The Myth of the Overqualified Candidate
Updated: Oct 19
The more qualified the applicant, the bigger the risk? Photo by voltamax/pixabay.com
The premise of this article: Applicants judged to be overqualified by experience or education are routinely disqualified without the employer knowing anything about the person. Disqualification is based on assumptions: the overqualified employee will perform poorly, or “jump ship” within weeks or months to another company or at least to another “more appropriate” position in your company. This is wrong thinking. Overqualified people are a significant unappreciated potential resource for employers. But you do need to test the applicant’s thinking and attitude. It’s worth the effort (which you’re going to expend on candidate selection anyway). “Overqualified” can also be “transformative”.
In the interest of full disclosure, my self-serving bias: I’ve been applying for procurement work for 14 months. With 228 applications submitted (168 in the procurement field) I’ve had no offers.
What’s the problem? That’s easy. I left procurement 13 years ago to move to Canada to spend time with my aging parents. While in Canada I was an IT analyst.
My competition for mid and senior level positions are people who take a half day off their current procurement job to interview for a new procurement job. That’s stiff competition when the last time I analyzed a contract was 2005!
When I apply for junior and entry level positions the “senior buyer” and “Certified Purchasing Manager” on my resume mark me as overqualified.
The result: apparently I am qualified for no position in procurement, despite my years of experience, certification and documented contributions.
How valid is this idea that someone who’s overqualified for a position is automatically going to perform poorly, or jump ship within a few weeks or months, and is therefore the wrong choice? The idea is prevalent and powerful. I’ve had employers tell me outright it’s the issue they could not get past.
It’s nonsense, and employers are missing out on tremendous opportunity by automatically disqualifying overqualified candidates.
I am not saying jump at every opportunity to hire overqualified people. As with any potential issue a candidate presents, it must be assessed and how the candidate will approach it must be tested. It’s not nonsense that this is an issue to explore; it’s nonsense that it’s widely assumed there’s only one good answer: no way.
How To Assess the “Overqualified” Candidate
When assessing the overqualified candidate you need to examine three things:
What brought them to this place in life and the decision to apply for your position?
Where is their balance of focus between career and other elements of their life?
What is their overall attitude towards employment?
You can also explore a fourth indicator, which may not be present with all candidates:
Have they “reset” their career path before, and how did that work out?
The three “tests” I’ve suggested are all related; it’s difficult to discuss one without edging into the others but they are three distinct aspects of one theme: attitude.
This Place in Life
My greatest inspiration and source of faith in myself is my dad. At the age of 59, with two kids 11 and 7, dad changed direction from a life in sales to become a minister. To do this he attended university full time four days a week in a distant city while ministering to a two-congregation country charge three days a week for four years. My parents raised a family on part-time pay.
Starting off in a new direction at 59, graduating and beginning your career at 63, a person might be resentful of the twists and turns in life that had brought them to this point. Not dad. He was thrilled. This was, at long last, where he was meant to be. He had found himself, he had found what he was meant to be, he had found his true passion, and he was a minister full time until age 85 and part time until 91.
When assessing the overqualified candidate you have to know why they’re applying for your position and what has brought them to this point. Are they delighted to have arrived at this place, like my dad was? Or are they resentful that life hasn’t been a straight and perfect path? Do they see your position as the next logical step forward, or a resented step backward?
Balancing Career and “Other”
Your candidate may have arrived at This Place in Life by balancing a variety of needs and goals.
After 10 very successful years in procurement in San Diego I decided to move to a small Canadian city with uncertain career prospects. My parents were 91 and 75 and I wanted to spend time with them while they were still alive and healthy.
I succeeded in my goal of being there for them – and for me – in the last year my father was alive. I owned a beautiful home with a magazine-worthy back yard of rock and bush. I commuted to work in eight minutes. I had a cedar canoe racked on the back of the house with a lake so close I could carry it to the shore.
That move was a success, even if it did require that I start over on the bottom rung of a new field.
After 11 years in Canada I was laid off, which prompted our return to San Diego and resumption of my interrupted procurement career.
Am I resentful of the “twists and turns in life” that brought me here? No. Like my dad I’m thrilled that the next step has presented itself.
I wouldn’t have missed that 11 years with my family for anything. Moving to Canada was a step forward with things that are very important in my life. But its ending allowed me to move forward again and I couldn’t be more delighted. I get to experience San Diego’s endless sunshine again. I get to ride my motorcycle 365 days a year again. I get to go back to private enterprise, where my mindset syncs with the corporate ethos and we both thrive as a result. (I’m too innovative, active and idea-prone for the risk-phobic government environment I inhabited in Canada.)
Moving down to entry-level procurement? No, I’m not moving down, I’m forging ahead, because I’ve achieved balance with all the things that are truly important to me.
A person focused exclusively on their career and climbing the corporate ladder may react negatively to a setback. A person seeking to balance career and other factors doesn’t see a “setback”. They see balance between a title and pay grade that have regressed and other aspects of their life which have moved forward. They see a net win, a net success.
In rejecting the overqualified out of hand you’re making the assumption that all they care about is their career. That’s an unreasonable, unfair and unjustified assumption. And it’s not just unfair to them – you’re being unfair to your chances of landing the person who’s going to deliver the most value to your enterprise.
I can’t define exactly what you should look for in overall attitude. There are a zillion ways individuals can leverage attitudes to deliver corporate success; it’s not definable. But we can narrow the field a little because not every attitude will work well in this situation. For example, the person with a laser focus on CEO and a $10 million annual salary who doesn’t care with what company they achieve that is exactly the person you need in some situations, but they’re probably not going to react well to career setbacks with a requirement that they “settle” for an “underling’s” position for a while.
Look for someone who has a genuine focus on the work and the company and not primarily on themselves. This is not to say these people lack ambition and drive. I count myself among them and I have plenty of ego that delights at a new title and a keen interest in making money. But I believe in my heart that I will get there not through the currently popular notion of “being a brand” and setting a company-hopping career path that optimizes the moment, but rather through dedicating myself to a mission – my employer's mission. When they succeed through my efforts, so will I.
The overqualified candidate who focuses on the work rather than focusing on their own position and title is probably going to be more than “just fine”. They’re probably going to be spectacular.
Previous Career Resets
The candidate pursuing a career reset with you may have a similar experience in their past. Behavioral interviewing is all about exploring the candidate’s previous behavior to predict their future behavior. It’s well applied here.
I’ve noted my own career reset when I moved to Canada. From senior buyer I went to temporary data entry clerk.
What happened next? After six weeks I wrote programming over a long weekend that eliminated the entire function, removing 400 hours of labor from my assignment and an additional 800 from the permanent staff performing the same work with an immediate labor savings valued at $50,000 annually. The employer had been handling this function manually for eight years. I permanently changed the paradigm in six weeks.
This was not unusual in my experience. All my positions have exhibited a common characteristic: the job description is a narrow definition of what the position is capable of contributing. Job descriptions, some ridiculously lengthy and complicated, are nevertheless entirely unimaginative because they can’t anticipate the unexpected and they can’t anticipate the employee’s unique spark of creativity. They’re a compendium of what is, without a thought to what can be, or should be.
No one is better positioned to bring new definition and scope to a position than someone more than qualified to perform it. Look for someone who’s already done that.
If you use behavioral interviewing then you presumably believe the theory behind it, and that says someone who’s already delivered superb value as an overqualified employee will do so again – this time for you.