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3 min read

Mystery of the First U.S. Headhunter: A Surprising Answer!

Last Friday, we mused about the origins of the first U.S. headhunter. Our premise?

Everyone knows that employment agencies as an industry really started sometime after World War 2, but that in the early days, agencies were very different than today: fees were actually paid by candidates.

We went on to write that most people agree that recruitment agencies started to emerge in the 1970’s. During this period, fees began to shift to the employer. Direct hire agencies, or those that get paid only if their candidate is hired, started to develop as a force around the same time. Our big, bold question was, “Does anyone know who the first U.S. headhunter (direct hire agency) actually was?”

We got a lot of incredible and interesting responses. Perhaps surprising is a better word. Surprising in some ways that were…well, uh surprising. Here’s what we mean.

The Responses – Who Was the First U.S. Headhunter?

The biggest surprise? How young this industry really is. The majority of comments we got expressed shock that direct hire agencies were such a recent development. Many people feel that whatever happened in the 1970s is ancient history, and our “stories from old timers” were mostly from people who started recruiting in the 90s.

Although none of these comments directly answer the question, “who was the first U.S. headhunter?”; we thought they surely painted the picture of how agency recruiting has changed in just the past few years.

The best response…

funny cartoon about the first U.S. headhunter Although we got mostly serious answers, we also got a few jokes…

What Betsi had to say,

“I started recruiting 30 years ago, and a 20% contingent fee has always been the norm. However, the process is very different from what it was. Email didn’t exist.

There was no easy way to get resumes to employers quickly, so we’d simply describe candidates over the phone to get an interview, then send the candidates with resume in hand.”

Craig’s response was this,

“I started in 2000, when email was big, but technologies like ATS’s didn’t yet exist. We found candidates by looking up names in paper industry directories and making call after call.

The game was much less regulated then: a real free for all. You just had to expect that someone would steal your job order and candidates relatively often.”

Interestingly, by the time Betsi got intoto the business (right around 1984), the concept of a 20% employer paid contingent fee was already well established. Thus far, however, no luck at finding our Waldo. In addition to Betsi and Craig, we had a slew of people say they “had heard” that it was Robert Half.

A number of our own BountyJobs team – many of whom are recruiters – had thought the same thing. Some of the responses from our marketplace:

“I started my recruiting career at Robert Half International (“RHI”), and I could have sworn that I was explicitly told by RHI that they were the first agency.”

“The first agency to do it on any scale was Robert Half. I’m not sure when they started but I’m thinking sometime in the 1950’s?”

“I worked at Robert Half before starting my own agency. It’s gotta be Robert Half. Dude was way old. I think he was the name before a company bought him out…”

Another veteran headhunter, Arthur Pann had this to say on LinkedIn,

“Back in the 1980’s as President of the Institute Of Management Accountants Westchester/Gateway as I placed accountants as a Head Hunter I had the honor of twice introducing Robert Half to speak to our group.

Mr. Half was the most sharing, non pretentious person I had ever met in the recruiting industry. If I am not mistaken Robert Half started his business back in the late 1940’s.

He was truly a pioneer in the recruiting industry. So my vote would be Mr. Robert Half a visionary and a gentle man.”

Guess what? It actually could be Robert Half. A great firm with a storied history. Their website mentions that they “pioneered the concept of professional staffing services” in 1948, and an obituary of the man himself, mentions that the firm he founded along with his wife in New York, “was one of the first agencies to offer specialized services.”

The problem? No actual evidence backing up the story, and no actual evidence of what we’re really looking for: the first U.S. headhunter. Which is the first agency to make employer paid, contingent fees, a major part of their model?

So, all that in other words – we’re still looking. Have a story about it?Have a guess about who really was the first U.S. headhunter? Let us know!


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