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Home » Articles » Contingent vs. Retained search: Make the right choice for your hiring needs

Contingent vs. Retained search: Make the right choice for your hiring needs

Finding the right talent is always crucial. However, achieving hiring success can take different routes. 

Many businesses choose between Contingent vs. Retained Search as they are two of the most common approaches. 

We’ll break down these two methods, explore their advantages and drawbacks, and help you determine when to choose the right model for your specific hiring needs. 

So, whether you’re an HR professional, a recruiter, or a business owner, read on to make an informed decision that can shape your team’s future.

What is contingent search?

Contingent search is like fishing with multiple lines in the water. In this model, you engage with multiple recruitment agencies to find candidates for your job openings. 

These agencies work on a “no win, no fee” basis, meaning they only get paid if they successfully place a candidate with your company.

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What is contingent search
What is contingent search?

Advantages of contingent search

When filling job positions, organizations often have diverse needs and budgets. Contingent search offers several benefits that cater to these varying requirements.


Imagine you’re managing a tight budget for hiring. 

Contingent search is like hiring a talent scout who only gets paid when they discover the perfect candidate for your role. You save money upfront and invest only when you’ve found your match.

Wider candidate pool

Imagine a vast sea of potential candidates. Contingent recruiters operate boats on this sea, providing you access to a wider talent pool. They cast their nets far and wide, boosting your likelihood of discovering the perfect match.

Reduced administrative burden

Consider the time and effort required to review resumes, arrange interviews, and oversee the hiring process.

Contingent recruiters act as your partners, taking care of paperwork and logistics so you can concentrate on your main responsibilities.

Faster hiring process

In the fast-paced world of recruitment, time is crucial. 

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Contingent recruiters are like sprinters in a race, motivated to find candidates quickly to secure their fee. It means you can fill your position more promptly.


Imagine you’re hiring for a top-secret project. Contingent search provides confidentiality, guaranteeing that sensitive information stays confidential.

Potential drawbacks of contingent search

Although contingent search has benefits, it’s important to recognize its possible downsides.

Limited commitment from recruiters

Think of contingent recruiters as free agents. They work on a “success-only” basis, meaning they might not be as dedicated to your search as you’d like. 

Their commitment could be divided among multiple clients, which might affect the quality of service.

Quality vs. Quantity trade-off

Contingent recruiters are often driven by the desire to secure their fees. It can lead to a quantity-over-quality approach.

Due to their eagerness to present candidates quickly, they may not conduct a comprehensive evaluation or align them properly with your requirements, which could lead to mismatches.

Conflict of interest

Imagine two chefs cooking in the same kitchen but serving different diners. 

In contingent search, recruiters may simultaneously submit the same candidate to multiple clients. This can create conflicts of interest and confusion for all parties involved.

Exclusivity issues

The contingent search might pose challenges if you’re aiming for exclusivity with a candidate. Because multiple recruiters are actively seeking candidates, securing a candidate’s loyalty to your organization becomes more challenging.

Candidate double-submission

Picture receiving the same gift from two different friends. Multiple recruiters might present the same candidate to you in a contingent search. 

A double submission can result in confusion and disagreements regarding who deserves credit for discovering the candidate.

What is retained search?

Retained search is similar to hiring a skilled detective to find a specific treasure. 

In this model, you engage a single executive search firm dedicated solely to your hiring needs. They collaborate closely with you to grasp your criteria and conduct a comprehensive search.

What is retained search
What is retained search?

Advantages of retained search

Retained search approach offers several advantages for both employers and candidates, including:

Exclusive focus on your search

Think of retained recruiters as your exclusive hiring experts. They concentrate entirely on your job vacancy, devoting their complete attention to it.

They do not divide their efforts among multiple clients, making your hiring requirements their highest priority.

In-depth market research

Retained recruiters are related to market researchers. They delve deeply into your industry, comprehensively understanding the landscape. 

This insight lets them pinpoint the most suitable candidates who meet your criteria and seamlessly integrate into your organization.

High-quality candidate matches

Imagine a tailor crafting a custom suit to perfection. Retained recruiters prioritize quality over quantity. 

They meticulously search for candidates who align with your company’s culture, goals, and vision, ensuring a perfect fit.

Thorough candidate assessment

Retained search involves a rigorous evaluation process and recruiters conduct:

Recruiters ensure that the candidates they present are impressive on paper and the right fit for your team.


Just like a vault protecting your valuables, retained search offers high confidentiality. It is particularly important for sensitive positions where discretion is essential.

Potential drawbacks of retained search

While retained search offers several advantages, it’s important to be aware of its potential downsides:

Higher costs

Think of retained search as a premium service; it often comes with a higher price tag. You pay an upfront fee regardless of the outcome. 

For organizations with limited budgets, this can be a significant investment.

Longer time frame

Retained search is like slow-cooking a gourmet meal. Finding the perfect candidate takes time, conducting thorough assessments, and ensuring a seamless fit. 

If you’re in a hurry to fill a position, this approach may not align with your timeline.

Limited competition

Imagine you’re the only bidder at an auction. When you partner exclusively with a retained recruiter, you limit the competition for candidates. 

While this can be an advantage sometimes, it might reduce your options.

Limited access to passive candidates

Passive candidates are individuals not actively seeking new job opportunities. They often require a more delicate approach to recruitment. 

Some passive candidates may not engage with retained recruiters, potentially limiting your access to this talent pool.

Not ideal for all positions

Retained search is like using a specialized tool for a specific job. 

While it’s highly effective for senior executive roles, niche or specialized positions, long-term strategic hires, and global talent acquisition, it might not fit all job categories best. 

For lower-level or entry-level positions, the higher costs may not be justified.

Contingent vs. Retained search: When to choose the right model

When selecting the ideal hiring model, it’s essential to consider your unique circumstances and objectives. 

Here’s a breakdown of when to opt for each approach:

Opting for a contingent search

Contingent search can be your go-to choice in specific situations like:

Urgent hiring needs

Picture this: You have a critical job position, and time is important. Contingent search is like the fast track to recruitment. 

Recruiters in this model are motivated to quickly identify and present suitable candidates, making it a suitable option for urgent hiring needs.

Limited budget

Imagine you’re working with a tight budget for recruitment. Contingent search aligns with financial constraints because you only pay when a candidate is successfully hired. 

It’s like having a skilled detective on a mission to find the right talent without breaking the bank.

Flexibility in candidate selection

Sometimes, you may want the flexibility to explore various candidates simultaneously. Contingent search allows you to work with multiple recruiters, each presenting different candidates. 

It’s similar to having multiple fishing lines in the water, increasing your chances of catching the perfect fish.

High volume hiring

Imagine a situation where you must rapidly fill multiple positions, like during a seasonal hiring surge or a sudden phase of rapid expansion.

Contingent search can efficiently handle high-volume hiring by tapping into a wide network of potential candidates.

Opting for a retained search

Retained search shines in different scenarios such as:

Senior executive roles

Imagine you’re searching for a top-tier executive to lead your organization. Retained search is like hiring a master sculptor to craft a unique masterpiece. 

The upfront fee ensures a dedicated search for top talent, making it ideal for senior executive roles.

Niche or specialized positions

Some job positions require specific skills or expertise. Retained search is your specialist tool for finding candidates with niche skills. 

It’s like using a precision instrument for a delicate task, ensuring you find the perfect match.

Long-term strategic hires

Consider your organization’s long-term strategy. 

Retained search is the best option if you’re making strategic hires that will significantly impact your future, such as building a leadership team. It provides the comprehensive approach needed for these critical decisions.

Global talent acquisition

Expanding your organization across borders? Retained search is like having an international detective agency. 

Recruiters’ commitment and deep market research can help you find the right talent globally, navigating the complexities of international recruitment.

Factors to consider when choosing between Contingent vs. Retained search

Selecting the right hiring model involves considering various factors unique to your organization and its goals. 

Here’s a guide on how to make the decision based on specific considerations:

Industry-specific challenges

Different industries come with their own sets of challenges and demands. Think about the unique aspects of your industry. 

Choosing between retained and contingent search depends on your sector’s specific needs.

If your industry requires specialized expertise or connections, retained search is like having an experienced guide who is intimately familiar with the terrain.

Conversely, contingent search can offer greater adaptability and cost-effectiveness, particularly in industries with a continuous influx of job openings and diverse requirements.

Industry-specific challenges
Factors to consider when choosing between Contingent vs. Retained search

Company size and culture

Consider the size and culture of your organization. For smaller companies with limited resources, the contingent search might align better with your budget limitations. 

It resembles a smaller boat that can navigate quickly in shallower waters. 

In contrast, larger organizations with established cultures and needing top-tier executives might find retained search more tailored to their needs.

Hiring volume

Think about the volume of hires you need to make. A contingent search is perfect if you consistently hire many employees due to seasonal demands or frequent turnover.

However, if you’re making infrequent but crucial hires, retained search offers the precision and dedication necessary for these strategic positions.

Budget and cost sensitivity

Your budget is a critical factor. Picture it as your financial roadmap. 

If you’re working with a tight budget and need to minimize upfront costs, a contingent search is like an affordable vehicle that gets you where you need to go without straining your finances. 

On the other hand, if you have the financial capacity to invest upfront and seek top-tier talent, retained search acts as your premium concierge service, ensuring a focused and thorough search.

Contingent vs. Retained search: Select the best option today!

In the world of talent acquisition, the “Contingent vs. Retained Search” debate rages on.

Both models have strengths and weaknesses, making them suitable for different scenarios. 

Contingent search offers speed and flexibility, while retained search provides a comprehensive, dedicated approach. Your choice should align with your hiring goals and budget.

Remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. 

Evaluate your needs carefully, and you’ll always make the right choice. Happy hiring!

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