The Overqualified Lie

The unfairness and injustice of “the overqualified lie” is one of those issues that doesn’t seem all that important to you when you are less than 30. It starts to appear as a speck on the horizon when you when you are under 40. But by the time your 45th birthday hits you square in the face, darn if it suddenly become one of the greatest evils and most prejudicial staffing practices ó and certainly one that needs to be “stamped out” today! “It is odious and foul to deny mature talent from finding a rightful place in the workforce. And now that it effects me, boy is it evil! Quick, when is the next 10k walk to end age discrimination? SIGN ME UP! Do we get T-shirts?” For those of us who have been fortunate enough in their lives never to have experienced any pathological form of prejudice, bias, profiling, or unfair hiring practices based on something about us other than our qualifications to do the job, age is the great equalizer. It makes victims of us all. You may have a smug little smile today about the “non-issue” of age discrimination. But just put a reminder in your Palm Pilot for the day before your 45th birthday and see if you still consider this a “no biggie.” To me, the ongoing practice of age discrimination is as foolish as it is unethical and illegal. Disqualifying potential talent for non-talent-based reasons is a sign, first of all, of poor recruiting standards and philosophies, and secondly, of an ineffective or corrupted HR/staffing department. I object to the practice for moral reasons, but I also am angered by the perpetuation of something that is so outright illegal and yet quietly tolerated by my own profession. That it still persists at all is a real conundrum:

  • The number of companies offering pensions is diminishing, so being “saddled” with somebody who will stay to “get their 20” is no longer an issue. No harm in risking vesting if there is nothing with which to be vested in.
  • The salary increases that occurred in the 1990s for entry- and mid-level personnel compressed the salary ranges closer than ever before, making a senior hire with twice the experience ó but only a 25% markup ó a real steal.
  • The mature worker with fewer home-based issues has a better attendance record and tends be “more on the job” when on the job, as opposed to a young mother or young father concerned about day care, baby sitters, nannies, and the other issues of younger parents and those who still have another end of a candle to burn.
  • The mature worker, with fewer options and opportunities, is less likely to be a high turnover risk and is therefore a worthwhile investment in training. You will get a better return and a more current workforce.
  • Older employees tend to be the more stable element of your workforce from a retention point of view due to their realistic career goals. Their dreams of being the youngest CEO are set aside by the desire to keep a good job through balanced and consistent work.
  • The diminishing workforce will put those companies able to attract and keep a larger percentage of the mature workforce in a better position to meet their critical staffing needs for the next decade.
  • As the “pyramid” narrows, many highly qualified people who lack executive timber are still very capable and competent at the level they achieved. Lateral movement is not a sign of failure for those who have reached their peak level of efficiency.
  • Some professionals either enjoy, or have accepted, their hands-on role in business, and excel at it due to either their love or acceptance of that level.
  • With more mature workers interspaced in the company, there would be less need to develop and invent mentoring programs. Teaching by example is a function of a mature workforce.
  • “Been there, done that” is a skill that comes with experience, also known as age. A company with a balance between its mature workforce and its new and rising workforce is co-enabling. The experienced can teach the lessons of time, and the new can teach new ideas and share the energy and optimism of the “not yet disappointed.” Both sides get what they need most: “alternative experience and outlook” role models.

But there is another, even more compelling reason NOT to be identified as a “not mature workforce friendly” company: bad recruitment branding! Don’t kid yourself. The current lull in the staffing crisis is successfully obscuring the talent shortfall only from those with the inability to see anything but the patently obvious (in other words, the average corporate officer in HR/staffing). This current recession will end. The talent shortage will not. Be prepared or be caught by surprise. With the current birth rate, one of the fastest growing domestic workforces in the U.S. will be the mature workforce. If you allow a managerial mindset to persist against hiring mature workers, you will not just be able to “click” a fix-the-problem switch when the crunch arrives and you cannot fill critical roles. Yet why do so many in the profession turn a blind eye to “the overqualified lie”? “We are not rejecting mature workers out of hand because they are old. It isn’t because of a prejudice against workers over 45! I am not engaging in some latent physiological pleasure of getting even with my mother or father by rejecting mature workers. No, no, no…that would be unethical, immoral, illegal, and just too weird. Rather, we reject these candidates due to the fact that they are…er…ah…overqualified. Yeah, that’s it! They are overqualified. Pure and simple.” So exactly what does overqualified mean? You don’t want employees with greater skills? Let’s put that theory to the test:

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  • Would you rather spend $10 on a hamburger or $12 for filet mignon?
  • Would you spend an extra 10% to upgrade your auto purchase from a Mazda Prot?g? to a Nissan Maxima?
  • If you could have twice as much cubic feet in your home for 10% more in price, and benefit from the increased equity, would that be good?
  • Would you pay a little more for twice the experience in a future worker? If they were under forty? If they were over fifty?

In business we always look to increase the advantage of any dollar spent, except when it comes to talent. We all jump at the chance to buy “two for one.” However, we routinely fail in our duty as officers of the company to do our best to locate and acquire the best possible talent for the dollar spent when we permit age discrimination, thinly veiled, to survive as a corporate policy or ignored common practice. The reasons usually attributed to not hiring the overqualified are not in and of themselves necessarily bad ones, unless of course you ASSUME them to be true due to the candidate’s age and not due to an issue revealed in a screening process or an interview. There are good and professional reasons to not hire unqualified candidates that are both objective and subjective in nature, but none of them are the direct result of age. If your managers reject mature workers due to personal prejudices against the mature worker or their uneasiness managing someone who reminds them of their mother or their father, what should worry you most is that there is no such thing as a “little prejudice.” You either are prejudiced or you are not. If you or your managers have no issue refusing fair consideration to the midlife and mature worker, where do you stand on persons of color? Female executives? The handicapped? Single mothers? Where do you draw the line between acceptable inappropriate behavior and unacceptable inappropriate behavior? The poet tells us, “In youth, we mock the things we are destined to be.” Think about that the next time you hear that familiar song: “Happy birthday to you / Happy birthday to you / Your another year older / So your career is over too.” Have a great day recruiting!

Ken Gaffey ( is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services ( and has been involved in the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration project since its inception. Prior to this National Security project Ken was an independent human resources and staffing consultant with an extensive career of diversified human resources and staffing experience in the high-tech, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. His past clients include Hewlett Packard, First Data Corporation, Fidelity Investments, Fleet Bank, Rational Software, Ericsson, Astra Pharmaceutical, G&D Engineering, and other national and international industry leaders. In addition to contributing articles and book reviews to publications like ERE,, AIRS, HR Today, and the International Recruiters Newsletter, Ken is a speaker at national and international conferences, training seminars, and other staffing industry events. Ken is a Boston native and has lived in the greater Boston area most of his life. Ken attended the University of South Carolina and was an officer in the United States Marine Corps.


7 Comments on “The Overqualified Lie

  1. Ken,

    Apparently my first reply did not make it through so I will send another. I too am reaching that magical number in a few more years. There are other perspectives regarding the “Over Qualification Lie.”

    Customers, who have told me, I?m sorry but he/she is over qualified, have exasperated me too. I?ve even rebutted on occasion, “Gee Mr./Ms. customer, do you really want me to send you someone LESS qualified?” My ego won the battle but my W-2 lost the war and in retrospect I was just being an @$$. “A person convinced against their will is of the same opinion still.”

    Overqualified is justified and defendable:

    You used the hamburger and fillet mignon analogy?It sounds good but you know, sometimes the customer just wants that greasy old slider with a side of fries and a shake. Could you imagine ordering a burger and having the waiter/waitress bring you back a fillet mignon and then ask you to pay $2.00 more. Neither could I. The fact is that sometimes we find our customer a “10” when they only need and want a “5”

    Yes the translation of “Overqualified” may be:
    too expensive
    illogical career progression
    hidden agenda
    retention headache


    It?s still not only our job to qualify candidates based on their skills, ability to do the job (repeatable career successes), but also to dig deep and determine motiviation for change, and separate the logical from the illogical.

    If the client knows they want a hamburger instead of the fillet mignon and they understand the difference (implication) then sell?em the hamburger.

    “Overqualified” is not synonymous with “Age Discrimination.”



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  2. Ken,
    The “Overqualified Lie” is age discrimination based on the fear that someone won’t be satisfied in a job that is less power/authority/pay than what they had in the past. These myths should be dispelled.

    Power: Who doesn’t like it? Post-50 ex-execs had a lot of it. They may still be attracted by it, but they have a clearer view of what it is and what it isn’t than those of us still aiming for it. What is it? A measurement of your success. What is it not? Something that brings long-lasting satisfaction.

    For the most part, ex-execs know that their days of running the race are past–time has run out. They don’t expect to hold the power. Rather than dominating a meeting where they are a subordinate, they are often content to remain respectfully quiet until you ask their advice, knowing that sometimes the most valuable part of lerning is the process. They know their place and they show you the same respect that they demanded from their employees when they were in your shoes. They bring a maturity and wisdom to the company–without the price–that you would pay a fortune for if you had the position available.

    Pay: Post-50 ex-execs are making ends by finding work as greeters in discount chains, clerks in giant hardware stores, and tax prepares for storefront chains. The pay? $7-$12 per hour. Are they miserable? No. In fact, they find themselves surprisingly happy in a lower-stress job that is focused more on helping people and making a contribution than on competing to get ahead. After the grieving, the depression, the sense of failure that comes from becoming an ex-exec, they discover aspects of working they never noticed on the rapid rise to the top. Sure, they want and need to make a decent living, but “decent” isn’t necessarily what they were making before. There are now other things they value–and they have the freedom to experience these things now that the kids are out of college and retirement is just a decade away.

    Authority: The fear is that an ex-exec will be a problem and personality conflicts will arise if they have to report to a younger manager. But who knows better than an ex-exec that the joys of executiveship are overrated. Treat these individuals with respect and we find that they can be very content letting someone else bear the headaches of corporate leadership. This anomaly eliminates information hoarding–the ex-exec isn’t really interested in moving up, anyway. He or she finds pleasure in sharing experience and wisdom and watching someone with the energy and enthusiasm strive and succeed. That doesn’t mean overlook them for recognition and promotion, but don’t be fearful that they expect the fast track.

    All of the above aside, the concept that I find most offensive is the one that says an individual won’t be happy in a certain job for which they are “overqualified.” The audacity of an individual to assume they know what will make another individual happy and satisfied in a job, and then pretending to make that decision because they care—is enough to make my temper flare.

    Mature individuals have been through the corporate battlefield. If they say that they are willing to lay down a few intellectual or experiential tools to settle into a less “exciting” job, then they are. If they say they would be content in a job for a company that makes $10 million when they used to sell $10 million of product every month, why should we call them a liar? Yet, everything in our gut recoils against this.

    But how can we understand what it feels like to have fallen from a $250,000 job to a $10 an hour job–through no fault of your own. Who are we to judge that they couldn’t find happiness somewhere in the middle?

    All of our current recruiting and hiring tools are aimed at finding the candidate who will be least “short of the mark” for the job and who will have enough intitiative to grow into the job in an appropriate time frame. When we see a candidate who already fits the job and then some, we panic.

    Instead, trust that person to step into the job calmly, and then let them bring executive experience to the table to enrich the job. Imagine if everyone of your front-line employees had a CEO mentality about customers.

    Yes, we may have to refine your skills. Sure, there will be some hotheads or won’t ever accept a lesser position, or people who do indeed find they aren’t cut out for it. But we now have employees who don’t show up, have little motivation and even less self-discipline.

    Instead of hearing about how they got a flat tire, again, or dealing with a lack of motivation and initiative in your workplace; we may find ourselves lending an ear as an ex-exec wonders out loud about why they find themselves so content serving at a lower level than in the past.

    We may have to discover more creative ways to reward and promote individuals who aren’t on a track to C-level, but deserve recognition anyway. Is that so hard?

    Be innovatoive, be willing to change. A new workforce always requires new thinking. We’re incorporating the issues of gender and race more each year into our processes and decions. It’s only a matter of time before age comes to the forefront. Comparatively speaking, it should be relatively painless.

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  3. This was an excellent thought-provoking article. Companies and Agencies are doing their clients (internal or external) a disservice by allowing this type of prejudicial practice to go on. The tide of management shortage is coming in and those companies that do not move to a higher ground will be drowned by their results of their own error. Besides it being morally, ethically, and legally wrong it is just plain old bad business as well.

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  4. Karen:

    You said, “All of the above aside, the concept that I find most offensive is the one that says an individual won’t be happy in a certain job for which they are “overqualified.” The audacity of an individual to assume they know what will make another individual happy and satisfied in a job, and then pretending to make that decision because they care—is enough to make my temper flare.”

    Karen, I would not throw the baby out with the bath water. Good recruiters and H/R professionals don’t assume (as you have stated) but certainly DO qualify or disqualify candidates based on perceived ?job satisfaction.”

    Job satisfaction and retention most certainly ARE under examination here.

    It is about caring (but not in the manner you mentioned). It’s about caring about your customer (the one who pays you for your services) to screen and determine who is apt to be the best candidate not only based on qualifications, motivation, and past success, but other factors to include “job satisfaction.” To assert that a recruiter or H/R professional is not qualified to examine and consider a candidate’s future job satisfaction or dissatisfaction is just not true. As a matter of fact, we would be guilty in not doing a great job if we did less.


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  5. Yes, age discrimination is unfortunate, heck ALL forms of discrimination are ugly but they happen everywhere. I agree that older applicants should be given a fair chance just like anyone else. However, I told someone just yesterday that he was overqualified because he honestly WAS. The position he applied for is an entry-level sales management opportunity that only requires 3 years of sales management experience. This guy who applied had at least 20+ years of sales management experience in all kinds of roles like Director of Sales, Regional Sales Manager, etc. He was WAY overqualified, plain and simple, and that’s the God’s honest truth. Not exactly an “overqualified lie” now is it?

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  6. Ken,
    Some good points and I appreciate your comments in the other post. My only further reply would be that the attitudes of ex-execs have dramatically changed, and there are many–though surely not all–who may have 20 years of sales experience in high level sales who would be able to deal with an entry level, “3-years experience required” position. That’s not to say there won’t be “moments of challenge” for both the ex-exec and their manager. But we have those now, just different types.

    Agreed that you can’t send an ex-exec to your client if yoru client is afraid of dealing with the ex’s power and authority, and afraid of what the salary requirements might be.

    Rather than the hamburger/filet analogy, I see it more as the opportunity to get a proven power car for the price of a starter car, but we’re afraid because the car used to go/could go really fast. It will take a different kind of manager to reap the rewards of hiring ex-execs: one who is confident, secure, interested in tapping other’s knowledge and experiences, and willing to adapt their management style to one that may need to be a little more egalitarian.

    There actually are companies that are weary of the trials of hiring only the younger, entry-level candidates. These companies are finding out that the sometimes slightly higher wages of an ex-exec workforce are offset by reduced retention, reduced training, and more reliable productivity.

    We can’t assume that ex-execs strut into lower-level jobs with arrogance. Many adopt a humble desire to bring the best of themselves to their new position combined with a willingness to respect authority and take time to learn the job well.

    Recruiters can’t send what their clients don’t want, but maybe over time, through conversation, new thoughts can gain some ground.

    Doesn’t it seem ironic that with more people needing work now, recruiters are having a harder time finding “qualified” people? Maybe the definition of qualified needs some rethinking.

    In the past overqalification was equated with high salary, retention nightmares, and demanding personlaities. I want only to spark the thought that that may not necessarily be the case anymore.

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  7. The concept of a candidate who is “Overqualified” is simply outdated in today’s competitive marketplace. In this down economy full of “overqualified candidates” , not presenting the best of whats out there to a client is going to cost you long term!

    Also consider that many employers are very open to “overqualified” candidates especially those that have the skills to bypass recruiters and go direct!

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