What Do Executive Search Firms Charge?

Posted by Bob Corlett on May 9, 2013

Most of the people in my neighborhood have never used an executive search firm; they are doctors, teachers, dentists, college professors, and government workers. They work in organizations where it's incredibly uncommon to use executive search firms, or recruiters of any sort.

Even in Washington, DC's huge nonprofit and association market, where the use of search firms is prevalent, some organizations choose to engage search firms very rarely. We regularly work with people who have never engaged the services of an executive search firm before.

So naturally people have questions about:

  1. Who pays (the employer always pays).
  2. When the fee is due (it depends on the search firm).
  3. How do executive search firms charge (it depends on the search firm).
  4. What services are delivered/What is involved in the hiring process (it depends on the search firm).
  5. What replacement guarantee is in place if the placement does not work out (it depend on the search firm).

Retained Model

Let's start with fees. Search fees vary widely depending on the business model the executive recruiting firm uses.

Typically, retained executive search firms charge 25 - 33% of the estimated total annual compensation a candidate is expected to receive in their first year in the position. (Many executive recruiters include first year commissions and bonuses in the estimated total compensation figure, but not the cost of benefits.) For retained staffing, some portion of the fee is always due when the search commences, but the final fee is often dependent on what salary the candidate accepts.

So if a search firm charges 30% of annual salary and places a new employee with a salary of $100k, their search fee will be $30k. But if that same candidate negotiates for a starting salary of $110k, or a salary of $100k with a sign-on bonus of $10k, the search fee would rise to $33k. Additionally, some firms charge back their expenses to the client, so the total fee can easily rise to 35% of total annual compensation.

Staffing Advisors is a retained search firm, but instead of tying our fee to the candidate compensation, we prefer to charge a simple flat fee (with no charge back for expenses). We set our fee in advance of the search based on the level of effort we anticipate, and our fees are typically 15% or less of total compensation. Like many retained search firms, Staffing Advisors handles executive searches in a wide variety of functional areas (not just Accounting, or IT, or HR - these specialty firms are more likely to use the contingent model). Most retained executive search firms offer a replacement guarantee of a full year if a placement does not work out for any reason (ours is 18 months).

Contingency Model

Contingency search firms do not guarantee to fill positions. But if they do, these executive search firms charge often between 20 and 25% of annual compensation. Contingency fees are usually due only after the candidate starts work, so if nobody is hired, no fee is due. Some contingency search firms are even willing to negotiate placement fees -- but keep in mind that by negotiating lower fees, it can sometimes result in a lower level of effort being spent on your search and a lower chance of filling it. Contingency based staffing firms tend to specialize in one functional area (like accounting). As for the replacement guarantee, contingency search firms typically offer replacement guarantees from 30 days up to six months if a placement does not work out.

Some firms take a hybrid approach of requiring some portion of the fee in advance, and making the remainder contingent upon the placement.

The key for you as the buyer is to understand which business model best suits your needs. Each model has it's benefits and downsides, so you should know ahead of time what exactly an executive search firm can really do for you. (For more insight into the differences between retained firms and contingency firms, read Contingency vs. Retained Search, Common Fallacies.)

Maybe you're not ready to hire a search firm. If you want to learn how to write job postings that attract great candidates, download our free Viewpoint document and learn more about:

  • What most job ads get wrong
  • What most job ads are missing
  • How your job ad can attract people for the right reasons
  • How to structure your job ad  
  • How to decide where to post your ad

The Senior Executive Guide to Job Search

Topics: Hiring Managers