Recruiting the right candidate for a crucial role within your organization can be a challenging task. Many companies turn to retained searches as a popular method to find top-tier talent. Retained firms put a lot of emphasis into marketing materials and a slick sales pitch. A retained firm may seem like the safe move. However, it is important to consider the potential drawbacks of this approach. Relying on a retained search firm may not always be the best choice and how other recruiting options, such as using a specialized contingent recruiter, can often yield more efficient and successful outcomes.

Specialized Recruiters: A Deeper Understanding of Disciplines and Locations

When seeking the best candidate for a specific role, a recruiter with specialized knowledge in that discipline and location can provide a significant advantage. Specialized recruiters possess in-depth industry insights, an extensive network, and a keen understanding of the talent landscape. Their expertise allows them to identify suitable candidates quickly, as they may already be acquainted with potential candidates through previous searches or industry connections. This familiarity saves time and increases the likelihood of finding the ideal candidate faster than a retained search.

Swift Results and Motivated Competition

One key disadvantage of retained searches is their tendency to drag out over time. Once a firm has been retained and their fee is secured, there can be little incentive for them to put forth maximum effort in the search process. This lack of urgency can result in prolonged search timelines, delaying the identification and placement of a qualified candidate.

In contrast, contingent recruiters operate under a different model. Contingent searches are driven by competition, as multiple recruiters may be vying to fill the same role. This competition fuels motivation and encourages recruiters to work efficiently, striving to be the first to present a suitable candidate. The sense of urgency generated by the contingent model often leads to faster results and more successful placements.

Cost Considerations and Potential Dual Fees

Another aspect to ponder when considering a retained search is the financial implications. Retained searches typically involve an upfront fee that is paid regardless of whether a suitable candidate is found. This fee structure can create a potential disincentive for the search firm to devote extensive resources or expend extra effort in locating the right candidate.

Additionally, if a retained search fails to produce satisfactory results, the company may be forced to engage a contingent recruiter to fill the role. This scenario leads to the additional cost of paying two fees—the initial fee to the retained search firm and the subsequent fee to the contingent recruiter. Thus, a company may end up investing more money without receiving commensurate value.


Retained searches have their place in certain scenarios. If the search is extremely niche and there are no specialists willing to take on the engagement, it may be worth exploring a retained firm. But it is essential to be aware of their potential limitations. Depending solely on a retained search may result in extended search timelines, reduced motivation from the search firm, and the possibility of incurring dual fees if the search is unsuccessful. Specialized recruiters with a deep understanding of specific disciplines and locations, along with contingent searches driven by competition, often prove to be more effective alternatives.

To optimize the chances of finding the best candidate quickly, companies should consider a multi-faceted approach to recruiting, leveraging specialized recruiters and engaging contingent searches when appropriate. By doing so, organizations can increase the likelihood of securing top talent efficiently.