Retained search

Comparing Contingency and Retained Search: What’s the Difference?

By Published On: November 16, 2023

Navigating the complex world of executive search can be a daunting task, especially when it comes to choosing between retained search and contingent search methods. Both approaches have their merits, but which one is best suited for your company’s specific needs? In this blog post, we’ll explore the key differences between retained search and contingent search, weigh the pros and cons of each method, and provide valuable insights to help you make the right decision for your organization’s talent acquisition strategy, with a focus on the benefits of retained search.

Key Takeaways

  • Retained search is a comprehensive and consultative approach to finding passive candidates for senior-level positions, with an emphasis on tailored service and long-term success.
  • Contingency search provides a cost effective recruitment method used to quickly fill mid tier positions in industries with high demand.
  • Companies should prioritize quality talent acquisition while taking budget into consideration when selecting the best recruitment process for their organization’s needs.

Understanding Retained Search

The retained search model is an exclusive partnership between a company and a search firm, typically used for senior-level positions. This method targets passive candidates – those who are content in their current roles and not actively seeking new opportunities. While retained search may have a higher upfront cost, it offers a more comprehensive and consultative approach compared to contingent search. Retained search firms often specialize in the field in which you are recruiting as well.

Companies that choose to work with an executive search firm, particularly retained executive search firms, benefit from:

Key Characteristics of Retained Search

One of the hallmarks of retained search is its focus on quality over quantity. Retained search firms take the time to calibrate, screen, and conduct in-depth interviews with candidates, ultimately presenting a shortlist of 3-to-5 top finalists for the hiring company to consider. This ensures that the candidates presented are not only well-qualified but also a good fit for the company’s culture and objectives.

Retained search firms also emphasize a custom approach, working closely with their clients to comprehend their specific needs and goals. This facilitates a search process that is adapted to the company’s distinct requirements, leading to a more effective outcome.

Contingency Search Demystified

Contingency search is a recruitment method typically used for mid-tier positions. This approach focuses on active candidates, who are currently seeking new opportunities and may be found through job postings or resume searches. Contingency search firms charge fees only upon successful placement of a candidate, making it a more cost-effective option for some companies.

While contingency search may not offer the same level of depth and personalization as retained search, it can be a valuable tool for companies looking to fill specialized roles quickly and cost-effectively. Contingency search is often used for roles beneath the Director or VP level and can be particularly effective in industries with high demand for niche skills.

Advantages of Retained Executive Search

Retained executive search offers several key advantages over contingency search, including a more comprehensive screening process, long-term partnerships, and a focus on quality candidates. Hiring managers who work with retained executive search firms can expect a higher level of support and commitment throughout the hiring process, ensuring that the best possible candidates are identified and presented through retained executive search services.

Furthermore, the exclusivity and dedication of these firms can help to build trust and confidentiality between the client and the recruitment firm, ensuring a secure and discreet process for both parties.

Quality over Quantity

The emphasis on quality over quantity is a significant benefit of retained search. Retained search firms exert great effort to locate the finest talent for their clients, assuring the delivery of exceptional candidates for their senior positions. This strategy not only bolsters the chances of a successful hire but also aids in reducing the risk of an expensive mis-hire.

Retained search firms also prioritize a consultative approach, offering personalized service and a deeper understanding of their clients’ unique needs and objectives. This focus on quality ensures that the candidates presented to the hiring company are not only well-qualified but also a good fit for the company’s culture and objectives.

Confidentiality and Trust

Retained search offers a secure and discreet hiring process, ensuring that sensitive information related to the hiring company and candidates is well-protected. This level of confidentiality fosters trust between the client and the search firm, ultimately leading to more successful hiring outcomes.

Trust is a cornerstone of the retained search process, with a strong partnership between the firm and the client being essential for success. Clients entrust the search firm with:

  • Identifying, screening, and presenting highly qualified candidates;
  • Candidates who are currently employed and successful in their respective roles;
  • Ensuring that only the best candidates are presented for consideration.

When to Choose Contingent Search

Contingent search is the best fit for lower-tier positions when time and cost are paramount. Its non-exclusive characteristic allows several recruiters to work simultaneously on the same role, thereby enhancing the odds of promptly and economically identifying a fitting candidate. Nonetheless, this method may not provide the depth and customization characteristic of retained search.

Companies with tight deadlines or budget constraints may find contingent search to be an attractive option, as it offers a more standardized talent search process without the need for an upfront investment or long-term commitment.

Ideal Positions for Contingent Search

Contingent search is ideally suited for individual contributor to Director or VP roles, with total annual compensation up to $150,000. These types of positions typically require a more streamlined recruitment process, ensuring that suitable candidates can be found and hired quickly and efficiently.

The success rate for filling VP roles through contingent search is typically around 20%, although this may vary depending on the search firm and their approach.

Because supply chain is so nuanced and highly specialized, typical pricing models don’t apply. It requires a depth of relationships and a broad network to draw upon in order to place even director-level supply chain talent of high enough caliber to suit an employer’s needs.

Time and Cost Considerations

When comparing contingent vs retained search, contingent search offers a faster recruitment process, making it suitable for companies with tight deadlines or limited resources. Clients only pay for successful placements, reducing the risk of incurring costs for unsuccessful searches.

The placement fee for a contingency search is usually lower than a retained search fee, further reducing expenses for the client. Companies with tight budgets should carefully consider the potential costs and weigh them against the advantages of using a contingency search firm.

Deciding which search option best suits these criteria will help to determine the best path forward for any organization.

Refunds are very rare. Retained search firms are performing a service, similar to an attorney or an accountant. The work is getting done. If a candidate doesn’t fill the required placement period, a backfill will likely take place.

Making the Right Choice: Factors to Consider

Choosing between retained and contingent search requires assessing the company’s specific needs and balancing budget and quality expectations. Factors such as the level of the position, the desired candidate profile, and the company’s size and resources should all be taken into account when making a decision.

Ultimately, the chosen search method should align with the company’s unique hiring requirements, ensuring that the most suitable candidates are sourced and presented for consideration. By carefully evaluating the pros and cons of each method, companies can make an informed decision and select the best approach for their talent acquisition strategy.

Assessing Company Needs

In selecting a search method, companies must initially assess their specific hiring needs, the role’s level, and the preferred candidate profile. Comprehending the role along with the essential qualifications and skills will aid in determining the most appropriate search method for identifying potential candidates.

Company size also plays a role in the decision between retained and contingent search. Smaller companies with limited resources may prefer the cost-efficiency and flexibility of contingent search, while larger companies with more resources may opt for retained search, which focuses on quality candidates and a tailored approach.

Balancing Budget and Quality

Despite the allure of short-term cost savings from a contingent search, the long-term value of hiring quality talent should be considered. A poor hire can lead to substantial costs, including increased turnover, decreased productivity, and low morale, justifying the investment in a quality candidate in the longer term. Some more specialized firms offer contract hiring services, especially in fields like supply chain. These hires can provide a bridge and help to expand operational capacities while a new, full time hire is onboarded. 

By carefully considering the costs and benefits of each search method, companies can strike the right balance between budget and quality expectations, ensuring that they make the best possible decision for their organization’s talent acquisition needs.

Real-Life Case Studies: Retained vs. Contingent Search

Real-life case studies can provide valuable insights into the effectiveness of retained and contingent search methods in various industries and situations. For instance, retained search has proven successful in the finance sector, with case studies highlighting the successful recruitment of CFOs and other finance executives. On the other hand, contingent search has been effectively utilized in the retail industry, filling roles ranging from individual contributor to mid-level management positions.

By examining real-life examples and outcomes, companies can gain a better understanding of the potential benefits and drawbacks of each search method, helping them to make an informed decision when choosing between retained and contingent search.


In conclusion, both retained and contingent search methods have their merits and can be beneficial in different situations. Retained search offers a more comprehensive and personalized approach, focusing on quality candidates and long-term partnerships, while contingent search provides a cost-effective and flexible solution for companies with tight deadlines or budget constraints. Retained executive search firms also provide a level of specialization related to the field in which a certain company needs to hire. This specialization allows more nuanced and knowledgeable searches that result in safer hires. Ultimately, it is essential for companies to carefully consider their unique needs and objectives when choosing between these search methods, ensuring that they make the best possible decision for their talent acquisition strategy.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between contingent search and retained search?

Retained search focuses on executive and senior-level positions and involves the recruiter being paid an upfront fee for exclusive, dedicated service. Contingent recruitment, on the other hand, works with candidates actively seeking work on a ‘no win, no fee’ basis.

What does retained mean in recruiting?

Retained in recruitment refers to a fee-based system where a recruiter is exclusively tasked with sourcing the best candidate for the job. The recruiter charges an upfront fee to conduct the search and fills the vacancy through their own efforts.

Why use a retained search firm?

Retained search firms provide a dedicated team of experts with specialized knowledge of the marketplace who can help identify and secure top talent. Their recruitment services guarantee maximum return on investment for clients.

What is a retained search?

Retained search is a recruitment process in which a firm works with the organization to define job requirements, provide advice on how to advertise the roles, and help connect qualified candidates with the organization.

What factors should be considered when choosing between retained and contingent search?

When deciding between retained and contingent search, one should consider the company’s hiring needs, the job position, desired profile, budget, and desired quality of the applicant. Deciding which search option best suits these criteria will help to determine the best path forward for any organization.