What does “overqualified for the job” really mean?

“I’m sorry. We believe you’re overqualified for this job. We decided to go with someone else.”

Getting this news can be confusing, as well as discouraging, to a candidate. On the surface, it’s simple: an applicant with a graduate degree and 25 years’ experience at the executive level applying for an entry-level job doesn’t seem like a logical choice to an employer.

There are some quirky and counterintuitive reasons managers decide candidates are overqualified — reasons that can sometimes be overcome with forethought and skillful communication. - overqualified for job

Yet “overqualified” often carries more nuance. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, “The ‘Overqualified’ Trap Can Hit You at Any Time,” Sue Shellenbarger writes, “New research lends insight into some of the quirky and often counterintuitive reasons managers decide somebody is just too good for the job — reasons applicants can sometimes overcome with forethought and skillful communication.”

On the HR side, there are ways to explore more fully how experienced candidates might add value, rather than automatically filtering them out.

5 fears behind “overqualified for the job” and how to disarm them

Let’s unpack five common apprehensions and assumptions behind the overqualified label, with suggestions for both candidates and employers to overcome each one.

The candidate will be too expensive.

Management often assumes, with reason, that a person who takes a lower paying job will leave when a better opportunity comes along. But some experienced professionals are willing to take a pay cut in exchange for less pressure or a change in direction.

  • Candidates: Tell a clear story about why you seek this job, acknowledging your thoughts about accepting the salary offered. If the job listing includes a salary range, don’t assume you can negotiate higher than its top limit.
  • Employers: Offer learning opportunities as an additional incentive for applicants changing their career path.

The candidate will be bored.

“When an employee feels or is actually overqualified for a position, they tend to be complacent, bored, and approach the job on auto-pilot,” says Dave Fechtman of Velocity Advisory Group, as quoted in this Forbes article on hiring an overqualified applicant.

  • Candidates: Be honest with yourself about how much stimulation you need to function optimally. Be prepared to tell a compelling story about your motivations and “line up references who will vouch for your commitment,” says Shellenbarger.
  • Employers: “If you have an overqualified employee, look for ways to engage them differently.” Fechtman advises. “Consider having them mentor others, create new processes, or other value-added contributions.”

The candidate will resist taking direction.

Will an experienced person find it difficult to be led by someone with less skill? The resulting dysfunction could be costly.

  • Candidates: Examine your resume and interviewing tone. You have reason to be proud of the leadership you have demonstrated in past settings, but in this situation, tailor your resume to highlight teamwork and details of accomplishments rather than high-level strategy you spearheaded.
  • Employers: Include interview questions such as “How do you respond to constructive criticism?” Also, create ways to tap into the experience brought by this applicant with opportunities to mentor, while encouraging managers to be open to suggestions for improvement. “If [applicants] say they can suggest things based on their experience but are certainly willing to follow company procedures, you have the best of both worlds,” according to business management expert F. John Reh.

The candidate is too old.

“Labeling a candidate as overqualified is often a pretext for age discrimination,” writes Shellenbarger. It’s illegal, yet unfortunately it still happens.

  • Candidates: Highlight ways you keep current on technology and industry trends. Don’t just mention the soft skills you’ve honed from experience; demonstrate them in every interaction you have in the hiring process.
  • Employers: Guard against allowing the applicant’s age to influence hiring decisions. Consider the value of the interpersonal and communication skills that experienced, mature individuals bring. Create a culture of cross-mentoring between employees of different generations.

The candidate is a threat to the manager.

An insecure manager might fear the comparison with a more highly skilled direct report. “Good managers, however, welcome overqualified workers. They know that in order to get promoted, they have to have someone ready to take over their job,” writes Reh. They also understand “that to get promoted, their team must produce beyond expectations.”

  • Candidates: If this turns out to be the reason you were deemed “overqualified,” consider yourself fortunate to be spared a negative work experience.
  • Employers: Train managers to be generous leaders. Create a talent management model that creates a pipeline of leadership development.

It’s unfortunate when candidates who appear overqualified for the job get rejected without a chance to address concerns and show their strengths. Applicants can help themselves by communicating clearly and appropriately. Hiring professionals can make wise decisions by asking questions rather than making assumptions.

The Bradsby Group specializes in matching talented candidates to the exacting qualifications required by leading companies in their industries. When we help organizations meet their recruiting goals by helping candidates meet their career goals, everyone wins. Contact us today and let’s get started.

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