Tech & Work

Avert the 'overqualified' label in job interviews by facing it head-on

Experience and expertise can pose potential problems when consultants aim for jobs that are lower on the career ladder and hiring managers view them as overqualified. The key is confronting it directly with prospective employers.

Consultants searching for jobs, especially those with solid experience and varied backgrounds, sometimes hear, "I'm sorry, but you're overqualified for this position." Being told you're overqualified is frustrating, but it doesn't always mean you're out of the running. It means you have to understand, and then allay, the fears of the hiring manager and face the issue head-on in your interview.

Defuse the issue
Employers typically have the following objections to candidates with extra qualifications: You'll get bored quickly; you won't be satisfied with the salary; you'll jump to another company as soon as you get a better offer. They believe that as soon as the economy picks up, you'll leave and they'll have to start all over with a candidate search and the new employee training curve.

The best way to avert the concern, according to career counselors, is to be the first one to broach the overqualification issue with a potential employer.

Your goal is to defuse their objections with a carefully crafted pitch on how your qualifications will pay off for the company. Then be honest about your reasons for applying for a lower-level position. For example:

"You can tell that I've worked at a higher level, but I want to earn a living and this job and duties appeal to me."

Don't say, "I can't find anything else out there." Employers are already worried that you won't stay. Strongly state your commitment to stay a minimum amount of time to give you both a chance to try each other out.

Other statements that can help allay fears about overqualification include:
  • "I'd like to learn this industry, and I'm willing to take a lower-level position to do that."
  • "I've been on the bench for over a year. I've kept myself active and learning, but I'd like to contribute. I'm not looking to fill time. I'm looking for a job with long-term employment possibilities."

If you have other reasons, such as changed family or personal circumstances, that have led you to apply for the position, be honest about them. Everyone has had times when they need less on their plate.

The issue of salary
A related issue is a candidate's salary expectations. Many employers don't believe a candidate will take a lower-level job and the accompanying salary and cut the interview process short for efficiency's sake.

To prevent this from happening, indicate that you're flexible on salary during your initial discussion. Don't mention how much you used to make. Research the appropriate salary range for the position you're applying for and make sure the employer knows you're willing to take that salary level.

If a hiring manager demands to know your latest pay during the initial interview, honesty is likely the best answer, according to experts.

"You should say, 'A lot. Probably more than you could pay me in this position. But money is not my top priority,'" advised Bill Anderson, a career coach in New Brunswick, NJ.

If the hiring manager presses the issue of how you can live with lower pay, make it clear that you're seeking a better work/life balance and that if hired, you won't be waiting for a better-paying job to come along. Employers want to know that you're not going to jump ship at the first offer that gets you an extra couple of bucks.

Clearly express your interest
When you're gunning for a job and you know you have the skills, and maybe even too many skills, focus on the relevant experience. While traditional interviewing techniques advise you to sell yourself and highlight everything you've done in your career, this is not the road to take when you know you're more than qualified.

For example, telling an IT manager of a 30-person department that you used to run a 300-person department isn't going to endear you to him. He's already afraid you might know more than he does and could pose a career threat to him, or that you'll be bored in a lower-level job and won't perform. You must play down your war stories and play up your willingness to do the job.

In being up front and honest and tackling the overqualified issue, also answer the underlying question many managers are wondering in silence—whether taking a lower-level job will be a humiliating experience for such a qualified person. Address this issue, and the hiring manager's fear, by conveying a positive attitude about the available position and the work involved.

"You have to be seen as the kind of person who believes there is honor in every job," said Anderson.


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