Contingent or Retained Search – Which Is Right for You?

Contingent or Retained Search – Which Is Right for You?


Where to begin…you have an open position. And you have decided to use a search firm to fill it. Finding, screening, and securing top talent is no simple undertaking. Your next important step is to choose which type of search best fits your needs -- retained or contingency. A contract between a search firm and client falls into one of two categories: a contingent search agreement or a retained search agreement. So what factors should you take into consideration when deciding upon the appropriate search? Both can yield successful results in securing the right candidate. Here we discuss each method and break down some points to take into account.


Contingent vs. Retained – What’s the Difference?

With both contingent and retained searches, the person is being hired into a permanent position in the company (as opposed to a temporary position). A contingent search involves no upfront costs and you pay the search firm only if you hire one of their candidates and he or she remains with your company for an agreed-upon amount of time. Another piece to a contingent search is that you can hire one or multiple search firms on a contingency basis to fill the role.

A retained search is when you enter into an exclusive arrangement with one firm. Retained searches are a higher-end service that involves more dedicated time and extensive expertise in your industry. In general, there are three separate payments made to the firm over the course of the agreement: the first when the search is initiated, a second on a predetermined date, and the final upon the placement of the candidate.


What to Consider Based on the Position You’re Looking to Fill

First, consider what the LEVEL of the position is – depending on the size of your organization, contingency is normally used for staff-level positions and some lower-level management roles. A retained search is typically favored for middle-to-senior-level positions.

How vital is the position being filled? Consider how crucial the role is and your level of flexibility with regard to your requirements for the position. You may feel confident that you will find that right fit through the process of reviewing as many candidate profiles as it takes. Or perhaps you would find the dedicated research and insight of a retained search more appealing as it can give you the opportunity to better hone in on the qualities of a prospective addition to your company.  

Contingent searches may involve more cost savings in the short term however, more time may be spent sifting through the additional resumes and communicating with multiple agencies. The more critical the position, the more you should gravitate toward a retained search. The service level devoted to retained searches and the access retained search firms have to large databases of highly qualified candidates greatly increases your chances of finding the best possible leader for your company.

What is the TYPE of position you’re looking to fill? The contingency route works well for roles within the mainstream of what a firm covers. For example, if a firm focuses on finance and you’re looking for a financial analyst, a contingency arrangement is a good option for success. For optimal success with a more specialized role within your organization, consider engaging with a specialized boutique firm.


All in all, both retained and contingent searches have their pros and cons. Neither one is necessarily easier, but a matter of preference based on how your organization is positioned and many other factors such as your company’s size, industry, culture and the type of role you’re wanting to fill. If you haven’t already researched recruiting firms to engage in your search, one who is reputable, spends the time to understand your needs and helps you select the best option will ultimately grant you the confidence that you truly found the top talent for your organization.