There Is No Such Thing As “Overqualified”

Mark Fogel Audacious Ideas, Candidate Pool, Mark Fogel, Recruiting 28 Comments

I’m jaded and don’t subscribe to the overqualified candidate debate. To me it is binary—you’re qualified or you are not.

I am not sure when the term overqualified entered the Talent parlance. It may, by all accounts, be the must overused term in HR. More than “Engagement” or “Rigor” or “Agility”, and certainly near the historic “Seat at the Table” or half a dozen other terms and buzzwords bantered about by recruiters near and far.

When folks shop for clothes or appliances they look for value at a discount. Who wouldn’t want a Samsung big screen for 40% off or a great designer handbag for even more money off?

Would an NBA pro basketball coach turn down a player who could hit 50% of their 3-point shots consistently, giving them 15-20 quality minutes a night, for a minimum dollar value contract?

If you ran a medical practice, would you pass on a doctor who went to Harvard because their degree was from too good of a school?

But we regularly pass on individuals as they seem to have too much experience, or, as the saying goes, they are “Overqualified”.

So, I won’t bore you with the reasons folks use to defend their position. Or discuss ageism as part of this debate. I will just give you a couple of food for thought notions on hiring qualified folks who happen to have a lot of skills or experience, maybe more than the job spec.

First, they may excel at the job with minimal to no ramp up time.

Second, they may bring better ways of doing tasks or the work itself.

Third, they may be able to do more than expected.

I know I am keeping it simple, but you all can take it to another level by noting they can mentor less experienced (dare I say “under qualified”) folks and act on a slew of high value actions daily. Maybe productivity and capabilities of experienced workers is intimidating to some bosses?

And, of course, they can leave for more money or a bigger position down the road. So can your Elk that are less productive and not that valuable.

I would like the term removed from the daily parlance of recruitment. That is a bold and unrealistic request. However, I challenge all of you to at least think about it and maybe, just maybe, hire a “better qualified” candidate in the future. Now maybe that should be the new term of the week, “better qualified”.

Stranger things have happened!

Comments 28

  1. Hey Mark. I need to add a question to the ones you’ve already made…why people “overqualified” apply to jobs that are way beyond their experience? Maybe people apply to a simpler just because they got tired of responsibility? Or maybe they spent a long time looking for something else unsuccessfully and they need to work in ‘whatever’ job to pay the rent? Are HR considering these facts?

    1. Hi Laura…good points. Are you making assumptions here? Wouldn’t you be able to determine that when you interviewed them?

      Your questions seem to only reinforce Mark’s points. My two cents.

  2. Just had a client shy away from interviewing a candidate saying that they were overqualified. I mentioned it was rather ironic that I was just reading this article today and shared the link in an email.
    I mentioned to this client that we are currently finding it very profitable for our business to hire those overqualified candidates. The market is saturated right now with unemployed and under-employed candidates. We are helping companies out by sending them highly qualified candidates and, helping the candidates earn some income while building on their skill sets!

    1. Mike, timing is everything…so is the obvious….but how many of can see the tip of our nose unless we look in a mirror…thanks for sharing and helping to drive the point home…

      1. In my experience, recruiters are less likely to try to reduce the pool of applicants, than anyone in the hiring process. Recruiters are paid to fill jobs, so the easier you make filling the job, the happier they are. However, junior recruiters in particular, are not going to push back on hiring manager who gives them poor direction.

        What works is giving recruiters the authority to push back, when hiring managers reject someone for being overqualified. Or suggest that they screen “overqualified” candidates before presenting them, so they can deal with assumptions such as “she will get bored.” It’s important that they know that no job is “a minimum of 5-7 years.” It’s either five years or seven years. There is no cap as that is age discrimination which is illegal.

        None of this gets to a very common problem, a relatively young hiring manager too insecure to hire someone with more experience or just someone older than himself or herself.

  3. I still think there’s a place for the term, just not as a reason to eliminate someone from consideration. I’d much rather have the problem of over-qualified candidates applying than I would under-qualified, that much is certain.

    1. John that’s fair, but the main point is to not ignore the obviously qualified and I think we both have common ground on that! thanks for weighing in.

  4. I call bullshit. Cough cough!
    If I applied for the job, it is because I am interested in it, the company, or I want it. Who are you to judge if I am overqualified? Did you ever think that maybe I was already at the top, and I just might not want to go back to the top? I want to career transition into a new market, and I am never considered. I am definitely overqualified, and ageism is rampant. I was told to “dumb my resume down.” Screw that, I esrned my credentials and refuse to do that. I am that gem in the Nile.
    Truth is, that I saw the candidate that got the two dream jobs I spent 4 months and several interviews on.
    Both were one of the beautiful people, late twenties and zero experience.
    I am beautiful, 55, and am like a sponge for knowledge and have tons of valuable business experience.
    I fired the agencies that waisted my time, for over ten years, I tolerated Bullshit phones calls from recruiters. Now when they call I tell them, thank you, but I do not work with agencies, you waste my valuable time, you do not care about me or my career, and this is my life and I am taking ownership of my future.
    My career path is up to me.

    1. Lynn –

      OK, you sucked me in. Good comment. Other than firing recruiters from agency, what’s the plan?


    2. BOOM! Nicely said Lynn.

      I’ve got friends who are recruiters…I’ve got friends who are freight brokers. And I’m finding there is relatively very little difference between the two activities (If you know what a freight broker is/does). In short, neither of these activities “OWN” anything, (okay, some phones, a little technology and a ton of calls/emailing) but “SELL” anything they can get. The more they can fill up their middle man funnel, the more activity (and potential earnings) they can generate.

      Both will add things to sell (prospects or freight) into their funnel that “might” be sellable. Of course, they both lean towards the easier sells to generate those commissions. If a harder sell (enter the “overqualified” here) happens to go….great! But in the interim, they don’t put a whole lot of work into selling them/it and when it eventually doesn’t get sold (or moved by a truck) the broker or recruiter uses some reason for it. Recruiters may use the term “overqualified”. Anyhow, I love how you’ve taken control of your own life. Most shippers are learning to do the same thing (and yes, brokers are becoming fewer and fewer as shippers learn to take care of their own issues also).

      Good post.

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  6. Hey Mark,
    You have my buy in.
    Overqualified is a judgement call.
    Overqualified is used due to fear the candidate may be hired away for more money (what does this say about the hiring company?)
    Overqualified is used to avoid communicating with the hiring manager about candidates that may upset the status quo.
    Overqualified is a cop out. It indicates the organization isn’t truly interested in hiring skills, they are interested in hiring “widget’s”.

  7. Well said Mark.

    And I have found that the way to overcome the false premise that they “might become bored” and quit is to focus attention on them and wherever possible take advantage of their extra qualifications. We pay special attention to the underqualified by providing them with training, so why not do the same for the so-called overqualified that are much more likely to have a steep career trajectory if you treat them right.

    1. Dr. John not only hits the proverbial nail on the head, he also provides one way to calm the waters of fear that many less experience hiring managers have (and most do have less experience).

      The subliminal (and sometimes not so subtle) genuine fear many hiring managers have when considering a highly experienced (aka, OVERQUALIFIED) candidate is that fact that when/if they are hired, the light they shine may accentuate how dim the lights were/are of those already working in similar positions there. It’s real…and I’ve experienced during my career.

      There’s a virus of conflict in our working world. The adage of “surround yourself with the best” and “having teams that learn from each other” is mere “blah,blah,blah” at many companies…usually, larger ones. They have created an environment that has thin veil of belonging/being, that eventually cracks and leaks nothing of value.

  8. Man, this is generalizing a premise that needs to be hyper-personalized. There IS such a thing as overqualified. And overqualified candidates will waste your time and resources while they look for a “real” job. I’ve witnessed and experienced it time, after time, after time.

    The key is to get to “why.” “Why are you interested in this job?” If you had a super-stressful leadership gig and you now want a call center job that you NEVER take home with you? I can appreciate that. Or you went to grad school for marine biology and realized after two years in the field that examining whale droppings to track changes in their diet might not be the way you want to spend the rest of your life and you’re willing to start at the bottom in a different field? Yeah, I’d probably feel that way if I were you. If you sold your business and need the medical benefits offered by a large company, but no longer need the stress in your life that running your own shop can carry? That makes sense too.

    If you’re a recruiter and you send me an “overqualified” candidate without a believable and well-considered answer to that “why.” Well, you’re probably not a recruiter I’m working with for long. And here’s another thing… I’d rather hire someone who has 75% of the qualifications and a chip on their shoulder to prove they can do the job than someone who checks every box, but wants to be sure everyone within earshot knows that they’ve forgotten more about widget making than anyone else will ever know. So the recruiter better have a good story for why an overqualified candidate specifically wants the job I’m trying to fill in addition to why they’re willing to take less pay/status/responsibility than they held previously.

    So… recruiters. Don’t think I’m ageist (or any other kind of ‘ist’) when I tell you the physician you submitted to work on my production line is overqualified. I’m not knocking the candidate. I’m knocking you. You didn’t do your homework. Or, if you did, you didn’t share enough of what your learned about that physician to help me understand why she’s going to be both happy and productive as a widget assembler. Assume I’m going to have concerns, assuage them, and I’m going to really believe you’re adding value. Ignore them and don’t be surprised when I stop responding to your submittals.

  9. I’ve never understood why there is such a problem with “overqualified” candidates. I understand the concerns that hiring managers might have and the useful of addressing them preemptively, but like any other concern a hiring manager might have, why don’t they simply ask about it rather than making a ton of assumptions?

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  11. Hi Mark: As a recruitment manager, I agree completely. In my experience the term overqualified is used to avoid asking awkward questions such as “will you get bored with the work?” or “will you be willing to take ___salary.” Overqualified is sometimes used to justify age discrimination particularly when the hiring manager is significantly younger and less experienced than the candidate. I saw a lot of this in 2008, when people in their 50s could not get individual contributor positions in banks because they were “overqualified.”

    It’s not unusual for someone not used to reviewing CVs, to assume someone is more senior than he or she is based on job titles. A “Senior Vice President,” for a small company sometimes has less responsibility than a manager in a large company.

    As you say, it’s far better just to look for qualified candidates and ask all the things that might present problems. If you think someone will ask for too much money, ask them. If you think someone will be bored with a certain job, present them with the issue. What you hear is often a surprise.

  12. I completely agree with Scott; this can go either way in regards to the “overqualified” label, some people just want a get me by job, others really want to take a step down for a more relaxing calm environment. That said, there is a bigger problem that I think lead to individuals who feel threatened by knowledge, experience, and skills they lack. Good post! Hire the overqualified each day if they can tell you why they are interested in the position and give you a convincing answer, even if the job appears to be beneath their knowledge.

    Lynn, you hit the nail head on, it is absolutely ridiculous to discard someone with an “overqualified” label. I smell fear from the HM of losing their tower by someone who can probably do their job in a more competent way. Just ask the questions, don’t push someone to the side without hearing why the apply for the job in the first place.

  13. I don’t think the great NBA scorer would apply to join the farm team- or whatever the NBA calls it. What over-qualified means is applying for a job that you were qualified for 10 years earlier and your skills have surpassed. The comparison is apples and oranges. The concern is boredom, inability to accept your lower position/status. Those of us in executive search see this frequently and there is a good reason for the concern.

  14. I used to advise my hiring managers to hire overqualified candidates when their teams where too green and they needed the expertise and the mentorship of a more mature, experienced person. It worked!

    1. I have read most of the comments above, but I can’t say I read them all, so I apologize if someone already said something that I may say now. I am 63 years old and lost my job for years ago due to a merger. I have been trying for the last four years to find a job but unfortunately have been unable to do so. I was a very senior finance executive in a healthcare company. I have no problem excepting a lower level job and if applied for many only to be turned down time and again. I don’t feel the need to climb the ladder anymore, but I certainly would not be bored in any position I could take. I just want to work! I want to contribute! IH, I don’t think overqualified is the problem as much as my age is. I certainly won’t get bored as someone above has suggested. I really, really want to work, and for a long time. I just wish someone would give me that chance. But I never get to the interview position. Anyone out there want to take a chance on me?

  15. The mere fact that there are so many comments on this post suggests this is a real problem in the talent game. Overqualified is a cop out, unless you really know that the candidate is only taking the job until they can find something better. Let’s be honest: that’s typically the rationale for not hiring someone who is ‘overqualified’. If a recruiter or hiring manager really believes that hiring someone overqualified for the role means they are getting more for less, they pull the trigger every time. Recruiters and hiring managers don’t believe they are getting more for less (just like that big screen TV that’s 60% off – what’s wrong with it?) so they go with someone who is an “ideal fit” for the role instead.

  16. I got your point Laura. And I agree in some points, but let’s understand that companies are looking for people who want’s to work for a long time for them. Some applicants who are “overqualified for the job” might expect to much in the future, and the company might not sustain that expectation. They might think that they are too good for the job and might leave the company. Hiring the right person for the job is not easy.

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