Overqualified Need Not Apply

Sep 30, 2009
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

Ask for an inch, and you get a yard! Ask for a staff accountant, and you’re buried in resumes from those who were a controller. Ask for an IT help-desk associate, and receive resumes from the directors of IT. We just aren’t used to having so many overqualified talented people to pick from.

During one recession I remember being young, working in retail, and thinking: “everyone in retail has to have a four-year or master’s degree, for that is what my co-workers all had.”

I didn’t know back then that I was in the middle of a recession, one that pales in comparison to today. People now faced with transition are diligently looking for the right fit, but are also considering applying for positions which they are overqualified for, and, then they are surprised, they are not getting them.

Overqualified workers will be quickly bored, frustrated and discouraged, and the moral in the office may suffer.

One hiring manager said the best time to hire overqualified is when a company is faced with rapid growth, needing to promote quickly without much runway. Having a strong bench with “A” players will position the right talent in key roles, easing the growing pains. This is not the time most companies are feeling that growth.

Some managers are tempted to create that strong bench even without that growth. They want accounting departments full of controllers instead of accounting clerks, or an engineering department full of senior-level designers.

Soon after hiring a clearly overqualified candidate, the manager sees the pitfalls.

One employee who used to be a SVP of finance accepted a controller’s position found that he quickly felt underused. Also, he was using systems that needed to be upgraded and felt very frustrated when his recommendations were ignored. Each day his frustration grew and his respect for his boss and the systems diminished. The manager wondered how he ever had an SVP-level position after seeing the attitude he displayed. This is a classic example of the right person in the wrong position. The controller was set up for failure.

A sales position was filled with a candidate who once was an industry expert, and a very successful sales manager who won outstanding performance awards. Selling is selling; she thought and felt she could quickly move up based on her prior track record. Once she joined the sales force she found that she really didn’t fit in. Placed on a team made up of mostly entry-level people she had no one to identify with, and felt like an outcast. Her co-workers viewed her as a manager — even though she wasn’t — and also had difficulty working with her. Her managers confessed they hired her to help bring the level of professionalism up on their team. The feeling of isolation was very difficult and resulted in a continued job search.

The manager was relieved when she moved on. It takes quite a different approach in managing the overqualified.

The right fit is still the goal for many hiring managers, even though the temptation is there. The best candidate for a position is one who can do 50 to 75% of the work with the need to learn and grow to master the task. This period of time will give an employee the challenges and rewards most seek and provide a give and take with the manager. This provides a success track, putting the candidate in the best light to perform and succeed and display a positive attitude.

As far as what we can do with the overqualified, one senior level HR strategic planner suggests the best fit for an overqualified candidate would be a staff-level in a totally new area, such as putting an operations person in a staff-level human resource role, or a retrained engineer in an entry-level IT position. Switching industries or areas will give a candidate the right opportunities to grow and learn, preserving their enthusiasm and optimism. These retrained or redirected employees, with their prior experiences and successes, will usually be on a faster growth path, and be able to pull on past experiences to become a valuable contributor to the new area.

This article is part of a series called Opinion.
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