Retained Search Vs Contingency: What Is The Difference?

Two women discussing retained search vs contingency

If you’ve found this blog, you may already be looking into recruitment agencies for your IT vacancy. You might be wondering what the core differences between retained search and contingency search are, and what would work best for your business.

Am I right? Fantastic. Retained search vs contingency is a hot topic, with many businesses unsure which to choose.

As VIQU’s Head of Permanent, I have worked with a great number of businesses in my career. I have seen what both a retained and contingency search offers businesses and feel very comfortable in setting out the core differences and arguments for each.

With 10+ years of experience in the industry, let me guide you through the process of choosing which type of permanent recruitment will work for your business.

Retained search vs contingency

What is a retained search?

Essentially, a retained search is where you work exclusively with one recruiter/ recruitment agency to find the perfect candidate for your role. You may pay an upfront fee or pay in instalments. For example, an initial payment to start the search, a payment for candidates successfully going through to the interview stage, and a final payment once the candidate is onboarded. This initial payment and promise of exclusivity mean that recruiters like us can dedicate lots of time and resources to the process and finding you the best fit.

This process can be focused on just one hire, or you might opt for a retainer contract if you are undertaking a large number of roles. A retainer is a contract between a client (such as yourself) and a service provider (such as an IT recruitment agency like VIQU) where instead of focusing on individual recruitment processes, you contract us for a set time period to work on a certain number of hires you need. This contract can be ended, renewed, or changed based on your needs.

What is a contingency search?

A contingency search, on the other hand, is where you open the recruitment up and allow any number of recruiters to find candidates for you. It can be useful for junior or low-level roles, where you do not want to dedicate many resources to the process and want it to be completed as quickly as possible.

It is also possible to have an exclusive contingency search. This is where you offer the role to one agency for a fixed time period and if you’re not happy with the agency you move on to another after that time. This option ensures that only one agency will be focused on the role at a time and limits the risk of agencies fighting over candidates and inaccurately representing a role/business because speed and urgency are their only focuses. However, it certainly doesn’t have the number of benefits that a retained search can offer as there is no upfront payment to secure and fund the large amount of resources being used..

The process differences of retained search vs contingency

Whether you choose a retained search, or a contingency search depends on what you would like out of the recruitment process.

Businesses are attracted to the contingency method as you only have to pay fees at the end to the agency that makes the placement. But in reality, there are many negatives which means that it’s not something I’d recommend for any vacancy.

The recruitment process is more likely to be rushed as each agency tries to “get there first”, and because they are not guaranteed to be paid, they may also put in limited resources to find you the best talent. This is contrasted with a retained search, where an agency can dedicate time to doing the process properly. If you’re looking for an IT professional, you need to get the best candidate straight off the bat. You do not want to have to repeat the process if your new hire isn’t the right fit.

You are probably getting an idea of my preference when it comes to retained search vs contingency. However, it’s important to be thorough. So below I’ve set out the core benefits of retained search and contingency search, and how the majority of our clients like to operate.

Deep dive into retained search vs contingency

Retained search

With a retained search with a recruitment agency like VIQU, you are able to:

  • Build a much closer working relationship. The current labour market is tight, with 94% of employers reportedly facing hiring challenges due to a lack of tech talent last year. Working exclusively means we can meet with you personally and become an extension of your talent team. As your brand ambassador, we will be able to sell your businesses to candidates in a much more effective way.
  • Improve your current recruitment process. We can build a process that works well for you, ensuring you secure the candidates you need by creating a bespoke recruitment campaign. Around 7 in 10 candidates drop out of a recruitment process because it is too long or complex. We can make sure you do not lose out on quality candidates by optimising the process.
  • Increase candidate experience. One of the real drawbacks of a contingency search is the lack of candidate experience. In certain niche IT job roles, in particular, where the candidate pool is small, each professional will likely be bombarded with calls from multiple agencies which may start a candidate ownership battle. All of this is likely to put candidates off and reduce interest in your company.
  • Include extra services. Working as a retained search, we can offer services such as mapping out the market, salary surveys, market, and competitor EVP analysis.

Contingency search

In contrast, with a contingency search, you have:

  • Little/ no initial fee. As you’re not contracting a recruitment agency on a retained basis there are no upfront costs. However, this doesn’t tend to work out as a cheaper alternative to retained search, as you will still need to pay the recruitment team when they place a candidate.
  • Multiple agencies working on your role. I have heard the term “more eyes the better” but I honestly do not think this gives a real advantage to your company. It tends to water down your message and ends up with you having to work harder as you brief multiple recruiters individually about the role and how you feel about each candidate. It’s not giving your role the best shot.
  • Option for exclusivity without a retained search. This can work as a medium between the two, affording the agency security to dedicate time and resources to your role requirement. However, without the upfront fee and promise of long term exclusivity, the agency still won’t be able to offer the number of benefits that a retained search can provide.

Our experience of companies moving from a contingency search to a retained search

If you’re currently working with a recruitment agency through a contingency search model, do not worry yourself over whether you have committed yourself to the wrong type of permanent recruitment. You can always change your mind and switch to retained search.

One of our biggest clients started off on a contingency search basis. However, the drawbacks soon became apparent, so through our hard work and dedication, we were able to convince them that moving to a retainer basis would be best for their recruitment strategy.


If you need any help in navigating the retained search vs contingency debate and seeing which would suit you the best, contact us for bespoke advice and support.

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