Contingent Vs. Retained Recruitment: What’s The Difference?

If you’ve ever outsourced your recruitment, you may have been surprised to find that there isn’t simply one way to do it.

I often find myself outlining the different ways for clients, so they can make an informed decision about what will best suit them.

Usually, it’s a tale of two options: contingent vs. retained recruitment. And having worked in both fields, I am well placed to comment.


What is contingent recruitment?

When I worked as a contingent recruiter, it constantly felt like a race. Or a battle. The flick and stick. The push and shove for fantastic candidates to fill speculative roles. You cross your fingers and toes, avoid ladders, broken mirrors and black cats, in the hope of getting paid for the work you’ve done.

This is the world of a contingent sales recruiter, and it is tough. The pressure to make something out of nothing is great, the activity levels are high, and the culture is cut throat.

Contingency is sometimes described as No Win, No Fee (or even No Cure, No Pay). It is what it says on the tin, a service performed by a recruitment company for free until the day a candidate represented by them takes a position with their client.” The Undercover Recruiter 

Working on a non-exclusive competitive contingent assignment, is often working for free!

Working this way is how the recruitment industry got the reputation of “throwing CV’s against a wall”. That’s because this way of working means that the recruiter has to be quick – do a quick database search and get as many CV’s that look OK to the client.” Beaumont Wood


What is retained recruitment?

At Mindset, I’ve learned that retained recruitment involves selling from the beginning. You offer your professional service to a client and ask to be paid upfront for the hard work you are about to undertake.

The research, mapping, screening, interviewing, testing, references, and last but not least, the general management and constant sales within the process, ensures the client gets a candidate for the role that will deliver the right results.

This all takes a considerable amount of time and effort, for which, as a professional, you should be paid.

Coming from years of contingent recruitment, adapting to retained was a daunting task. The calls are cold, the conversations are at a much higher level, and the sales cycle is slow.

Where once the aim of a meeting was to walk away with the sniff of a job, it is now to develop a long term relationship with the client, to understand their business, people and culture. To have a good level of engagement with your client and understand its offering, so that when a vacancy arises, you’re ideally placed to fill it.


The verdict

Contingent vs. retained recruitment: the difference between the two models is now clear to me.

With retained work you must sell yourself, the recruitment company and its process. The sale is up-front and it’s something you have control of and believe in.

With contingency, you sell candidates to clients and jobs to candidates. And everyone else is trying to sell the same candidate to your client and others! It’s survival of the fittest. Only the fleetest of foot will survive.

Give me a retainer every time! I get paid and clients get better candidates. Win-Win!

The retained recruiter takes their time to get things right using processes and agreed methodology, knowing they will eventually fill the position thanks to their exclusivity terms. The contingency recruiter will be a lot quicker and most probably deliver more candidates to increase the odds of making a placement.

Another difference is that the retained recruiter has signed up to a service level, sometimes a retained search can be challenging and these projects can be rather lengthy. The contingency recruiter will simply move on to another vacancy or client where they believe they can get a more straightforward win.” The Undercover Recruiter

For all the extra time and skill that retained assignments take, every second is worth it both for me as the recruiter and also for the client. Less anxiety for me. More time to do a great job. A better candidate for the client. Happier people all round.

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