A retained search firm is a professional recruiting agency that enters into a contract with a company seeking to fill mid- to high-level executive positions. These search firms require a fee, or retainer, for their services.
Where retained search firms differ from their industry counterparts, delimited search firms, is in the nature of the contract for their services. Delimited search firms operate within specified timeframes. Retained search firms operate under open-ended timetables.
The risk involved for companies working with recruiters in retained search firms is that they're given no guarantee of being provided with qualified personnel, and the fee is not refundable if the retained firm fails in its efforts. For this reason, companies base their decision to use retained search firms on the desire to find qualified individuals without regard to how long the process may take. Companies use retained search firms for their long-term aims, as opposed to their short-term needs.