IT Employment

Employee vs. hiring manager: On the topic of being overqualified

Many people have heard and are confused by the label of "overqualified." Here we ask a manager what exactly is meant by that term when delivered to a job candidate.

As an employee, it's often too easy to jump to a conclusion about your workplace or a manager's actions. For a little change of pace, once a month in this space we will tackle a work-related problem from the employee point of view and then allow a manager to tell his or her side of the issue.

This month's topic is the "overqualified" label.

From a TechRepublic member:

For the second time in a row, I've been told by a company I've interviewed with that I'm "overqualified." First of all, my qualifications matched those listed in the job ad. If that's what they asked for, how can I be overqualified? I'm beginning to think that companies want to shoot for the moon in employee qualifications but don't expect to have to match them in terms of salary compensation.

Secondly, maybe I already realize that I'm overqualified. Maybe I'm seeking to cut back on the responsibility I've been used to and settle into a simpler job with less of a headache. If that's the case, who are those interviewing managers to tell me what I would or wouldn't be happy with?

What do hiring managers really mean by the term "overqualified" and why do they use it so often?

Here's the answer from our guest manager, Patrick Gray, the founder and president of Prevoyance Group, and author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value Through Technology:

I am certainly sympathetic to getting a limpid quip like "you're overqualified" when you have put a great deal of effort into applying for a job. The overqualified story could mean several different things, but in all cases where you career is at stake, trying to get to the causes behind the overqualified remark from the source is far better than cooking up unhelpful theories on your own.

Your best source to get to the truth behind a diagnosis of overqualification is if you did an interview with someone outside HR who has a good sense of what the position you applied for entails. You should have asked for each interviewer's business card, and there is no shame in giving them a brief call, thanking them for their time, and expressing some regret that you were not a match for the role. Tell the person that you are always looking to improve your marketability, and you would appreciate any candid feedback they might have to offer. If you seem genuinely interested in improving yourself rather than accusatory or vindictive, most people will be willing to help. If you get platitudes or other vague feedback, there may be organizational issues like cost cuts that the person you are speaking with cannot disclose. However, if you hear consistent themes after several interviews, perhaps you can identify areas for improvement.

Overqualified is such a frustrating "verdict" in the job hunt since it could be cover for any number of factors, and it is a nice excuse for the hiring side since it sounds like they are telling you "you're really too smart for this job," sugarcoating bad news with a compliment towards your vast skill set. If you cannot get to the source, "overqualified" may be code for one or more of the following:

  • You are too tech-focused. This sounds like an odd problem to have when applying for a technology job, but many hiring managers are more interested in an ability to learn on the job than extremely deep knowledge of a relatively limited area. In future interviews, try showcasing times when you were confronted with the unknown, and tackled the problem without waiting for a training class or certification.
  • You're too expensive. Perhaps someone asked for your salary range, or you made the mistake of putting past salaries on the job application (just because they asked for it does not mean you have to provide it), and it is way above what the company is planning to pay for the position. It's part of the art of negotiating, but try and get the employer to offer their range first so you can decide if you want to proceed with lowered salary expectations or move on. There is also the slight possibility the company is prepared to pay more than you expect for the role and, if the potential employer blinks first, you can plan accordingly. Say something like "What is the salary range of similar roles at your company?" when the time seems right.
  • You seem like you might leave soon. While the days of lifetime employment at a single company are long past, there are fairly high costs associated with bringing on a new employee, and the potential employer wants to make sure you are not going to jump ship in a few months as soon as a better job comes along. If you have a history of bouncing between jobs, or say that you left several past jobs since they were not challenging enough, the employer might worry you will jump ship as soon as you get bored or the economy improves.
  • There are organizational problems going on in the background that the company cannot or does not want to share. The true reasons behind a verdict of "overqualified" could range from running out of money from the time the ad was placed to the time of your interview to something more insidious, like the company doing interviews to gauge the market or "price shop" when it really has no intent of hiring anyone. In this scenario you will likely never get the truth, since few companies will admit they were wasting your time and giving false hope while trying to do market research.
  • HR or the decision maker just didn't see you as a fit on a personal level. In a lawsuit-prone environment, no one will disclose anything that could be interpreted as discriminatory, and this could range from inappropriate clothing or personal appearance, to heavily accented English. While these reasons may seem personally offensive and petty, in a conservative corporate environment and buyers' market, that new tattoo or nose ring may be an immediate disqualifier despite an otherwise perfect fit. In a highly interactive role, a thick accent might be an impediment, or it could simply be a personal bias on the part of someone making the hiring decision. You can debate the injustice of it all, but even in modern times things like appearance still place a role in hiring decisions.

Again, when possible, go to the source and ask for the reasons behind a verdict of "overqualified," making sure you frame the discussion as an opportunity for personal improvement to try and improve your prospects rather than a vindictive witch hunt. While this route is often successful, be prepared for the possibility of more vague feedback, since, like most of us, hiring managers have their secrets too. If you cannot get any constructive feedback, learn what you can from the interviewing process and move on to the next one. Beating yourself up over an "overqualified" will do nothing to help you move forward.

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If you have a question you'd like to ask a manager, e-mail it to me.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

27 comments
sakpalvijay
sakpalvijay

Yes that?s true that sometime overqualified does create problem for employees in getting job but at the same time qualification is also an essential part of making good career

ncudmore
ncudmore

Last couple of jobs I've gone for, it's been interesting where they don't actually want experience and knowledge. They actually want junior 'yes' people - regardless of what the ad actually states. Too many managers seem to want to 'push' their own agendas which often are not in the best interests of the company. Many just want to 'look and feel' good about themselves. At one company, I achieved 100% availability system with minimal spend, but that wasn't what the manager really wanted. He wanted an excuse to change the email systems (from Notes to Exchange), and to of 'fixed' what was perceived as a broken system for such low expenditure when he expected me to fail, didn't go down well at all. Any time I see an interview with a 'young' manager now, I can expect it not to go well from the outset, I just know I'm there to make the numbers up in the process...

melekali
melekali

We did hire this person who had almost too many qualifications and it turned out he was a delight to have work for me. I initially thought he was "overqualified."

kb6252
kb6252

Translation: "You're too old to work" "You're too retarded to work" It's all based on discrimination. If the company isn't being straight with you, it is safe to assume the worst.

mikifinaz1
mikifinaz1

Cut bait and move on. Diagnosing this crap is a waste of time for most people, if the resume is done right.

kevaburg
kevaburg

In Germany, my main focus for work, an individual isn't paid for the job they are about to enter into. Rather, they are paid for the qualifiations and experience they have. Daft I know, but that is just how it works. I have found most potential employers are more responsive when I: a. Put only the qualifications relevant to the job on my resume. b. Most of the work I have done has been short-term project work (up to 6 months) so to try to prevent the "job-hopping" frameset, I simply say "various project work - freelance" and generate a single list of skills relevant to my experience and to the job advert. c. If I am really willing to take a step back and enjoy less responsibility for a given job/project, then I don't make mayself appear to be the be-all and end-all of what the job entails. Some may say that this approach doesn't give the employer the right vision of me as a person or a professional but in this day and age, you have to be mercenary in your approach and if that means "tailoring" your resume to not give the interviewer the impression you are "over-qualified" then so be it. It isn't lying. It is "producing information relevant to the situation". I am not telling them I can do something that I blatantly can't, rather not telling them everything that I can. The US, UK and Germany have different views I think on what the term "over-qualified" really means and this is just my take on the Germany side of things. Maybe it applies to everyone, maybe not........

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

from being completely misled about the role, is a cop-out, an excuse for cowardice or incompetence. 'You' read my friggin' resume why have you wasted my time with an interview? Sorry but that lot came across as total BS, anyone dumb enough to think I'm going to feel better by being told I'm overqualified is too stupid to be allowed to employ me.

NickNaym
NickNaym

Very nice run-of-the mill textbook response that conveniently ignores the obvious: Age discrimination. It may not be the #1 reason, but it certainly deserves a prominent position on the list that any hiring manger submits. If it isn't, I would immediately question that manager's expertise or honesty.

jsaubert
jsaubert

I can see that from the hiring companies perspective employing someone that is "overqualified" for a position can cause loads of stress in a lot of different ways. However I have to relay the story of a friend who was let go after they consolidated her position with someone's that had been there longer. Well lets just say she was at an age where you're normally thinking about retiring in 5-10 years not switching jobs. The very image of "overqualified" at everything. After no less than 20 interviews ending in "I'm sorry but you're overqualified for this job" she started making up funny replies. Nothing rude just silly little "thank you for your time"s ... one of which got her a call back and hired. The focus of the rejection she got was something like: We feel we couldn't compensate you enough for your experience. Her response at the end of her return letter: Don't worry about me, I'm having a sale. Three weeks later they hired her. She didn't find out until later that it was because of her funny comment and her personality that the manager reconsidered.

rbogar
rbogar

1) This is the easiest cover for age discrimination. 2) The company intends to hire a cheaper H1B worker and needs to first make a show of trying to hire a resident. This may sound paranoid, but there are actually consultants out now teaching companies just how to game this system.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

job, any job, then I might apply for a role where I had to not mention a heck of a lot of the things I've done. I'd be really contemptuous of anyone who allowed me to succeed though. Also if I did get sussed, I'd expect that alone to disqualify me. Tailoring your resume for emphasis is not a problem, but if I was stepping down, I'd say that in cover letter, and why...

ps.techrep
ps.techrep

1. You haven't had a lobotomy. 2. You enjoy working too much. 3. You aren't starving and homeless - yet. 4. The hiring manger is under-qualified. 5. The HR representative is under-qualified. 6. The entire company is terrified that if they hire anyone who is qualified, they will all look bad. 7. The company has a policy of hiring the unqualified. 8. The hiring manager doesn't know what the job entails. 9. The company believes that if you are willing and able to do the job for what they are willing to pay, you MUST be too stupid to do the work. 10. They didn't think you'd accept "too tall" as a valid reason for rejection.

JasonKB
JasonKB

It is a standard catch-phrase for not making a job offer. If your resume showed that you were indeed under/over qualified then they wouldn't have interviewed with you. Overqualified = Bat Fit = Too short/tall Too fat/skinny Too young/old Too ugly/handsome Too compliant/opinionated or any of dozens of other soft skill or personality/work style "fit" reasons for excluding you from a job offer. HR people like to use it as a back-handed compliment, but rarely mean it as a praise. I've that excuse myself (once) to get rid a very persistent candidate that was a real PITA. I'm was hiring for a Business Analyst role and this guy wants to shirk questions about SQL queries and job related requirements and talk about all the recognition he received from his previous employers. His main interest seemed to be how he was going to recognized for his achievements in this job. Since this guy came across as a praise junkie I gave him the "we're not worthy/you're over qualified" brushoff.

MikeBytes
MikeBytes

I was quite surprised to see so many attributing this lame excuse to age discrimination. I have tested this theory after turning 55 and receiving "over qualified" several times, then not being able to get interviews at all. When I took 10-15 years off my resume and application I got calls for interviews all over the place. I had to turn them down as I had falsified my application and resume for this test but it did confirm what you all are talking about.

jck
jck

They pay a consultant a few thousand, and save 10k on hiring an H1B candidate. It seems to have become the American way. :(

kevaburg
kevaburg

How can being relevant qualify me for disqualification? After all, if I build a database query, I select the fields and tables that I or anyone else wants to see. Noone wants to wade through a quagmire of information especially when selecting candidates for an interview. If they ask me in the interview whether or not I have additional skills then that is something else but why throw information at people when they don't necessarily want to have it? If I fail to disclose information at this point then disqualification could happen. Focusing only on the points they are interested in in the resume is more likely to at least get you the interview because what they want to see is not hidden in potentially irrelevant text.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

To stupid to know why you don't fit, or too cowardly to say it.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

I can see why you wouldn't come out with something discriminatory like you are tool old. But "I think you're a pratt" is perfectly good reason for not hiring, a why you do might make the guy look in the mirror.

SilverBullet
SilverBullet

that this particular employeer is just filling a billet. In fact, your qualifications are not relevant at all, they seek someone to do a task that they no longer want to be bothered with. Run, run away from this employeer as fast as you can and don't seek any reasonable explaintion. They are not worth it nor have one.

kevaburg
kevaburg

A single salesperson promotes his or her product. Thats it. In IT when we look for a job, we are competing against, most of the time, a great deal of other people, some of whom already have jobs and therefore not an enormous amount to lose if the job does not become theirs. From the comapanies side of life, they are looking at ways of achieving that which they need to, but at the lowest price. It makes sense so far, at least to me. That is why I think dumbing down the CV can be so important. If they don't need a person with CIO experience, don't tell them you have it, unless of course they ask. It becomes "team leadership experience" or something similar. If they need a database developer and nothing else, why would you need to tell them about the 1st line support role you held in a school repairing PC's. All I am saying is that relevance plays the key role here and too much information that is well over and above the "customers" requirement might just be enough to put them off.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

What if as well as making trainers, you make steroids, as it were. If I need a VB6 cookie cutter, employing someone with a masters in CS, who was the CIO at a tech giant, doesn't make sense does it? If I was tired of management, and wanted to go back to technical, I might gloss down the time as CIO, and emphase the architectural and strategic stuff parts of that role (if there were any)

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

in CS, because the role was VB6 cookie cutting, to get past HR, fair enough. If you then have to tell the interviewer you have one, and the job is for a junior cookie cutter, then it's time to explain. It better be a good one as well.. Leaving off the PHD in Superstring Physics would be perfectly reasonable though. I dumbed down my resume so you would think I was suitable, to me is not that much different to 'beefing' it up so you are. This is a UK perspective, or course, salary is based on waht I'd need from you, not what you could possibly 'give'

ITSuper
ITSuper

We provide a service. Most companies provide multiple services but in order to get clients they tailor their marketing to a specific segment. If a client needs life insurance, point your marketing to life insurance, close the deal, and then investigate other needs. For many years as a group we have been in a position of control. When we interviewed we were hired just because we knew more than our clients and they would pay dearly for our services. Now competition, dozens of certifications, degrees, and automation make it difficult for companies to wade through and ascertain who is best for a given position. We are a product and a service. If you want to sell shoes to an NBA player, during the initial sale you talk about your athletic shoes, without having to mention that you also make sandals. Every great salesperson will tell you that you focus on the customers needs first, and when you close the deal to your satisfaction, offer up your other skills to show them what a great decision they made hiring you and set yourself up for better raises and benefits later. That's how I got three raises in one year. The proof is always in the paycheck.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

I meant write it out, tie it to a brick and then throw it at the b'stard. :D If some one told me I could ring all their ex-employers and expect to be told what a great guy they were. I'd think bluff Pass the knobhead He had picture of them all with three shemales, a shetland pony and a box of disposable nappies. He'd never done anything anywhere that was worth critising. That he was the best thing sice sliced bread, no way. Lots of people who know me will tell you I'm an a%%hole, some of them mean it in a good way though. :p

JasonKB
JasonKB

Tony - I don't disagree that constructive criticism would be the best approach in most cases. I had, in this case, tried to get the point across that he wasn't a good fit for the organization in a few areas, anything I pointed out as a shortcoming he wanted to refute. For example, I explained to him that I didn't think his personal style (a$$hole) would fit well with the rest of the department and the company. Rather than accept this as a deal breaker he wanted me to call his previous employers and co-workers to get them to tell how great he was. This struck me as highly presumptuous and insulting - the presumption being that that other people would be a better judge of his fit in my department than I would. It became clear to me he wasn't interested in my opinion of him unless it was what he wanted to hear. I told him was too qualified to get him to stop refuting every point I raised and to shutdown the interview. It worked, he was in a big hurry to leave after that. If it hadn't I would have terminated the interview rather than keep going. Age was not a factor - he was too young to take "over qualified" as age discrimination.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

if it's delievered forcefully enough. I've been described as overqualified too, I don't want to be confused with this numpty though. The key is though if your candidate has ceased wearing nappies (diapers), overqualified is going to be taken as too old. Is that the impression you want to give?

JasonKB
JasonKB

I agree that an honest response would have been the right response if I thought it would make any difference with this guy. I got the strong impression that the only response he was going to accept was that he was too good for the job (an indirect form of praise).