Anyone who has spent any time looking for a job understands how depressing it is to be rejected by a potential employer. For overqualified job seekers, however, that rejection can seem even worse. If you’ve ever tried to explain that rationale to someone you’re not going to hire, you know even as you speak that it sounds like a cop-out
Think about it: by definition, “over-qualified” means a person has all the requirements for a position, AND you would be getting any number of additional skills and work experience for the same price. How is that not a bargain? Who wouldn’t jump at that?
Well, obviously YOU wouldn’t … and you’re not alone, according to an article published in the Wall Street Journal. It pointed out how hiring managers as a rule tended to gravitate toward rather less-impressive candidates over the ones who seemed to offer more a good deal more than the position actually required. Managers surveyed explained how they expect highly capable candidates to have a measurably lower commitment to both the position and to the organization, as opposed to less-capable but adequate candidates.
Is “overqualified” even something to worry about?
There’s an old adage that says if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. When it comes to hiring, managers often seem to adhere to the adage that if a prospect seems too good to be true, there has to be some kind of catch.
Based on this, it’s totally reasonable to doubt a candidate’s future commitment to your company: a highly capable candidate might care less about the mission and values of the organization—consequently investing less effort learning, sharing, and applying them—simply because those candidates have other options.
To put it another way, there is a fear-factor at work here: for lack of a more descriptive term, overly qualified applicants are considered a flight risk. The belief is that any person accepting a position below their qualification level would constantly and actively be trying to find a job more in-line with their abilities, at which point they would “jump ship.” Considering the cost of new hire acquisition and training, that’s the last thing you need.
The other side of that coin is suspicion: You can’t help but ask yourself WHY a would candidate be willing to take a “lesser” position? There are several obvious possibilities, and none of them look good:
- The candidate is lazy, and not interested in a challenging position, but is rather looking for a job with little effort and input required;
- The candidate lacks confidence in—or is unaware of—his or her true qualifications and capabilities … or worse, has presented false qualifications to land the job;
- The candidate is in desperate need of a job, and is willing to accept a lesser position just to gain employment … implying they would stay only until a better opportunity arose.
And then there is the “feminine complication”…
Any of those are reason to give a manager pause, but there is another possibility that applies particularly to women: somewhere back in our collective psyche, we still fear that while a woman may need a job, she’s looking for one below her skill grade because her first priority will always be her kids or family. This sounds noble in the abstract, but again, poses problems for you as an employer.
While CEOs are declaring that shareholder profits are no longer their top priority, and that policy emphasis is shifting to worker wellness … the fact remains that optimistic decisions made at the C-level don’t always play out on the showroom floor. Talk of adding flexible hours for parenting or even on-site daycare sounds good in the press release … but that is no guarantee the final product will actually be helpful or practical.
And while the higher-ups can bask in their political-correctness, as a manager, you’re more concerned with getting the job done. Consciously or otherwise, it DOES seem hard to fully trust a person who is claiming she will give you her all: under those circumstances, does “all” mean all she has to give? Or is it just all that the job requires?
For women, this could easily lead to thinking along the lines of “Why go for an advanced career, when having those qualifications may do me more harm than good?” Which in turn might explain why women are enrolling in and graduating from science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) doctoral programs in much smaller numbers than ever before … making the problem multi-layered and long-term.
Is overqualification a legitimate concern?
The large-scale answer here would seem to be more education, but we’re still talking about human nature: the last thing you, as the hirer, want is to be seen as making a poor decision that costs the company money (and cause you headaches).
You job is to be both open and honest in these situations. You and your organization can benefit from a mature, experienced candidate … IF this person’s intent and motivation is to contribute to a greater good in their current capacity. But part of that lies in your actions.
If a person is truly overqualified for the position, are you willing to listen to their input or seek their advice? Are you willing to let them intervene and help on problems outside their official job role if they can make a valuable contribution? If so, you could be getting a real bargain by hiring the individual; if not, it may be better for all to take a pass.