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I’ve seen the expression being used quite a lot in non-English speaking countries by recruiters themselves and I find it a bit odd. Have they chosen the wrong way to be cool?

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I don't believe it has a derogatory connotation. It's used as a slang in English speaking countries, so the term would have spread from there. –  rudeovski ze bear Aug 30 '11 at 0:29
    
@rudeovski I'm not the only one: community.ere.net/blogs/recruiting-is-more-fun-than-you-think/… –  Dan Aug 30 '11 at 0:37
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The source contradicts your assertion that recruiters call themselves headhunters. But it is wrong because some certainly do, and they would be unlikely to describe themselves with a derogatory term. –  z7sg Ѫ Aug 30 '11 at 1:27
    
For the etymology, see: english.stackexchange.com/questions/87846/… –  Hugo Oct 23 '12 at 17:09
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2 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

For a job recruiter, the term 'headhunter' is only slightly derogatory. One might consider using it to the person's face but it might feel a bit strange by connection with the other original meaning. A recruiter is probably very aware of this term and has probably been inured to it through over-use. The dictionary will not say it it is derogatory because it is not taboo enough, but it does have a slight connotation of negativity ('garbage man' is not derogatory but other terms like 'refuse collector' or 'waste management personnel' might be favored.

Disclaimer: I have no data or reference to support this answer other than inner reflection. I'm not sure exactly how to support such claims of nuance other than by bald statement.

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+1 Agreed. The term is slightly derogatory. People who do this for a living will have gotten over taking offense. I'm sure if you looked at their LinkedIn profiles, however, they would describe themselves as "recruiters" not "headhunters". –  Joel Brown Dec 28 '11 at 15:17
    
i think the term is only derogatory to the extent that the profession is - like calling someone an estate agent (realtor). The derogatory term, at least in software, is pimp –  mgb Jul 30 '12 at 0:23
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It's certainly not derogatory towards the people whose heads are being hunted. In the usual modern sense of the word, headhunters are typically executive search firms that recruit skilled professionals for jobs that usually offer competitive or superior pay and benefits. The analogy with primitive hunters who collect human heads as trophies is, when separated from the significant disadvantages of actually being killed and decapitated, rather flattering for the quarry: to be headhunted is to have a head worth hunting, after all.

The earliest citation in the OED is from a 1961 issue of Fortune magazine: "McCulloch had no compunction about using these executive recruiting firms. They were, he knew, often derisively called ‘body snatchers’, ‘head hunters’, ‘flesh peddlers’, and ‘pirates’." I wish there were more context, but my guess would be that these were considered terms of derision by employers who didn't appreciate having their best employees poached away from them, rather than by the firms' customers or the candidates they recruited.

It's worth noting that the OED definition itself ("orig. U.S., an employment agent or agency specializing in the recruitment of managers and other skilled personnel by identifying and approaching preferred candidates; one who recruits using these methods") doesn't say anything about it being considered a derogatory term today.

edit: You reference this link, which makes the analogy with real estate agents who prefer to be called realtors or real estate salespeople. I don't think that's the best analogy ("Realtors" is a trademark of the National Association of Realtors, and nonmembers aren't supposed to use it), but we might also consider an individual who wishes to be called a sanitation engineer, but whom everyone else would simply call a garbage collector. In all three cases, the situation involves the subjects preferring an overtly positive term over a term that most disinterested observers would probably consider neutral at worst. I would differentiate between that and a term that is actually derogatory, though some may disagree.

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I am asking about hunters, not hunted… –  Dan Aug 30 '11 at 0:49
    
@Dan - I think the principle is the same: if "headhunter" is offensive, the people who would be entitled to take offense would be the hunted, and I don't believe they do. There may be some recruiters who dislike the term themselves, but they would seem to be in the minority. –  phenry Aug 30 '11 at 1:03
    
re edit: that's a subtle distinction, it does seem that the members of the group feel themselves unease by the term. –  Dan Aug 30 '11 at 1:43
    
The people who take offense are not those being recruited, they are the people from whom the recruits are being taken. Thus the term is one used by companies who lose valuable staff to competitors not by employees looking for a better job in a different organization. –  Joel Brown Dec 28 '11 at 15:19
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