April 10, 2024

Retained vs Contingency Recruitment: Know the Key Differences

Table of Contents

As an HR manager, ensuring that your recruitment efforts are both effective and efficient is paramount. Choosing between retained and contingency recruitment can significantly impact your hiring success. Each strategy has its unique benefits and challenges, depending on the job role and urgency. Here is a detailed look at both approaches to help you decide the best option for your recruitment needs.

Retained Recruitment

What is Retained Recruitment?

Retained recruitment involves hiring a recruitment agency exclusively to fill a specific position. Typically used for high-level or specialized roles, this model requires an upfront fee to secure the agency's dedicated services.

Pros of Retained Recruitment:

- Dedicated Focus: Since the agency is paid upfront, they are committed to filling your vacancy with a high-quality candidate.

- Thorough Vetting: Agencies conduct extensive searches and vet candidates rigorously, ensuring a good fit.

- Confidentiality: Ideal for sensitive roles, as the search is discreet and only shared with relevant parties.

Cons of Retained Recruitment:

- Higher Cost: This approach generally costs more due to the comprehensive service provided.

- Time-Consuming: The process can be longer as the search is thorough and candidates are meticulously vetted.

Contingency Recruitment

What is Contingency Recruitment?

In contingency recruitment, the agency only earns a fee if they successfully fill the position. This no-win-no-fee model is popular for mid-level or less specialized roles and is often characterized by a fast-paced search.

Pros of Contingency Recruitment:

- Cost-Effective: No upfront fees are required, and payment is only due upon successful placement.

- Speed: Agencies are motivated to fill roles quickly to secure their fee.

- Wide Candidate Pool: Recruiters typically have a broad network, increasing the chances of finding suitable candidates.

Cons of Contingency Recruitment:

- Less Commitment: Multiple agencies might be working on your vacancy, leading to less focus.

- Quality of Hire: The rush to fill the position might compromise the thoroughness of the candidate vetting process.

Choosing the Right Model

When to Use Retained Recruitment:

- For senior, executive, or highly specialized roles

- When you require a discreet search

- When the focus is on quality over speed

When to Use Contingency Recruitment:

- For roles that need to be filled urgently

- When hiring for more generalist positions

- When budget constraints are tighter

Understanding these key differences will enable you to tailor your recruitment strategy effectively. Depending on the specific needs of the role and your organizational priorities, you can choose the model that aligns best with your goals. This strategic decision making will optimize your recruitment process, saving time and resources while attracting top talent.

Understanding the Core Distinctions Between Retained and Contingency Recruitment

As an HR manager, it's crucial to understand the fundamental differences between retained and contingency recruitment to determine which method aligns best with your hiring needs.

Business Model and Focus

Contingency Recruitment:

Contingency recruiters operate on a no-win, no-fee basis. They work with multiple clients and attempt to fill various positions, earning their fee only when a candidate is successfully placed. This model results in a broad focus, as recruiters juggle several vacancies across different companies.

Retained Recruitment:

Conversely, retained recruiters maintain an exclusive, close-knit relationship with your company. They are typically hired for specialized, high-level roles, and are paid an upfront retainer to conduct a dedicated search. This fee is not contingent on a successful hire, granting them the freedom to thoroughly scout for the best fit without immediate pressure.

Pace and Involvement

Contingency Recruitment:

This model is designed for speed. Since contingency recruiters are compensated upon filling the role, they work quickly to present candidates. However, this can sometimes mean less thorough vetting and a batch of candidates who may not fully align with the company’s culture or long-term needs.

Retained Recruitment:

Retained recruitment is more methodical and involved. These recruiters invest time to understand your company’s culture, needs, and expectations. This tailored approach not only enhances the quality of candidates but also ensures that proposed individuals align more closely with strategic goals and company values.

Candidate Quality and Engagement

Contingency Recruitment:

While effective for widespread search, contingency recruiters might not always access top-tier candidates, especially those who are not actively seeking new opportunities.

Retained Recruitment:

Retained recruiters are known for their ability to engage high-caliber candidates, including those who are not actively looking but may be open to the right opportunity. They are perceived as more prestigious and trusted by such candidates, offering a more discreet and personalized service.

Cost Considerations

Contingency Recruitment:

There are minimal upfront costs with contingency recruitment; fees are only paid once a candidate is successfully placed. However, the overall cost can be significant, often based on a percentage of the candidate’s first-year salary.

Retained Recruitment:

While more expensive upfront due to the retainer fee, this model can be more cost-effective over the long term, especially when filling senior-level positions where fit and retention rates are critical.

Building Relationships

Retained Recruitment:

Working with a retained recruiter likely initiates a strategic partnership, cultivating a deep understanding of your company that can enhance future hiring efficiency and effectiveness.

Contingency Recruitment:

While effective for filling positions quickly, relationships are generally more transactional and less personalized.

Deciding between contingency and retained recruitment hinges on your specific needs. For quick hires where immediate filling is critical, contingency recruitment may suffice. However, for roles that demand a high degree of fit and specialization, or for establishing a long-term recruitment partnership, retained recruitment is often the superior choice. Each model has its benefits, but the ultimate decision will depend on your strategic hiring objectives.

Analyzing the Pros and Cons of Contingency vs Retained Recruitment for HR Managers

Pros of the Contingency Recruitment Model:

Flexibility and Variety:

The contingency model allows HR managers to work with multiple recruitment agencies simultaneously. This broadens the scope of candidate searches without incurring upfront costs, making it ideal for filling multiple roles quickly or for less critical positions.


Payments are due only when a candidate is successfully placed, minimizing financial risk. This model can be particularly attractive for companies looking to fill positions on a tight budget.

High Motivation for Recruiters:

Since payment is contingent upon placement, recruiters are highly motivated to present suitable candidates swiftly, accelerating the recruitment process.

Cons of the Contingency Recruitment Model:

Potential Quality Trade-off:

Due to the fast-paced nature of contingency recruitment, there's a risk that the candidates presented may not always perfectly align with the company’s long-term goals or culture, as recruiters are motivated to fill the position quickly.


Recruiters may be working with multiple clients and present the same candidates to several companies, which can reduce the sense of personalized service and attention to your specific needs.

Operational Risks:

There's a possibility of encountering issues like candidates being presented to other companies concurrently, which can lead to missed opportunities if a desirable candidate is placed elsewhere.

Pros of the Retained Recruitment Model:

Dedicated Service:

In retained recruitment, HR managers receive more personalized and focused search efforts. The recruiter dedicates time and resources solely to your vacancies, leading to a deeper understanding of your business and potentially higher-quality placements.

Strategic Alignment:

Retained recruiters typically invest substantial time in understanding the company’s culture and strategic objectives, which can lead to better-aligned candidate recommendations, particularly for senior or specialized roles.

Predictable Costs and Partnerships:

Although initially more costly due to the retainer, this model fosters long-term partnerships and can offer more predictable budgeting compared to the variable costs of contingency recruitment.

Cons of the Retained Recruitment Model:

Higher Initial Cost:

Upfront fees can be substantial, which might be a barrier for smaller companies or those with limited recruitment budgets.

Less Flexibility:

Committing to a single search firm may limit exposure to a wider candidate pool that might be accessed through multiple contingency recruiters.

Potential for Complacency:

There's a risk that the sense of security provided by a retainer could lead to less urgency compared to the high-stakes environment of contingency recruitment.

For HR managers, the decision between retained and contingency recruitment should align with the company's hiring needs, strategic priorities, and budget constraints. Each model offers distinct advantages and entails different challenges, making it crucial to carefully consider the specific requirements of each role and the overall business objectives before choosing a recruitment strategy. Whether you seek rapid hiring for growth or are aiming to strategically build a robust leadership team, understanding these models can significantly influence your recruitment success.

Understanding the Cost Structure of Contingency and Retained Recruitment Models

Contingency Recruitment Costs

In the contingency recruitment model, HR managers do not face any upfront costs when engaging with recruiters. The payment structure is purely success-based, meaning recruiters receive a fee only when a candidate is successfully placed. This fee generally ranges from 15% to 25% of the candidate's first-year salary.

For example, if a candidate is placed with a starting salary of $100,000 and the recruiter's fee is 20%, the cost to the company would be $20,000. This fee structure incentivizes recruiters to fill positions quickly but can become significant if the salary levels of the roles being filled are high.

Retained Recruitment Costs

In contrast, retained recruitment involves an upfront retainer fee, which is typically structured in thirds. The first part is paid at the beginning of the search, the second is paid upon reaching certain milestones (e.g., presentation of a shortlist of candidates), and the final payment is made when a candidate is successfully placed.

The overall fee for retained recruitment often amounts to about 25% to 35% of the candidate's anticipated first-year compensation, which is generally higher than the contingency model. This includes the retainer fee and any additional costs incurred during the recruitment process. For a role with a first-year salary expectation of $100,000, using a 30% fee model, the company would expect to pay up to $30,000, distributed across the recruitment timeline.

Considerations for Budget Planning

Volume of Hires:

For companies expecting to make multiple hires within a short timeframe, the contingency model may be more cost-effective, especially if the roles have moderate salary levels. However, the cost can accumulate if many high-salary positions are filled this way.

Specialization of Roles:

For specialized or high-level positions, where a wrong hire can be costly in terms of both financial impact and productivity loss, the retained model, despite its higher initial cost, may be more economical in the long run.

Cash Flow Impact:

Retained searches require upfront investment before a candidate is successfully placed, which can impact cash flow, particularly for smaller businesses or startups. The contingency model allows for payment after the fact, aligning costs directly with successful placements.

Ultimately, the choice between contingency and retained recruitment models can significantly impact your company's recruitment budget. While the contingency model offers a pay-for-performance approach that might initially appear less risky from a financial perspective, the retained model's structured approach can provide more predictable costs and potentially higher-quality hires for crucial roles. Each model's cost implications should be evaluated in the context of the specific hiring needs, financial flexibility, and strategic goals of the organization.


As an HR manager, understanding the strengths and limitations of different recruitment models is crucial in choosing the right approach for your organization. While both retained and contingency recruitment have their place, selecting between them depends on your specific hiring needs and organizational goals.

Contingency Recruitment offers a quick solution, making it ideal for filling roles swiftly and potentially large volumes of openings. This model is generally favored for its flexibility and pay-for-performance structure, which can lead to substantial short-term benefits. However, it may not provide the same level of commitment to each role, leading to less stability in your recruitment process.

Retained Recruitment, on the other hand, involves a deeper engagement between your company and the recruitment firm. This model is marked by a structured search process, offering a consistent income flow and fostering strong, ongoing client relationships. It demands a higher initial investment and carries a greater risk should the search not result in a hire, but it typically results in more thoughtful candidate placements and can better meet specialized or executive-level hiring needs.

To effectively leverage these recruitment strategies, it's essential to implement clear processes for measuring success and to find a balance that aligns with your long-term hiring objectives. By carefully weighing the pros and cons of each model, you can enhance your recruitment efforts and drive meaningful outcomes for your organization.

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