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Was the candidate really overqualified? Let’s stop the nonsense, shall we?

By Sue Parker | |8 minute read

Alongside the sales rejection “we can’t afford it”, the hiring rejection “you are overqualified” is mostly a ubiquitous lazy trope and disingenuous smokescreen. It’s time to stop the nonsense, as it causes great harm and stymies healthy conversations.

Brené Brown, leading global author and researcher of vulnerability and leadership, famously quotes that “clear is kind, unclear is unkind”. In her book Dare to Lead, she shares that:

  1. Feeding people half-truths or bulls--t to make them feel better (which is almost always about making ourselves feel more comfortable) is unkind.
  2. Not getting clear with people about expectations because it feels too hard, yet holding them accountable or blaming them for not delivering is unkind.

There is a lot to apportion from this to hiring, as rejecting candidates as being overqualified is unkind, off course and foolish.

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But what does being overqualified really mean? Is it a valid reason or an indolent ostrich excuse? Is it code for ageism or other conscious and unconscious biases?

How can the truth be determined? How can skilled candidates minimise and mitigate the risk of this objection being delivered willy-nilly?

Delivering the overqualified trope to candidates erodes their confidence and self-worth at best. At worst, it can lead to depression and the loss of a great candidate who could have delivered outstanding results.

Whatever the multiple reasons and nuanced decisions to reject a candidate, what is congruent is that hiring managers fear making mistakes and dislike or avoid delivering negative feedback. Ghosting after interviews is also ubiquitous and unkind.

Staffing risk minimisation is a key driver of hiring decisions. But biases, ageism and other fear-based attitudes are equally key drivers of many illogical decisions. This is clear where there is no empirical evidence nor robust curious discussions.

Facts unplugged

The fact is rejecting a candidate as being overqualified is often code for ageism. It’s always code for fearfulness and occasionally immaturity in broader hiring nuances.

But it mostly masks the real issues at hand, which may or may not be valid. And it’s only through a journalist mindset of curious questioning and further digging that the truth of issues can be unplugged.

The litmus, of course, is when that objection is given. Is it on the application stage or after an interview/s?

If given after an interview, it’s absolutely code for another concern that hasn’t been fleshed out. If it’s at the application stage, often the hiring manager or recruiter has not bothered to qualify fairly.

Comfort and risk management are always central to processes at the front, middle, and end of hiring.

Firsthand perspective

I know this situation up close, having owned a recruitment agency for over 11 years. I well recall advertising mid to senior roles and receiving applications with considerably more experience than requested. Initially, I was a “no thanks” (for a minute until I kicked myself).

And people who had been self-employed or in their own business for many years were also putting their hats back into the employment ring, which I had to evaluate fairly.

I needed to stretch my curiosity muscle as to why they applied and determine if they were gold or dust for my clients.

As a side note, successfully determining the state of play was expedited in phone conversations, which I always promoted. Yes, I encouraged them. Pity this is rarely offered these days.

So, back to those who had considerably more experience or had been self-employed. Sure, they could do the roles well with their deep understanding of the industry and needs. But was that enough to minimise risk and proceed?

Not always, as I needed to explore the real motivations for applying in the first place. Again, curious conversations are key. How would they deal with different management reports or, for the first time in years, reporting to others? And, of course, are they simply desperate for anything?

Taking this approach got to the truth by giving candidates a fair opportunity to address concerns. Some cut the mustard easily and proceeded, whereas others fell by the wayside.

The big issue is dangerous assumptions about goals and aspirations. People can change their views of success and happiness at all ages.

Many who have had careers managing staff may no longer want that and are willing to sacrifice salary. Others really miss the hands-on value of their profession. You must lose preconceived judgements and stereotypes.

The irony and paradoxes

The other irony of hiring people with more experience than required is it should be considered a huge super bonus for the company.

By gee, who wouldn’t want someone who can quickly identify issues and solve them? Who wouldn’t want to take advantage of someone with extraordinary skills?

The world and markets are volatile and change on a dime, and employees aren’t expected or will remain at the same company for decades. Goodness, five years at tops is a great inning. And even having a superstar who creates magic for two years is far better than a person who does good work for five years.

Another truth is around the paradox of contracts and projects. In hiring short-medium term roles, any extra depth of experience is of no consequence. It’s about whether the candidate has the skills to do the job well, play nicely with stakeholders and deliver key performance indicators (KPIs).

The irony is that if a person had a PhD in a field, it would not preclude them from the job as it’s a contract. Think about that for a minute. If the candidate is happy with the salary and role at hand, the company should be over the moon.

This, of course, brings the question as to why more contracts versus permanent roles are not considered in the hiring ecosystem.

The real objections

OK, so let’s call the issues out that generally result in an overqualified rejection and pushback:

  1. Salary concerns: Do the salary expectations meet with the candidates?
  2. Job satisfaction and challenge: Will the candidate find the role challenging enough and not get bored?
  3. Flight risk: Will the candidates use the job as a temporary stopgap measure until they find a more suitable role?
  4. Cultural fit: Does the candidate really match values, goals, or work culture?
  5. Management supervision: Is the candidate open to being managed and supervised?
  6. Team dynamics: How will the candidate fit with our team members? Will they feel threatened and resentful?
  7. Ageism: Is the candidate past it? Do they keep up with technology and trends, etc?

While the above can be valid concerns to consider, mostly they are fear-based and illogical. Fear can be a major motivator for rejecting candidates. As can the concern that other employees may feel intimated by an exceptional candidate.

If there are staff and management with insecurity issues, it brings into question a whole new raft of cultural concerns to address.

Insecurity can result in bullying and other workplace toxic issues. So if there is any inkling that a highly talented candidate may stoke that in a workplace, that is a real red flag.

Stopping the nonsense

Get very clear on your own mindset and attitudes to stereotypes, ageism and insecure feelings.

Be very curious and dig below the surface with deeper questions. Give candidates enough rope to share their truth without fear.

Learn to deliver feedback that is helpful, minimises repercussions and gives candidates something valuable to reflect on.

Remember that every interaction with an experienced candidate is an opportunity for brand building and market reputation management.

Be clear and kind – always!

Sue Parker, owner of DARE Group Australia, is a communications, LinkedIn expert and executive career strategist.

RELATED TERMS

Ageism

Ageism, often known as age discrimination, is the act of treating someone unjustly because of their age. In the workplace, this might manifest as a person being passed over for a job or promotion, older workers being denied benefits or early termination of employment.

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