Refusing to Hire Overqualified Candidates – a Myth That Can Hurt Your Firm

Imagine being assigned a physician and then purposely rejecting them solely because they were “overqualified” for your medical situation. Well that’s exactly what happens when hiring managers reject candidates who have “too many” qualifications.

There is simply no excuse in this new era of data-based recruiting to adhere to this old wives’ tales” in hiring. I have written in the past about the cost of rejecting “job jumpers” and in this article, I will focus on the false assumption that hiring candidates who are “overqualified” will result in frustrated employees who will quickly quit. There is simply no data to prove any of the negative assumptions that are often made about overqualified prospects or candidates.

There Are No Proven Performance Issues Related to Being Overqualified

It may initially seem difficult for most firms to prove or disprove the value of rejecting overqualified candidates simply because they were never hired and therefore the firm has no performance or turnover data on them. However, firms can calculate the average performance and retention of the few new hires who slipped through with excess qualifications and compare it to the performance level of your average hires.

Another alternative is to rely on academic studies, including a significant one from Erdogan & Bauer at Portland State University that concluded that the overqualified, if hired, get higher performance appraisal ratings and perform better than average hires. And if these new hires are empowered as employees, they do not have lower job satisfaction, lower intentions to remain, or higher voluntary turnover. There is also no credible public or corporate evidence that overqualified candidates get bored, are less motivated, are absent more, or have any unique team or performance problems. There are, however, many positive reasons why recruiters and hiring managers should hire those who are perceived to be overqualified. The top 20 of these positive reasons are listed below.

The Top 20 Reasons Why You Should Hire Overqualified Candidates

The 20 different reasons or benefits associated with hiring overqualified candidates are separated into three categories: 1) recruiting/ business impacts; 2) reasons to be suspicious of qualifications; and 3) actions to mitigate potential problems.

Recruiting and business impacts

  1. You will simply lose out on a large volume of qualified candidates — the high unemployment rates that the country has faced over several years have dramatically increased the number of overqualified individuals applying for positions. As a result, simply rejecting them outright will dramatically reduce your qualified applicant pool.
  2. Their desire to work may be stronger — because so many highly qualified individuals have been let go from organizations in recent years, their desire to work will likely overpower any feeling of entitlement or resistance to taking a lower-level job. A combination of a candidate’s inability to move and limited local job opportunities may make them more than willing to happily work below their experience level. Many people (and especially those attempting to change industries) are willing to start at a lower level in order to prove themselves and work their way up. Overqualified candidates may even go out of their way to prove to all involved that hiring them (despite their over-qualifications) was a wise decision.
  3. On the surface, it seems silly to reject “more for the same price” — obviously when you purchase equipment or a car, it is a plus if the equipment has “excess features” for the same price. Using the same logic, why would you reject Tiger Woods if he applied for a job at your average golf team position even if he was obviously overqualified?
  4. Even if they leave early, they add tremendous value — you might believe the premise that overqualified new hires will get bored and leave early. However, having a star for a short period of time may provide a high ROI. Even if they stay for a shorter time, they still give the organization an opportunity to take advantage of their skills and experience during that time. Your organization can learn from them, drain their ideas, and adapt their best practices throughout the organization. Ask yourself: would you rather have an overqualified person for six months or a mediocre hire for five years?
  5. Hire them “for this” and “the next job” — smart firms like Google hire individuals for “this and the next job” based on the premise that most employees will eventually move internally or get promoted. And by hiring the overqualified, you make sure that  some new hires will already have most of the qualifications and skills that they will need for their next job. And if you have rapid promotion and internal movement rates, these new hires won’t likely be overqualified for long.
  6. They may have a faster time to productivity — their over-qualifications will likely mean that they will reach their expected productivity level much faster than the average hire.
  7. Less training will be required — because of their added qualifications and skills, they will likely require less costly training and time off the job to be trained.
  8. The overqualified can mentor others — new hires with excessive experience generally find a way to share that knowledge and experience with other employees. Their mere presence may even inspire or challenge current employees to improve.
  9. They may be easier to manage — the extra experience and confidence that they bring to the job means that they will likely be easier to manage. If their over-qualifications includes leadership experience and skills, they may be able to help the manager.
  10. Hire them for expected growth — growing firms assume that the organization will continue to grow and expand. And that means that you will eventually find a need for the new hires’ expanded qualifications and expertise that are not currently represented at the company. You may end up being able to act on new opportunities that you aren’t even thinking about right now.
  11. They may be a self-motivated professional — if you are hiring a professional who is overqualified, it is highly likely that their professionalism and self-pride will drive them to perform and excel, regardless of what job they are currently in.
  12. Avoid serious legal issues — there are no legal justifications for using “overqualified” as a rejection factor. In addition, because having excess qualifications are often directly correlated with age, refusing to hire the overqualified candidate can create serious EEOC issues. And since older individuals are highly likely to complain, litigate, and also serve on juries, I don’t recommend refusing to hire the overqualified without hard data supporting the fact that they have a low probability of on-the-job success. Any legal issues are likely to be compounded if you don’t specifically state that in your position description that one of the qualifications for the position is not being “overqualified.” 

Reasons why you should be suspicious about most qualifications

  1. Most jobs specifications are inaccurate anyway — most jobs specifications are not scientifically determined. That’s because jobs themselves are now changing rapidly. As a result, many job descriptions are highly inaccurate. Simple analysis will often reveal that many of your current top-performing workers have less, more, or a different set of qualifications than those found in the position description. So don’t make hiring decisions based on qualifications where “having them” or “not having them” may have little impact with on-the-job performance.
  2. Even accurate qualifications may have a short shelf life — with so many new technologies, practices and products, most current qualifications quickly become obsolete. This means that whether the candidate has the right amount or excess qualifications, all of them may quickly become obsolete. And this means that the ability to learn rapidly and adapt may be more important than a close examination focusing exclusively on a candidate’s existing qualifications.
  3. The candidate may not be as overqualified as you think — we know that many individuals exaggerate on their resumes and during interviews. And as a result, it’s quite possible that the actual skill set of an overqualified candidate may turn out not to be significantly higher than the average candidate. 

Actions to minimize potential over-qualification problems

Article Continues Below

  1. Identify if hiring manager insecurity is the underlying reason for rejection — the real reason why overqualified individuals are not hired may be related to insecurities on the part of the hiring manager. You certainly don’t want hiring managers to hurt your firm by selfishly refusing to hire over-qualified individuals simply because they fear that they may show them up or threaten their job. It may be necessary for HR to work with hiring managers to avoid this kind of selfish company-damaging behavior.
  2. Empowerment makes a difference — it turns out that by simply giving overqualified new hires some freedom, you eliminate almost all of the perceived negatives related to hiring the overqualified. This is because if you empower new hires who have excess qualifications, they will generally find a way to apply those qualifications in your organization.
  3. Flexibility in the job can eliminate any concerns — most over-qualification issues can be resolved quickly if the organization and the hiring manager is willing to shape the job. By simply changing or adding responsibilities to match the overqualified candidate’s skill set, they will have more business impact while at the same time reducing any potential frustrations from working beneath their experience/skill level.
  4. A development plan can eliminate most concerns — managers can often mitigate any issues related to the overqualified candidate if they provide the new hire with a development plan. Letting them know that there is a plan with deadlines to develop them can help alleviate any of their fears and anxiety. This development plan might include stretch goals or part-time rotations and projects that will quickly expose the individual to the rest of the organization. This exposure and their performance could make it more likely that the overqualified individual could move quickly internally to another job that more closely fits their qualifications.
  5. You may not need to be concerned about referrals — if the overqualified candidate has been referred by a top employee, your concern should be lowered. This is because you can trust that your top employees will have already assessed them on their fit and their willingness to work at a level below their qualifications.

Final Thoughts

It seems silly and inconsistent to me that hiring managers who are continually complaining about the high volume of unqualified candidates are willing to further weaken their candidate pool by rejecting individuals with too many qualifications. Rejecting someone because they have too much of what you desperately need seems at best illogical. However, I’m not surprised at this illogical behavior because I have found during my 35+ years in recruiting that most hiring managers and some recruiters make decisions based on gut feelings and completely unproven assumptions and stereotypes.

If talent acquisition leaders want to prove or disprove the value of hiring the overqualified, calculate the statistical correlation between excess qualifications and weak performance and high turnover. Or alternatively simply occasionally hire a few overqualified candidates and directly track whether they perform above or below what is average for new hires. Questioning this rejection factor has become even more relevant recently because research at firms like Google have demonstrated that other widely-relied-on recruiting factors like grades, test scores, brainteasers, and unstructured interviews simply have little predictive value when it comes to identifying great hires. During a time where the “under qualification” of applicants is a huge problem, it makes no economic sense to reject those whose only fault is having “too many” qualifications!

Dr. John Sullivan

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," Staffing.org called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website www.drjohnsullivan.com and on www.ERE.Net. He lives in Pacifica, California.