How Executive Search Firms Work – Everything You Need to Know

For Candidates, For Employers


While most professionals are familiar with recruiters, many are unaware of the internal workings of executive search firms. Whether you are an employer needing assistance hiring talent or a seasoned professional seeking a career opportunity, it is beneficial to understand how executive recruitment firms, such as us at Bristol, operate. In this article, we share everything that you need to know about how executive search firms work.


Why Companies Work with Executive Search Firms

Executive search firms act as consultants for their clients, meaning they are separate entities from the organization that is hiring. In most cases, employers seek out executive recruitment services when they lack the time or resources to conduct a search themselves.

Posting a job online often produces responses from hundreds of unqualified candidates that hiring authorities must sort through. When working with executive search firms, hiring managers will only receive pre-screened candidates that meet the client’s specific job requirements and also their culture.


Retained vs. Contingent Searches

Executive search firms can conduct a search on a retained or contingent basis. At Bristol, we offer both options.

A retained search requires the client to pay a fee to begin the search. Once a candidate is placed, the initial deposit is applied to the total fee due. The retained search service Bristol offers includes sourcing, screening, qualified candidate submissions, interview scheduling, and negotiating employment and compensation packages of selected finalists. This method results in a more hands-on and consultative process because the client is using one search firm exclusively to fill the role. Retained clients receive priority over contingent clients.

A contingent search is typically less formal and narrower in scope, as a recruiter may only be involved in the initial screening and candidate presentation part of the hiring process. This allows clients to request multiple search firms to recruit for a position at no initial cost. While this service may suggest that the client is casting a wider net in the pool of candidates, choosing this option can be a double-edged sword. From our experience, contingent searches increase the likelihood of recruiters from separate firms contacting the same candidates for a role, which can be off-putting and detrimental to the client’s reputation. Qualified candidates will see this as a red flag and may question why the organization is having a difficult time filling the position.

It is also important to mention that candidates, whether they are hired for a position or not, do not owe any fee for participating in the executive search process and can submit their resume to a recruiter free of charge.


Executive Search Process Overview

An executive search firm has in-depth knowledge of the industries in which they focus. They will know what qualifications to identify and where to look based on a client’s particular needs. Also, they will be able to advise on matters of compensation and full-package offerings current to the market. Once they get a briefing and full details of the search from the client, they will go to work sourcing qualified individuals to present to the client for consideration. After the client has narrowed down the talent to those they want to interview, a search firm can also facilitate the interview process and negotiate salary expectations for both parties.


Sourcing Candidates

Executive recruiters use a variety of methods to find and attract a wide range of candidates, based on each unique search. At Bristol, some of our approaches include social network sites, email blasts, company newsletters, referrals, advanced online search techniques, and posting on niche job boards.

In addition, search firms usually have their own extensive database of screened and qualified executive candidates. Recruiters form relationships over time with industry professionals through networking and industry events. Furthermore, they have access to a large network of “passive candidates,” professionals who are generally the most qualified in their industry but are not actively looking for a new position.


Executive Placements

Executive search means placing candidates at the executive level (i.e., C-level, Vice President, and Director positions). Not only do compensation packages at this level offer significant base salaries, but they also include quarterly or annual bonus potential, deferred compensation, relocation assistance, and attractive benefits. At Bristol, we know current job market conditions and are well-versed in compensation areas including base salaries, bonus programs, commission structures, incentives, benefits, and long-term compensation, relative to the area and job level.

A search at the executive level is a multi-faceted and delicate process, and the outcome will have a long-term impact on the hiring company. Fortunately, executive search firms and their recruiters, such as ours, have filled many leadership roles and are experienced in conducting successful searches for their clients in order to find them the right person for the job.


Not a Staffing or Employment Agency

Executive search firms are often mistaken as staffing or employment agencies. Unlike staffing or employment agencies, executive search firms specialize in permanent, direct placements at the executive level. Some job seekers hold the misconception that executive search firms work to find the right job for them. As mentioned in our previous article, “Executive Recruiters Debunk Recruitment Myths,” search firms work for and are paid by the client, not the candidate. The recruiter will be looking to find the right fit for the client for that particular role. However, it is beneficial for job seekers to establish relationships with recruiters, especially when search firms specialize in their industry or field. When an opportunity comes along that would be a great fit for the candidate, they will already be top of mind, in the recruiter’s database, or notified about the opening through outreach channels.


Even if you have prior experience working with an executive search firm, we hope you have a better understanding of how they operate. Armed with this additional wisdom, you will be able to make a more informed decision as to whether an executive search firm will meet your needs as a hiring authority or a candidate.

Bristol Associates, Inc. is an executive search firm with over 50 years of excellence in recruiting nationwide. Bristol specializes in recruiting for the Casino Gaming; CBD; Facilities and Concessions; Food and Beverage Manufacturing; Hospital and Healthcare; Hotels and Resorts; Nonprofit; Restaurant; and Travel, Tourism, and Attractions industries.

If you’re interested in working with Bristol Associates, click here if you’re an employer or here if you’re a candidate.

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