Difference Between Contingent and Retained Executive Search

Contingency and retained executive search are two well-defined search models. The hunt for diverse candidates highlights the difference between the two approaches. A contingent executive search implies where the search firm receives its payment on producing a successful hire. However, when a company invests in a retained executive search, the search firm receives its fees whether or not they make a hire. It is imperative to stay informed about the difference between both approaches to decide which search model will best suit your company. 

Here are the key differences between a contingent and retained executive search:

Contractual obligation

The contract agreement outlines the client’s expectations at each step of the hiring process. Contingent search firms are liable under no contractual obligation to produce results since they only receive their consideration as per each successful hiring. However, retained search companies are contractually bound to the terms and conditions of their agreement. 

Proactive hunt vs. reactive hunt

Contingency search firms are a sales-driven association. They work reactively by fetching the most-suited candidates from their database or advertising for the specific job description. Whereas retained search firms share a consultative and advisory relationship with the hiring company. They work proactively on behalf of their clients by creating an assignment specification to entice and persuade the targeted candidates.

Time investment

Contingent executive search delivers prompt and multiple resumes to increase the odds of making a successful placement. However, they require a significant time investment from the hiring company’s HR team. In contrast, a retained executive search takes additional time to refine the research focus but requires minimal involvement of the hiring company’s HR team until the screening process.

Quality or quantity driven

Contingency recruitment is a cost, speed, and quantity-driven activity where the payment is dependent upon results. Therefore, it requires less time investment at individual assignments by consultants without incurring expenses. However, retained recruitment is an investment and quality-driven activity in terms of research, consultant’s time investment, candidate screening, engagement, and financial commitments of the hiring company. 


Confidentiality can be compromised during a contingent executive search as there is a need for a vast engagement of candidates. Therefore, often the same candidates are presented before various companies to drive results. However, in comparison, retained executive search guarantees ethical practices, including confidentiality and assignment exclusivity during the screening process. 

Working procedure

During a contingent search, agencies usually work according to the briefs given by their clients or the outlining of the job description. However, during a retained search, consultants commit a significant time in making a complete analysis of the client’s outset, objectives and adhere to the requirements and working culture of the hiring company.


Contingency search firms often portray less work experience compared to retained search firms. Retained search firms symbolize solemnity, sensitivity, tenacity, creativity, and objective judgment.

About‌ ‌the‌ ‌business‌ ‌

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