised presentation of the company and opportunity, therefore many great candidates will be missed because the contingency search is under pressure to present candidates quickly. These are the experiences that often give the recruitment professionals a poor reputation and the unfortunate negative perception among candidates.

One big recruitment myth is that recruiters will work harder when they have to compete with other search firms. That never guarantees success, it actually creates chaos in communication among all parties, high activity at the beginning of the assignment and a rush to make a referral before anyone else.

There is lack of research, assessment, commitment and guarantees from the non-exclusive contingent search.

If exclusivity for one firm is not agreed, candidates will be approached by several recruiters for the same position. This may completely put off many passive candidates because it is perceived negatively, it diminishes the importance of the position and candidates may be concerned about confidentiality.

What works best for attracting the senior candidates is a committed partnership where there is an accountability to find the right fit – something that definitely benefits the client.

In today’s candidate-driven market, it is extremely important to tune into what candidates are looking for in their next roles. Lockdowns gave people time to reflect, they look for purpose, work-life balance and are extremely careful about confidentiality.

The candidate experience should be a priority for a retained firm.

The assurance of importance, exclusivity and confidentiality will elevate the client brand and can persuade candidates to open up and consider opportunities at times they would not be actively looking. Most experienced leaders recognise that executive search professionals  can be very valuable advisors and are honest and open with them in ways they can not be directly with an employer. This is also helpful in managing future career expectations, negotiating salary and contract terms.

If you want to ensure you get the very best talent, and not just an immediately available hire for the key positions, exclusive retained search is the best choice.

Retained search is better for everyone involved: the client, the candidate, as well as the search firm.

Andrea Chládková
Partner, Prague


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