What about the “Overqualified?”

The Blogs of Dave Murphy:  What about the “Overqualified?”

As a Search Consultant I work closely with clients to understand the key skills they are seeking when filling important positions.  They always give me clear direction about minimum years of experience in a given function, for example, 5+ years of marketing experience in the cardiovascular medical device business.  They rarely give me direction about maximum years of experience for a given job, nor will employers who are looking to avoid age-discrimination accusations provide a range of years of experience (e.g. 5-10 years of experience) because of the implication that they won’t consider older candidates.  We’ve made positive strides in the US labor market over the past 20 years to include older workers as candidates for positions for which they have the right type of qualifications.  But in candid conversations with hiring managers they will nearly always explain that they need someone who is either making a lateral move or one step forward in taking on the new position. 

The reasons are plentiful but the main line of thinking is that if they hire someone who has been at a level higher than the opening, then the new employee will be a “flight risk” and continue to seek another job at a higher level after they have accepted the lower level position.  Other issues include the concern that if a candidate is willing to consider a lower job then they must not be very effective in their job, regardless of the level.  Sometimes hiring managers are threatened by candidates who have more experience than themselves, and there are some organizations who expect their team leaders to develop more junior employees and get them promoted.  Many other reasons exist for organizations to pass over tenured, “overqualified” candidates and explain it as lack of fit with the team and corporate culture.  The “fit” explanation allows them to avoid EEOC problems, and is a convenient tool for saving time in the interview process.

But what about the validity of this line of reasoning?  The Flight Risk issue is very real, for one, and needs to be addressed head-on by candidates who may be perceived as being overqualified.   Most “overqualified” candidates have been hiring managers in the same position in the past – “why should I take a chance and hire this person if they are likely to leave the moment they hear about a higher level role?”  The reality is that people are motivated by different things and have different reasons for making job changes at different points in their careers.  In research conducted on this topic by HR and Personnel consulting organizations, the most commonly cited reasons for making a change are (not necessarily in this order):  opportunity for growth and development; opportunity to do more important work and to have a direct impact on the success of an organization; and geography / travel.  Compensation is always among the top five reasons in these studies, but is always ranked third or fourth, never first.

There is a natural tendency among younger workers to aspire for advancement, so they will frequently cite the opportunity for growth and development as their primary motivation for making a job change.  But mid and late career people rarely say that is their primary motivator; instead, they want to work in an organization (typically smaller) that allow them the freedom to make timely decision and feel like they are contributing (positively or negatively) to the bottom line.  In short, the so-called “overqualified” workers want to have more fun at work, often at the expense of climbing the corporate ladder.  They may no longer be driven by ego and status like they were in the past, and often the pride they take in their work and their professional work ethic will drive them to perform at an Exceeds Expectations level, rather than the anticipation of the next promotion.  The 35 year old Senior Product Manager will often tell me that they have to get to the Marketing Director level and beyond, but the 45 or 50 year old Marketing Director will often tell me that they don’t care as much about level as they do about organizational efficiency and enjoying their work.  These are some of the main reasons why we see people gravitate to start-ups and smaller, more nimble companies as they progress through their career.

Another important consideration when evaluating resumes of seemingly overqualified candidates is that resumes and CV’s are full of exaggerations and overinflated claims of greatness – they may not be overqualified at all.   There is also a good chance that their title doesn’t actually reflect the work they have been doing – that the duties and responsibilities of a Director or VP at one company may be very similar to those of a Manager or Senior Manager at another company.  It is somewhat reckless to quickly cast aside an “overqualified” candidate after a two minute resume screen, particularly when motivational fit can’t be communicated effectively on paper. 

As a recruiter I’ve found that it’s important to invest 20 – 30 minutes in a phone call with these types of candidates, to more fully understand the depth and breadth of their skills and what it is that drives them at this point in their career.  The post-recession reality of the job market is that there is still a significant imbalance in the supply and demand at the Senior Director, VP and Chief levels – at least in the Marketing and Business Development functions where I recruit.  There are still many more “applicants” for senior level jobs than openings for them, and active job-seekers have recognized this new reality.  Ongoing contraction in the Biopharmaceutical and Medical Device industry means this will not change anytime soon.   Former VP’s are moving into Director roles, and Directors are moving into AD and Senior Manager positions, and in many cases they are doing it happily when they can find an assignment that gives them the opportunity to really impact the company’s success.  Savvy employers will recognize this trend and re-consider their view of “overqualified” candidates. 


Posted on September 10, 2014, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Dave, well said!

    The makeup and the dynamics of the job market have changed substantially in the past decades. This requires renewed thinking and transformational practice when hiring talents for the organization.

    Per Intelligence Group (Jan. 13, 2014 Forbes), a full 86 million millennials (Gen Y, born between 1977-1997) will be in the workplace by 2020—representing a full 40% of the total working population. They expect to stay in a job for less than three years, according to the Future Workplace Survey (Aug. 14, 2012 Forbes), this means they would have 15 – 20 jobs over the course of their working lives!

    According to the most recent available data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average worker today stays at each of his or her jobs for 4.4 years.

    So, if the labor turnover rate is a major concern for the hiring managers, think it again? What would it take to change? Or will it ever change?

  2. Well said Dave. Our company tends to hire slightly overqualified people as a rule. We like the leadership and experience more sr. workers bring regardless of the title. We have former VP’s in sr. director roles and they are having impact.

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