Navigating the concept of overqualified when job seeking and hiring - Michelle Gibbings

Navigating the concept of overqualified when job seeking and hiring

You have the skills and capability for the role and nail the interview. However, then you get the rejection email or phone call. You find out that it’s not that you weren’t good enough for the role. The problem is you were too good for the position and were rejected because you are ‘overqualified’.

You’ll have heard this before, been the person to deliver the message or perhaps, been the person impacted by it.

Why worry?
Hiring managers worry about recruiting employees more qualified than the role requires for several reasons.

The typical reason given is they are worried that the prospective employee, who is highly skilled, will get bored and become disengaged working in a less challenging role. They worry that the position is just a holding pattern until something better comes along.

Research backs up this claim. However, there is also a counter perspective. Most recently, Associate Professor, Hans van Dilk from Tilburg University and colleagues suggested there are ways in which overqualification can enhance the performance of the overqualified employee and their team members. They also identified ten studies demonstrating how overqualification can enhance performance and found another 36 studies that showed no relationship between overqualification and performance.

The varying outcomes from the research are a reminder that the results of hiring someone who is overqualified depend on many factors, not least the hiring manager’s attitude.

For some leaders, the biggest reason for not wanting someone overqualified is less about the other person and more about their needs and concerns. These are the unstated fears of being overshadowed or outshone by an employee with more knowledge, capability and experience. It’s the unacknowledged fear that they’ll be unable to manage a highly qualified employee effectively.

For leaders lacking in self-confidence, hiring a more qualified employee is viewed as a decision that could ultimately threaten and weaken their position, power and authority.

Challenge your perspective
Researchers Maria Wasserman and colleagues define an overqualified employee as a person who “possesses more education, experience, knowledge or skills than required for their job”. They see overqualification as a form of person-job misfit, and their research shows how it often occurs for immigrants when they move to a new country and their prior skills and experience are not recognised.

In these situations, overqualification can lead to lower levels of job satisfaction.

So, for an employee being overqualified can be a source of unhappiness.

However, is that a reason not to hire someone in the first place? If someone has decided they want the role and applied for it, isn’t that enough? And isn’t the goal to hire the most suitable and best person for the role?

In the early part of my career, I applied for a job that was a graduate-level role. This application was despite my already being in the workforce, so technically, no longer at the graduate level. However, I was keen to get into the industry, so I was happy to do this. Yes, it was technically a lower level than my current role and required me to take a pay cut.

The hiring manager didn’t see the ‘overqualification’ as a negative. He saw it as a positive and took an adaptive approach to the situation, redesigning aspects of the role and changing the grading to accommodate my skills and experience.

I would have missed a fantastic opportunity if I had seen the job advertisement and not applied because it was a step-down. The hiring manager also got what he needed – a highly skilled person to do the job.

Holding onto the notion of overqualification hinders at many levels. As the candidate, having this notion can impede your career growth and result in you walking away from potentially excellent opportunities. As the hiring manager, it can hinder your ability to find the talent you seek.

It helps to look at the benefits.

Benefits flow both ways
The benefits of hiring people with more skills than the job description require flow both ways.

Hiring manager/Employer
A highly skilled and capable team member brings new ideas and perspectives to the role, with the potential to support your organisation’s innovation and growth agenda.

There is always a learning curve when joining an organisation or taking on a new role, even when skilled. This time to competency is expedited, so there are potential productivity gains. They’ll likely also need less on-the-job training and support, which can save time and money.

Candidate/Team member
While the new team member already has knowledge and skills, there is an opportunity to continue that skill growth and rapidly contribute and demonstrate positive impact and outcomes to your leader.

For example, suppose you are overqualified for a job that requires you to perform repetitive tasks. In that case, you may have the opportunity to take on additional responsibilities or work on more challenging projects. This can help you develop new skills and broaden your professional experience.

Employers are always looking for candidates who can bring value to their organisation, and being overqualified can give you an edge over other candidates. Your experience and skills may be what they are looking for, even if the job description doesn’t specify that. It can also be an opportunity to shift industries and provide the stepping stone for the next significant role.

There are many valid reasons why a person may decide that they want a role that is less complex, risky and challenging. Sometimes, people deliberately seek positions below their skill level for better work-life balance. Taking on a less demanding job can give you more time to focus on your personal life while still allowing you to maintain a career and earn a living.

Employers – take an adaptive approach
Success when hiring a highly qualified employee requires an adaptive approach. When reviewing a candidate’s application who appears overqualified, consider and discover the following:

  • The reason why they want the role. Is it that they want to slow down or take on less responsibility? Are they looking to shift industries?
  • Potential opportunities to expand the scope of the role to utilise their skills and talents better. Are there options to shift the role so they can add more value? How could the role be redesigned to make the best use of their capabilities?
  • Your mindset and any unstated fears which could be blocking your desire to hire them. Are there fears and concerns underlying your thought processes? Are you holding on to assumptions and bias that is impacting your interest?

The hiring manager plays a significant role in how the overqualified employee adapts and thrives in the new position or whether they become disengaged and disappointed. Be open and transparent from the outset and committed to finding ways to make the most of their talent.

Candidates – How to position yourself
For candidates, you want to position yourself effectively and allay any stated or unstated concerns the hiring manager may have.

Firstly, be explicit on why you want the role. You want to show you are genuinely interested in the position and the organisation and emphasise the value you can bring. Highlight your skills, experience, and why this role aligns with your current purpose and career aspirations.

Be prepared to address any concerns that the employer may have directly and ready to explain how you would approach the role, stay motivated and add value.

If you want more, this article from HBR is helpful.

As author Simon Sinek said, “Remember, it’s not about finding someone who can do the job as well as you can – it’s about finding someone who can do the job better than you can. When you hire people who are more qualified than you, you’re not just building a better team – you’re building a better you.


Getting you ready for tomorrow, today®

Michelle Gibbings is a workplace expert, the award-winning author of three books, and a global keynote speaker. She’s on a mission to help leaders, teams and organisations create successful workplaces – where people thrive and progress is accelerated. 

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