Behind the Illogic of Being “Overqualified” & How to Deal With It

By Delaine Lorio.

Two of the biggest reasons why people choose to pursue an advanced degree is (1) to secure access to certain careers in the job market and (2) to better ensure a more comfortable standard of living. According to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, it is predicted that 18% of all jobs will require a master’s degree by 2020. Moreover, it is estimated that an employee with a master’s degree usually earns over $10,000 more per year than someone who only has a bachelor’s degree. Intuitively, this makes sense; given how competitive the job market now is, you would expect that by having more qualifications, you are gaining a competitive edge in your field of choice. After all, you are spending your time, energies, and money to ultimately show employers that you are dedicated to enhancing your industry expertise and credibility. However, in reality, postgraduates still struggle to find a job. Why?

Surprisingly, one of the most common reasons is that they are told they are “overqualified.” Even if they have years of work experience along with the right qualifications, they may still be rejected. This seems perversely counterintuitive and makes no rationale sense from a business perspective as it is not only detrimental to the business but also unfair towards talented and committed applicants.

Firstly, before I dive into why this is irrational, it is useful to understand why someone may be considered “overqualified.” It is common practice for companies to compare a resume to a job description to decide whether the candidate is qualified for the position. If the resume reveals that a candidate has more years of experience or postgraduate qualifications than what is required, they are labeled as “overqualified.” From there, many assumptions are made. Although this is believed to be a good case business practice, it is very flawed.

I am a strong believer in the idea that if you are willing to invest in yourself and work hard, then you should be considered a strong candidate for the role. A degree is more than just showing that you are knowledgeable – it also shows your work ethic and ambition. You have a growth mindset – this is important both on a professional and personal level. As distinguished English scholar Dr. Samuel Johnson once said, “Great works are performed not by strength but by perseverance.” In other words, the knowledge and skills you achieve are not built in minutes or days but in years of learning and gathering knowledge and crafting your skillset. Therefore, it logically makes sense that hiring someone of a high caliber and strong mindset would be a sound investment for a company.

But the reality is the reverse. Recruiters assume that because a candidate has higher qualifications, they are not right for the position while someone with fewer qualifications is more suitable. It makes no sense to me. The term “overqualified” is a lie; it indicates that a candidate is not only suitable for the role – they are overly so and “beyond the call of duty.” Yet, they are still rejected.

Hiring managers may argue that because a candidate is more qualified, they are more likely to leave. Why would one want a “lower” position than what their background qualifies them for? They’ll just get bored or jump ship the next chance they get to go somewhere better.

I understand to an extent a hirer’s point of view – recruitment is a time-consuming and expensive process for a company; therefore, if there is a risk of someone leaving the role early on, it would make sense that they would be skeptical and nervous about that candidate. However, overall, I do not think that is a persuasive enough argument to reject a candidate outright. To begin with, if they were a so-called “flight risk”, this implies that there is another company out there waiting for them with a job in hand. But if that was the case, why would they be applying to that company anyways? As Bob Korzeniowski, MBA, PMP, puts it, “if you had the chance to buy a Porsche for the price of a Chevy, wouldn’t you go for it?” A company has the opportunity to hire someone who can not only do the role well but brings their expertise, experience, and knowledge to the company. Following Korzeniowski analogy, “you get a bargain and more than you would normally get.” Also, the conjecture that they would leave to go to “somewhere better” implies that this hiring manager thinks that their company is a dead-end anyway. Therefore, why wouldn’t the turnover rate be high? Moreover, this assumption could be overcome in the interview phase by inquiring further on the candidate’s reasons for applying and being direct about it. The pros outweigh the cons.

Another argument that is used by hiring managers is the potential salary issue. They often assume that if a candidate has more experience and qualifications than the job requires, their salary expectations are beyond what the company is willing to give them. But, if they were truly worried about this issue, why do they not just ask the candidate? With the Internet and the numerous job application sites available (such as Indeed.com or LinkedIn), it is possible to see salary estimates. Therefore, it is most likely that the candidate is aware of the salary range of the job. If not, the hiring manager can let them know, and if they are okay with it, then it is no longer an issue. In addition, if the candidate felt that the job was “too low” for them, they would most likely not be applying for it. The probable reason why they are applying is that there is a lack of jobs out there. It is better to have a salary than no salary. That is logical and understandable, while not giving someone a job on false and fictional assumptions is not.

Studies also reveal how these assumptions are often more perceived than real. A 2009 study conducted by Berrin Erdogan, a professor of management at Portland State University, found that sales associates who were thought to be overqualified actually performed better. She finds that “People don’t stay or leave a company because of their skills. They stay or leave because of working conditions.” This is further reiterated by Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, a senior adviser at Egon Zehnder International and the author of Great People Decisions and “The Definitive Guide to Recruiting in Good Times and Bad,” who argues that hiring an overqualified employee has more benefits than risks. As he points out, “When making hiring decisions, visionary leaders don’t just focus on the current needs, but on the future.”

Although this approach is clearly flawed, it is still a common practice among most businesses. Therefore, if you are ever dealing with rejection due to being “overqualified”, there are several strategies you can use to break the “overqualification ceiling.” For example, when writing your application, consider the assumptions that were discussed above, such as salary concerns and boredom. Then, craft your application accordingly. Be wise of what you choose to include, making sure your experience and qualifications match what the job is asking – not more than that. Do not put advanced degrees if they are not necessary. Career coach and author of Over the Hill But Not Over the Cliff: 5 Strategies for 50+ Job-Seekers to Push Past Ageism and Find a Job in the Loyalty-Free Workplace, Lori Rassas, suggests that you craft the job descriptions in a way where you list tasks that, in a supervisory role, you would otherwise assign to others. This is to avoid a prospective hiring manager assuming that you are too far removed from lower-level responsibilities to do them. In addition, the cover letter is a great platform to show why the job is for you, even if the job is below what you’re qualified for. Business speaker and author of Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe, Alexandra Levit, recommends addressing your experience mismatch outright – “Say you know you have certain skills or tenure that are above and beyond what the position calls for, but that you are looking for an additional type of challenge or opportunity.”

By proactively addressing recruiters’ flawed assumptions during the interview or application stage, overqualified candidates can increase their chances of being successful in the recruitment process. However, employers must realize that their biased recruitment process is unjust because it lets down talented applicants and detrimental from a business perspective, given the commercial importance of human capital. Overqualified candidates should not be expected to adapt to a flawed and unfair recruitment process but rather employers should change their biased perspective on being overqualified – seeing it as a competitive advantage rather than a risk.

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