Tech & Work

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.

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