Thanks for your time, but you’re overqualified!


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How many times have we heard this? This is such a common reason job seekers get when they were unsuccessful in their job search. I hate this line. Yes, you’ve heard me right. This is one of the laziest way to reject a candidate’s application, and it’s so loosely used these days that is starting to feel insincere and fake.

Let’s take the analogy of a football team. If you’re the manager of a smaller club, and you’ve got a star player knocking on your door asking to play for your team. Whatever the reason may be, if this player is available at the right price point which your club’s resources can accommodate, I don’t think you would tell this player that he/ she’s over qualified and should go try a bigger club.

We often associate qualification with cost, but there’s also an abundance of candidates that may not be entirely driven by a higher salary, who are very willing to do a job for a reasonable rate. In many developed cities where there’s an aging population where there is an abundance of experience candidates in the market who’s still got some mileage left in the tank and wanting to take on roles in different capacities. This is where we often hear the rejection stories around overqualified candidates.

I was having drinks with a very senior candidate at the CXO level who’s going to be out of job really soon due to a restructuring in the company. He’s got an amazing career history, with big US MNCs, been around the world, and held numerous key appointments. He’s reasonably priced if you’re wondering, Naturally, he’s started his process of looking for a new job. You’ve probably figured by now, he’s in his mid-fifties, but I’m very sure you won’t notice unless if you check his ID.

The number of times he’s got “overqualification” as a reason for rejection is astounding! It’s bad, and it can be really damaging for anyone’s confidence to be told that you’re not good enough for a job because you’re too good for it.

As he went on with his stories, I started a list to categorize the “driving” cause of his “overqualification”, and here’s what it looked like:

  • Age discrimination and culture fit
  • Worried about retention/ lack of career progression/ budget
  • Insecure hiring manager

Age Discrimination and culture fit

Despite this candidate’s impeccable fashion sense and trendy outlook, he was told my this young recruiter that he would have issues fitting into the culture where the company’s average employee age is in the low 30s. Ouch! There was another incident where the hiring manager commented that the candidate would have issues keeping up with a “startup” culture. This is really subjective. Culture fit is such an interesting assessment criteria that kind of gave employers a free pass at rejecting any candidate that they don’t want to engage further.

Interestingly, startups should really be in the forefront of hiring a more experience candidate given the general employee mix comprises of a younger generation. Bringing more experience into the company could actually be a good thing for them. A lot of these experienced talents are also open to more flexible or consultant like roles which may help lower the cost of acquiring the skillsets for young startups.

Retention, career progression and budget

I have quite a bit of respect for an employer to give this as a reason to a candidate for not wanting to engage further. For me, this is a genuine concern when dealing with a candidate that’s taking on a smaller role, and it is a constant struggle that employers have to deal with. It’s an open market, and there is just absolutely no way employers can prevent employees from wanting to leave the organization for a “better” role. Regardless how willing or passionate a candidate may sound during an interview, there is little telling to how much of it is truth and how much it is sales pitch. The role could be the best for the candidate at that point in time, and a better one with a bit more something may come the next moment.

This is why it is important for the interview process to be as transparent and honest as possible. It’s a process for both employer and employee to outline the role and deliverables, understand what the bigger picture is and hire for the task. This way, the company would had acquired a strong talent who is committed to delivering an agreed set of deliverables with mutually agreed rewards.

Accidents do happen, and no one can guarantee that expectations were miscommunicated or understood. Nor could anyone foresee the changes in business or personal circumstances, however, if the expectations were set right, I strongly believe that this is the foundation to a rock solid hire.

Hiring Manager’s insecurity

This is a tough one to manage. Personally, I’ve worked with really insecure hiring managers myself and they are only interested in hiring people who they can manage and not as “smart” as they are. There are others who reject strong candidates for fear of losing their own job to who they hire.

This is really dangerous. If we look at a team’s output collectively, having someone who can produce more would allow the team to average up, and hiring someone less capable would pull the team down. A team is only as strong as its weakest link. I’ve made it a rule to hire people who are stronger than me, surrounding myself with people who are much more capable than I am allows me to assemble and build a team that can take on larger and grander projects which I may not otherwise be able to accomplish.

However, we also have to acknowledge that not everyone has the confident in leading a high performance team. There are leadership limitation and to be honest, in my many years as a HR professional, I’ve not seen many individuals move to take on a managerial/ leadership role on the back of a proper development plan. A lot of the people managers I know are promoted into the role either because they’ve done their time or had fantastic performance as an individual contributor and moving up was a way to reward that performance.

Robert De Niro, the Intern

Every time I’m on this topic, this movie would come to mind. For those who haven’t seen it, go watch it. It’s a refreshing look at the topic of age, and I have to say, it’s rather uplifting. The movie’s about a retired 70-year-old widower, Ben (played by Robert De Niro) who is bored with retired life. He applies to a be a senior intern at an online fashion retailer and gets the position. How he navigates working in a firm with employees averaging at half his age creates a nice and heartwarming comedy for all. For employers, this might give you a little inspiration and nudge to want to do something like this. For all the “Robert De Niro”s, who are reading my article, life is just starting for you and I’m sure you’ll find meaning in your current job and the many more to come.

Wrapping this up

I like to end this article with a call to action. I would like everyone who is on the hiring side of the fence to take an extra moment to consider rejecting the candidate that you are about to reject. If the reason is that you feel that the candidate is overqualified, please take an extra moment to think of how this candidate could be good for your firm, and what are the validation you need from the candidate. If at all possible, give the candidate a chance to pick.

It doesn’t have to be a huge effort, and you may not be able to do this for all the candidates, and that’s just fine. Just like the boy picking up starfishes by the beach and throwing the back into the sea, he couldn’t save them all. However, to the starfish that got thrown back and given a new lease of life, it made a whole of difference.

Discrimination is something that happens subconsciously. No one wakes up in the morning feeling the need to discriminate someone and mess up their other person’s life. However, it is happening as we move through the motion of things quickly, and not taking a moment to consider and be sensitive. This is when adding a bit of mindfulness would go a long way. Who knows, you might just hire the next “Robert Di Niro”!

Would love to hear what you think about this topic. Share your thoughts and comments below! Happy job hunting and happy hiring!

Eric Wong is the Managing Consultant from The Talent Shark and the CHRO forIntel Wise. His experience spans across the various human resource functions such as HR Information Systems, Business Partnering and Talent Management. Eric currently sits on the Advisory Board of the Management Development Institute of Singapore (MDIS). Connect with him on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter @ErickyWong.

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