Overqualified Need Not Apply

Ask for an inch, and you get a yard! Ask for a staff accountant, and you’re buried in resumes from those who were a controller. Ask for an IT help-desk associate, and receive resumes from the directors of IT. We just aren’t used to having so many overqualified talented people to pick from.

During one recession I remember being young, working in retail, and thinking: “everyone in retail has to have a four-year or master’s degree, for that is what my co-workers all had.”

I didn’t know back then that I was in the middle of a recession, one that pales in comparison to today. People now faced with transition are diligently looking for the right fit, but are also considering applying for positions which they are overqualified for, and, then they are surprised, they are not getting them.

Overqualified workers will be quickly bored, frustrated and discouraged, and the moral in the office may suffer.

One hiring manager said the best time to hire overqualified is when a company is faced with rapid growth, needing to promote quickly without much runway. Having a strong bench with “A” players will position the right talent in key roles, easing the growing pains. This is not the time most companies are feeling that growth.

Some managers are tempted to create that strong bench even without that growth. They want accounting departments full of controllers instead of accounting clerks, or an engineering department full of senior-level designers.

Soon after hiring a clearly overqualified candidate, the manager sees the pitfalls.

One employee who used to be a SVP of finance accepted a controller’s position found that he quickly felt underused. Also, he was using systems that needed to be upgraded and felt very frustrated when his recommendations were ignored. Each day his frustration grew and his respect for his boss and the systems diminished. The manager wondered how he ever had an SVP-level position after seeing the attitude he displayed. This is a classic example of the right person in the wrong position. The controller was set up for failure.

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A sales position was filled with a candidate who once was an industry expert, and a very successful sales manager who won outstanding performance awards. Selling is selling; she thought and felt she could quickly move up based on her prior track record. Once she joined the sales force she found that she really didn’t fit in. Placed on a team made up of mostly entry-level people she had no one to identify with, and felt like an outcast. Her co-workers viewed her as a manager — even though she wasn’t — and also had difficulty working with her. Her managers confessed they hired her to help bring the level of professionalism up on their team. The feeling of isolation was very difficult and resulted in a continued job search.

The manager was relieved when she moved on. It takes quite a different approach in managing the overqualified.

The right fit is still the goal for many hiring managers, even though the temptation is there. The best candidate for a position is one who can do 50 to 75% of the work with the need to learn and grow to master the task. This period of time will give an employee the challenges and rewards most seek and provide a give and take with the manager. This provides a success track, putting the candidate in the best light to perform and succeed and display a positive attitude.

As far as what we can do with the overqualified, one senior level HR strategic planner suggests the best fit for an overqualified candidate would be a staff-level in a totally new area, such as putting an operations person in a staff-level human resource role, or a retrained engineer in an entry-level IT position. Switching industries or areas will give a candidate the right opportunities to grow and learn, preserving their enthusiasm and optimism. These retrained or redirected employees, with their prior experiences and successes, will usually be on a faster growth path, and be able to pull on past experiences to become a valuable contributor to the new area.

Nancy Anton is an expert corporate recruiter and career counselor. She has both strong experience in corporate recruiting and contingency search. She currently is the owner of Nancy Anton: The Voice on Recruiting, and is a speaker, trainer, and consultant. Prior, she was the talent Acquisitions manager for a $5 Billion global manufacturer, Legrand North America. She has been in recruiting since 1985, where she started her career as a headhunter with Hobson Associates, was trained by and worked for one of the leading speakers and trainers in the industry. She spent her days on the phone, actively recruiting to fill positions across all levels, from technical to executive, with a history of filling over 75 positions per year. She is a national speaker and trainer for corporate America delivering presentations on hiring, recruiting, and career management for companies such as Legrand, Honeywell, UCONN, and Staffing Management Association/SHRM. She has published articles and is a current contributor for ERE, Execunet’s CareerSmart and Recruiting Life. She has trained more than 2,000 recruiters sharing the fundamentals of recruiting, agency law and ethics. Nancy is a Certified Personnel Consultant, CPC and a Certified Outplacement Consultant and Career Counselor. Nancy has a Bachelor’s of Art Degree in Economics.


20 Comments on “Overqualified Need Not Apply

  1. Good article by Nancy which focuses on the two edged sword of experienced applicants hitting the panic button in a down economy. On the one hand, “Overqualified” has become a euphemism for age discrimination and too many managers or recruiters discard such candidates without even the courtesy of the 10 second resume scan. To these people, real human beings, there is the perception that they are being told, “You are old, here’s a gun, shoot yourself!” On the other hand, it is difficult to understand why experienced and otherwise knowledgeable persons lapse into the naive believe that they would fit in to an entry level or lesser role. Reality is that organizational fit is key. For managers: There is usually a place for over-experienced contributors in an advisory, player-coach or consultant position if managed properly. For senior talent: There is a job for you if you bring added value to the organization and you have realistic expectations.

  2. This is a great topic Nancy. Thanks for posting.

    Pegging someone based on age to a certain rung on the ladder is so 90s and not where we are heading. The ladder has become the lattice and its perfectly fine to move up and down and sideways and accross. Most employees have accepted this, but many companies are still clinging to a up or out mentality. Also, I don’t buy that most managers want someone who is 50-70% of the capibility needed for the job. Those are not the specs I am seeing.

  3. Another alternative for the “overqualified” is for them to be considered in a similar or one-off position in a larger organization. A Senior VP for event planning in an association with 10,000 members may be a Senior Manager in an organization whose annual meeting is attended by 40,000 and includes video teleconference. A CEO for a 200-bed private hospital may be an ideal COO for a 500-bed medical center. Don’t look down … look up!

  4. Great article! I’ve seen both sides from hiring managers, some being hung up on titles and others willing to be flexible, as Sharon and Mark describe above. And Thomas, your comment is right on the mark as well, I have seen a lot of candidates who did not even get the 10 second scan, and yes, these candidates are human too! “Overqualified” candidates have a lot to contribute and HM’s don’t even realize they are missing out on potential candidates who could move the company in a better direction. Then there is the giant green monster – jealousy! Yes, those HM’s do exist, they fear a better qualified candidate can/will take their job!


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  5. Nancy, what’s your backup to support your statement? “Overqualified workers will be quickly bored, frustrated and discouraged, and the moral in the office may suffer.”

  6. Like any hiring decision, you have to assess the candidate’s fit for the role based their CURRENT skills, abilities and motivations. Trying to divine (errrr…stereotype) someone’s motivations and capabilities by looking backwards doesn’t give you the complete picture and is possibly dangerous from a compliance standpoint. There are ways to assess motivation and predict turnover. Also, my guess is that overqualified workers turnover at the same rate as less qualified ones assuming they both went through the same assessment filters.

  7. This is a good article with several great points. Another point of consideration is the Hiring Manager themselves. If they hire a Manager for a Journey Level Position at 40% less money than what they were making as a Manager, sometimes the Hiring Manager for that department may feel obligated to bring them in at a higher rate of pay, creating compression issues within the organization. The Hiring Manager needs to realize they are hiring a Journey Level staff member, not a Manager, and the hire should be compensated as such. Also, if the new employee is brought in at a higher rate of pay the organization may experience moral issues from current employees, especially if pay freezes or furloughs are in effect. Once things get better in the economy, and companies start hiring again, those disenfranchised employees are going to leave draining your organization of talent and setting you up for a longer recovery time. Your organization is going to need a strong and secure Hiring Manager to manage these types of situations.

  8. I appreciate that this article was posted. Thank you to Nancy and ERE.

    If a recruiter or HR professional submits a resume to a hiring manager after reviewing their skills and abilities, and the hiring manager responds indicating that they are “overqualified”, in my many years of experience this is just a way to say that they are too “old”.

    One of the biggest challenges for the HR and Recruiting profession is the ability to recognize that the workforce is getting older overall, and there are less and less people who are in fact “qualified” for many roles in the workforce, and when a candidate who is “qualified” for the position but has more years of experience than the “expected”, we must be willing to take a stand, push back, and challenge hiring managers. I have never seen any research on “overqualified” workers being bored, frustrated, or discouraged. One of the biggest reasons why managers often disqualify “overqualified”/older workers, especially in a tough economy is that when the economy turns up, the overqualified workers will leave for a higher level position or more pay. I have never seen any research to support such a statement, and in my own experience…I have seen much turnover when the economics change for the better… but its across the board– when people are not satisfied with their work, their pay, their boss, they leave. Period. It doesnt matter how qualified or old they are.

  9. Interesting article that raises many valid points. It’s also worthwhile to consider that many “overqualified” candidates — especially those who ARE older — may actually want to take a so-called “easier” job in order to improve their personal quality of life. If you could afford to do so, wouldn’t it be nice to have a pleasant job that you could perform easily and competently, and still have time to smell the roses?

  10. Not every manager or director-level professional wishes to climb to a higher rung for the rest of their career. Some of us have been there, done that and decided we can be challenged by the nature of the work itself, vs worrying about matching the same title/power we had before. As one astute person pointed out, the ladder is more like a lattice now.

    Frankly, it’s not realistic for most people to plan a long career with a single upward trajectory anyway, as there are fewer high-level roles left and more folks competing for them. Firms continue to flatten their org structure even as senior employees in these positions delay retirement. Many slashed manager/director roles aren’t coming back – recession or no recession.

    While I’ve led teams successfully as a staff director for Fortune 100 firms with outstanding results, I could definitely see myself seeking a manager or even senior-level strategic writer role in 2010 or 2011 if the fit is right. NOT out of economic panic or desperation, but because my first love is strategic copy/marketing writing…and like most professional disciplines, the further up you go, the less of it you get to do!

    I guess the trick is figuring out which candidates genuinely love what they do and are open to assuming different roles/levels in doing it…vs those grasping at any straw to tide them over while they keep looking.

  11. Very interesting post Nancy.

    I am a 3rd party recruiter specialising in HR roles, and what I find is that a lot of positions I get are developmental roles, ie a Director or Senior Manager is looking to hire someone who they can develop and who can eventually grow into a more senior role. They aren’t necessarily looking for someone who can do the job comfortably at Day One because the opening is often part of a talent development agenda.

    The requirement is often for someone who will find the role a challenge and who can step up to the plate and prove themselves.

    I’m not sure it is a question of age, but of attitude…I have often spoken with more experienced candidates who ‘don’t mind’ doing the role, or will do the role because ‘once they’ve seen what I can do, I’m sure they’ll find me more to do’…none ever says ‘that would be a great role for me, I can bring a lot to it and help develop the Manager develop their offering’

  12. Congratulations to the writer of this article that “gets it”. I worked for an organization in the past that routinely hired overqualified people for positions (thinking they were getting the most bang for the buck).

    The bottom line: Because of all the reasons listed in this article, the people they brought on board were malcontents after they were over being “happy to have a job”. Then the senior people who were responsible for the hires then couldn’t understand why the organization production dropped and moral was lower than whale stuff.

  13. Good article on a topic we have been up against many times this year. Trying to explain to individuals has been very challenging – a lot of folks take offense. And this is not about age but rather what you stated: possibly not being a culture fit and not being happy in the long run on both sides, because in this recession companies can’t use someone “who wants to work their way up” again. We have hired very qualified people who have indeed wanted to stop and smell the roses at this time in their career, instead of managing or leading, and they are doing great and adding needed expertise.

  14. “…We have hired very qualified people who have indeed wanted to stop and smell the roses at this time in their career, instead of managing or leading, and they are doing great and adding needed expertise.”

    EXACTLY. Thank you Michelle. Most candidates who have climbed higher in the past probably fall into the camp this article originally describes and won’t be happy long-term. BUT hopefully there are still some hiring managers and recruiters who will be willing to consider this angle as a possibility when screening/interviewing…

    …particularly for specialized fields like IT or creative where day-to-day project opportunities can offer even “seasoned” candidate tremendous gratification and challenge.

    Give the person a chance to articulate WHY they’re downscaling – and you just may find a promising fit for both company and the motivated candidate who has a lot to contribute and is eager to do so.

  15. Nancy, this is a good article and in my estimation, a pertinent conversation we should be having today.

    In an effort to add to the discussion, let’s keep in mind that a recessionary economy is an extremely difficult time for certain talent pools in shrinking industries. For example, suppose a Director of IT is laid off due to downsizing, lagging consumer sales, or a recessionary acquisition of their current firm. They are then tossed into an employment market in which companies are looking to acquire talent “on the cheap” . . . in a world where there are ~6 candidates per every job opening. Each and every day (as an Exec Recruiter), I feel the pain of these types of candidates who see no “Director of IT” roles open anymore . . . but they are willing to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and take a role a level or two down “just to get back into the game.” And you know what? I really don’t blame them – isn’t the American way to improvise, adapt, and overcome? Sometimes the hand we’re dealt isn’t the best, but we have to roll with the punches. If that means a title reduction or a cut in pay, so be it.

    After all, what’s the alternative? Sure, Uncle Sam is extending unemployment benefits in some states . . . but most talent would rather be engaged and working than job hunting, even if a government check is rolling in each week. I’m sure all of us have been in difficult circumstances like this once or twice in our lives – let’s not forget how it feels.

    A suggestion you make is that “The best candidate for a position is one who can do 50 to 75% of the work with the need to learn and grow to master the task.” Are you saying an ideal candidate is someone who can only do 1/2 to 3/4 of what is expected for the job? In sales and engineering disciplines, someone who only meets 1/2 to 3/4 of their KPIs’ is likely on the chopping block. As an Executive Recruiter, I cannot imagine telling a Client that my candidate “has only met 50% of their quota the last few years, but I believe they’ll be a top producer in your organization.” Seriously, I am baffled by the notion of recruiting mediocrity, meaning a world where we’re reduced to finding candidates who can only do 50% to 75% of the job.

    This mentality may lend organizations to acquire a 3-5 year professional (who can only be counted on to do half the work) instead of a 10 – 15 year professional that can predictably meet 95% to 100% of the job’s demands.

    Anyway, this is a deep conversation with multiple variables, so please don’t see my comments as contrary in any way. I’m just trying to add some much needed balance to the discussion.

  16. I came across this article while googling “overqualified and management”.

    As I read this article, a rush of aha moments flooded me. I am an overqualified worker.

    I was laid of last year due to the recession. I was working for a Big 4 as a IT forensics specialist. I have two technical degrees. After having no luck finding a job; I got anxious. I have no family and I had just graduated from grad school. I NEEDED to work. So, I applied for an entry level job as a system admin.

    Yes. A person with two degrees and 3 years experience in IT forensics applied for an entry level system admin position. Originally, I was rejected off the bat. The hiring manager said I was way overqualified. A friend who was a manager in another department talked the HM into hiring me.

    Now I am “bored, frustrated and discouraged”. LOL. Like the article mentioned, management ignores my suggestions to improve things. Since I have more knowledge than my co-workers; I have been put in a position of “implied manager“.
    Yet, I do not get compensated as a manager nor will the department give me the power of a manager. So, I do manager duties with no title, recognition, pay, or power to fix things.

    Don’t get me wrong. I love the company but I do feel under used and a little abused. I am happy to have a job but I would like to be challenged and recognized. Originally, I thought that I could quickly work my way back up the corporate ladder once I started to exceed at my job. However, seniority entitlement oppose to skill runs rampant.

    I do believe giving an overqualified worker more leadway is the best way to manage them. My managers guard their job and the delegation of extra responsibilities like a hawk. What makes matters worse is that I am only 29. Most of my co-workers are 40+ I think they resent the fact that a 29yr old has more insight.

    I am glad that I came across this article. I now know these feelings aren’t “all in my head”. However, I may need to transfer to another department ASAP.

  17. The article is timely and makes many good points, as do the responses. Technically I’m an “overqualified” in house recruiter. although 70, I mean that in terms that perhaps someone with lesser experience could do this, if what I do is only confined to recruiting. I prefer to think I’m a resident gray beard valued for years of managerial experience.
    In that prior life as a manager I had no qualms about hiring “overqualified” people. I didn’t hire them in droves, but always always looked. I learned mgmt 101 early as does my president. Hire people smarter than you are. Having some people like that on the bench also positioned my organization to be fast on it’s feet.
    I’m pretty much in Mary Slepicka’s school of thought. I never assume. Also others include motiviation as a consideration. I’d sum my 2 cents up as never assume. explore and make an informed decision. The right overqualified person, with the right motivation is a super value add. There are scores of reasons why someone would take on a mission that on the surface they are overqualified for.
    Another point to consider & I don’t think I saw it mentioned were insecure, underqualified hiring managers who don’t understand mgmt 101 and afraid to move out of their comfort zones and hire equal or lesser to themselves forgetting or not knowing you are only as good as the people working for you. Simply put they are afraid to bring someone on, who technically can do their jobs or better.
    No matter how well you source, interview, hire, remember there are no guarantees and that includes hiring overqualifieds, dead ons and people who need to grow.
    But overall a good dialogue.

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