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.
Even in Washington’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 who pays (the employer always pays), when the fee is due (it depends on the search firm), how much the fee will be (it depends on the search firm), what services are delivered (it depends on the search firm) and what replacement guarantee is in place if the placement does not work out (it depend on the search firm).
Let’s start with fees. Search fees vary widely depending on the business model the firm uses.
Retained executive search firms typically charge 25 – 33% of the estimated total annual compensation a candidate is expected to receive in their first year in the position. (Many search firms include first year commissions and bonuses in the estimated total compensation figure, but not the cost of benefits.) 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 someone earning $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% of less of total compensation. Like many retained search firms, Staffing Advisors handles executive searches in a wide variety of functional areas (and not just Accounting, or IT, or HR). Consistent with most retained search firms, we offer a replacement guarantee of a full year if a placement does not work out for any reason.
Contingency search firms do not guarantee to fill positions, but if they do, their fees are 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 negotiating lower fees can sometimes result in a lower level of effort being spent on your search and a lower chance of filling it. Contingency based firms tend to specialize in one functional area (like accounting). If a placement does not work out, contingency search firms typically offer replacement guarantees from 30 days up to six months.
Some firms take a hybrid approach of requiring some portion of the fee in advance, and making the remainder contingent upon the placement. They key for you as the buyer is to understand which business model best suits your needs. For more insight into the differences between retained firms and contingency firms, read Contingency vs. Retained Search, Common Fallacies.