Job-searching When You’re Overqualified

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Job-searching When You’re Overqualified

Anyone who has spent any time looking for a job understands how depressing it is to be rejected by a potential employer. For overqualified job seekers, however, that rejection can seem even worse. In many ways, it sounds like a cop-out: by definition, “over-qualified” means that you have all the requirements for a position, AND your employer would be getting any number of additional skills and work experience for the same price. How is that not a bargain? Who wouldn’t jump at that?

Quite a few managers, according to an article published in the Wall Street Journal, which pointed out how hiring managers as a rule tended to gravitate toward rather less-impressive candidates over the ones who seemed to offer more a good deal more than the position actually required. The report went on to explain that managers expect highly capable candidates will have a measurably lower commitment to both the position and to the organization, as opposed to less-capable but adequate candidates.

Why is “overqualified” even a thing?

If you’ve never done a specific job, it’s hard to imagine you’re actually overqualified. Still, there’s an old adage that says if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. When it comes to hiring, managers often seem to adhere to the adage that if a prospect seems too good to be true, there has to be some kind of catch.

Based on this, it’s really not a big jump for the decision-maker to doubt a candidate’s future commitment to the company: a highly capable candidate might care less about the mission and values of the organization (and consequently would invest less effort learning, sharing, and applying them), simply because those candidates have other options.

To put it another way, there is a fear-factor at work here: for lack of a more descriptive term, overly qualified applicants are considered a flight risk. The belief is that any person accepting a position below their qualification level would constantly and actively be trying to find a job more in-line with their abilities, at which point they would “jump ship.”

The other side of that coin is suspicion: WHY would a candidate be willing to take a “lesser” position? There are several obvious possibilities, none of which bode well for the employer:

  1. The candidate is lazy, and not interested in a challenging position, but is rather looking for a job with little effort and input required;
  2. The candidate lacks confidence in—or is unaware of—his or her true qualifications and capabilities … or worse, has presented false qualifications to land the job;
  3. The candidate is in desperate need of a job, and is willing to accept a lesser position just to gain employment … implying they would stay only until a better opportunity arose.

Women have it worse.

Any of those are reason to give a manager pause, but there is another possibility that applies particularly to women: the fear that while a woman may need a job, she’s looking for one below her skill grade because her first priority will always be her kids or family. This sounds noble in the abstract, but again, poses problems for an employer.

While CEOs are declaring that shareholder profits are no longer their top priority, and that policy emphasis is shifting to worker wellness … the fact remains that optimistic decisions made at the C-level don’t always play out on the showroom floor. Talk of adding flexible hours for parenting or even on-site daycare sounds good in the press release … but that is no guarantee the final product will actually be helpful or practical.

Even if leadership is sincere in its intent, an operational turnabout of this magnitude will take time to trickle down into the thinking of the manager, whose chief concern is getting the job done. With that in mind, it is understandable—unfair and borderline illegal, but understandable nevertheless—that managers might hesitate to hire someone who isn’t perceived as being a full-fledged “company (wo)man.”

Being female is still, sadly, enough of a barrier to hiring, just in itself; how much more so if you’re seen as a woman who COULD do more for the organization, but chooses NOT to? Consciously or otherwise, it would seem hard to fully trust a person who is claiming she will give you her all: under those circumstances, does “all” mean all she has to give? Or is it just all that the job requires?

This could easily lead to thinking along the lines of “Why go for an advanced career, when having those qualifications may do me more harm than good?” Which in turn might explain why women are enrolling in and graduating from science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) doctoral programs in much smaller numbers than ever before … making the problem multi-layered and long-term.

Can you avoid the overqualification trap?

The large-scale answer here would seem to be more education, but we’re still talking about human nature: the last thing a manager—particularly a middle-manager—wants is to be seen as making a poor decision that costs the company money. When viewed in that light, YOUR best option is to always to make clear any reasons for applying for a lesser position, and doing what you can to make hirers confident that despite what seems like an over-abundance of qualifications, you’re still the best person for the job.