Too Good to Hire?

By Susan J. Wells Oct 1, 2004
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HR Magazine, October 2004 Highly experienced applicants often get screened out right away, but they shouldnt be dismissed out of hand.

Genebach’s short-lived job change taught him a lesson: Without documented expectations and responsibilities between both parties, it’s easy to unintentionally create a less-than-perfect match of skills and goals.

“If specific objectives aren’t set and fully described,” says Genebach, “you’re at great risk for being unhappy and unsatisfied.”

Genebach’s story illustrates perhaps the biggest fear shared by HR professionals, recruiters and hiring managers about overqualified candidates: The job won’t meet expectations, the overqualified applicant will be unchallenged, and the employee will leave as soon as something better comes along.

Despite the fear of turnover, experts suggest it’s time to give overqualified applicants a closer look. New jobs may be slowly cropping up in greater numbers, but demand still exceeds supply in the employment market. And with significant ranks of so-called underemployed workers—those who have settled for “survival” jobs at levels below what their backgrounds could demand—evidence is mounting that HR professionals will be fielding applicants with higher qualifications more often.

“There are some pressures in the economy—demand for workers, shifting demographics and decelerating careers in retirement, among them—that are making this a real issue,” says Scott Erker, vice president of selection solutions at Development Dimensions International Inc. (DDI), an HR consulting firm in Bridgeville, Pa. “People tend to pass over candidates who don’t appear to fit right away, but there can be enormous benefits in hiring highly qualified applicants.”

The Pros and Cons

On the upside, overqualified applicants present several potential advantages:

  • They can be quick studies. They can get up to speed and contribute quickly. Plus, employers can save on training time and costs.
  • They can help others develop. They can help mentor other employees, which can bolster succession planning. They, and their proteges, can help fill future leadership needs.
  • They can be a hiring bargain. Smart employers may be able to pick up tomorrow’s leaders today at below-market prices. “If I’m a hiring manager, I’d consider that hiring the overqualified can make you look good, help you meet your goals sooner and potentially contribute a lot more to your company,” says Peter LeVine, president of Peter LeVine Associates Inc., a professional reference checking and consulting firm in Boca Raton, Fla. “In essence, you’re getting a Cadillac for the price of a Buick.”

Yet overqualified applicants still complain that they are seen as a poor fit and dismissed out of hand by employers. Among the biggest disadvantages they are perceived to have:

  • They’re a flight risk. Employers are reluctant to take a chance on an employee who may get bored with a lesser job and quit once they find a better opportunity.
  • They’re too expensive. An overqualified candidate’s salary requirements may price them out of the budget for the job.
  • They’re likely to intimidate others. Hiring a person who is far more experienced than her peers or immediate supervisor can create upside-down reporting relationships and authority tensions. Others in the organization may feel threatened by her experience.

Not all employers and HR professionals, however, get mired in these potential downsides. Tim Biscaye, PHR, an HR consultant and contractor with Composite Technology Development Inc., an engineered materials solutions company in Lafayette, Colo., is among those with a positive view of candidates who appear overqualified on paper.

“My practice has been to qualify such individuals through screening to determine the reasons for interest in a position that is seemingly beneath their expertise level,” he says. “I’ve found some gems over the past 15 years.”

Case in point: His firm’s last two hires both appeared overqualified and above salary ranges. “But in both cases, they volunteered a willingness for decreased salaries,” he says. “What both were looking for were those ‘other’ benefits—a stable and growing company, future growth opportunities, the advantages of working in a great work environment and the challenge of learning new applications,” he says.

Biscaye says he doesn’t worry about these employees leaving “because we are a fantastic place to work.”

Tony Beshara, president of Babich & Associates, a placement and recruiting agency in Dallas, says it’s up to employers to see if the needs and motivations of overqualified applicants match what the company can offer.

“Unless it’s a gross mismatch,” he says, “an overqualified employee isn’t necessarily going to automatically leave because of their qualifications—they’ll leave because they don’t like your company, the people, the environment or the culture.

“That’s why it’s so important to assess your job opening and what the opportunity for intellectual and personal growth is,” he says. “Candidates will also put a value on the stability of your company, the working environment and other intangibles. And when taking lesser jobs, the cream usually rises to the top—you should shoot for the best for your money.”

Careful Assessment Required

Of course, not every candidate whose qualifications exceed job requirements will be a good fit. So how can HR assess whether an overqualified applicant is right for a job? The process really boils down to determining how big a risk you’re willing to accept, says DDI’s Erker. “It’s all about risk mitigation and risk management,” he says.

First, decide how you define overqualified. Is it too much experience? Is it being at the wrong level? Or is it salary expectations? How much is too much?

“Breaking this down will help you figure out how big the gap is and determine whether you can close it or not,” he says.

The next step is to ask if you can do something to position the job opportunity to better take advantage of this applicant’s experience, Erker says. “For example, can you change or modify the job? Can the person be fast-tracked into a new position? Are there other things that can be added to the compensation you’re offering if you can’t meet salary—such as additional vacation time?”

With these strategies in mind, “give applicants a realistic preview of what the job will be,” warts and all, he says. You want to note all the advantages, but also the things that might make the job less satisfying for an overqualified person.

“That way, you’ve laid it all out for the person to make the judgment,” Erker says. “Then, ask him, ‘Is there anything in this job that you feel wouldn’t engage you?’ ”

It’s also important to ask questions that elicit answers about past behavior. “Say the job requires a routine task,” Erker says. “Ask the applicant to tell you about a position where he did something like that.”

Another way to assess whether an overqualified candidate would be a good fit is to have the applicant try out certain responsibilities of the job. “Building simulations into the hiring process can give both you and the candidate a sense of comfort with the job,” he says. For example, for a call center job, you may have the applicant take a customer call and conduct computer-aided help.

Lastly, find out what career stage the person is in. “Do they have ambitious goals or want fast growth? Or are they at a point in their career where they’re looking for less responsibility, money and high visibility?” Erker asks.

Lou Adler, president of The Adler Group, a hiring and recruiting consulting company in Tustin, Calif., offers similar thoughts on how to assess well-qualified applicants. He says HR must look at three predictors of a candidate’s success on the job: the ability to do the work, the ability to work well with others and motivation.

“You need all three, but the third is the most important,” he says. He advises asking these opening questions: “What are you looking for in a new job?” followed by, “Why is that important to you?”

“The second question gets at discovering their underlying motivations,” Adler says. “Then your job is to see if their recent accomplishments and stated interests validate those motivations.”

Understanding motivations might have helped an employer hire Shez Jackson, who last year was looking for a job that would better fit her life’s demands. “As a single parent, I was looking for something more conducive to my life, and I didn’t mind taking a step back in order to do it,” she says.

Jackson had been director of HR and administration for a sports organization in New York—a high-profile job that was lost after new ownership reorganized. The job averaged 70 hours a week, plus regular travel.

So she applied for a job as human resource manager with the New York office of a large benefits consulting firm, which she felt better met her needs.

Although the job had a lesser title than her previous post, the change didn’t bother her because the job description seemed to match her experience. “It also made sense considering that this was a large company and I was coming from a smaller organization,” she says.

During the interview, the hiring manager quizzed her about her background and experience. Everything appeared to be going smoothly until Jackson heard those dreaded words—that she was overqualified for the position.

“I was disappointed. I thought it was a dead-on job match,” says Jackson, whose HR career spans 11 years. “I expressed that during the interview, but I could see that she was no longer interested in my application.”

The following week, the job for which she had applied was posted again on one of the large online job boards.

Sweet Success

Experiences like Jackson’s are all too common, believes Kristina Griffin, SPHR, director of HR at Raffa & Associates P.C., a professional services firm in Washington, D.C. She thinks many HR managers simply don’t give overqualified applicants a chance, too quickly tossing them in the veto pile.

“I think it’s a huge mistake not to take a second look at overqualified candidates,” she says. “Certainly there are valid reasons to reject some candidates, but it shouldn’t be a blanket response—nor just a way to get through a stack of resumes.”

Her advice: “If they meet the qualifications of the job, take two minutes to call them and ask why they’re seeking this job.” Doing so netted her a valuable hire—a former business owner who applied for a program director role. Griffin admits feeling an initial reluctance to grant him an interview, thinking he wouldn’t fit into a collegial environment after having led his own business.

“But I did another phone screen and brought him in for an interview. He had the right skill set and experience, so I hired him,” she says. The director is still “doing great in the job” after three-and-a-half years.

“Had I given in to my initial reactions, I would have lost out on a great hire,” Griffin says.

Alter Your Retention Tactics

HR’s job doesn’t end after the decision is made to hire workers who have more experience than the job requires. There’s a special need, consultants say, to get involved in managing that person’s career—with an eye on retaining them.

“Now that you’ve hired someone who’s overqualified, how are you going to manage that person?” asks DDI’s Erker. “It’s different than managing either a qualified or underqualified employee.”

Like retention efforts you adapt for any other employee, the aim is to give the overqualified employee what he needs to stay satisfied. But the strategies you use to accomplish this will be different.

Erker suggests that managers have lots of regular “check-ins” with these employees, such as weekly meetings to help keep them engaged and to pick up on any potential misunderstandings.

Also, try to match the employee’s motivations and expectations with the type of extra attention you give. For example, Erker suggests “giving them more access to the boss—which could be something they’ve been used to in the past.”

Another option, if the employee is interested, is to “find opportunities where they can use their experience,” says Erker, such as coaching, mentoring or participating in higher-level task forces. “You’ll have a better chance of succeeding with the employee if you do.

“Every day you keep that person on the job, the greater the ROI [return on investment] of your hiring decision will be,” he says.

Susan J. Wells is a business journalist based in the Washington, D.C., area with nearly 19 years of experience covering business news and workforce issues.

Web Extras


Overqualified: Is It a Smoke Screen for Age Bias?​

In 1998, the AARP in Washington, D.C., accused executive search firm Spencer Stuart of violating the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) by illegally screening job candidates based on age.

The allegation was based on two former Spencer Stuart employees’ claim that the firm entered age data into a computer database and included ages in verbal and written candidate presentation packages to employers. The search firm denied the charges.

After two years of investigation, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) substantiated the AARP’s charge in 2001.

The case evaporated, however, after the EEOC’s investigatory files—housed in an office building in New York—were destroyed during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. At that point, the EEOC and AARP chose not to pursue a lawsuit against the agency.

While the case never proceeded, the charge raised the issue of what are often unseen forms of age bias in the hiring process, says Laurie McCann, senior attorney with AARP, and they often hit applicants deemed overqualified.

“Hiring discrimination is probably the more prevalent type of discrimination among older workers than any other,” she notes, “but it doesn’t always show up in the numbers.” The EEOC logged 19,124 charges under the ADEA in 2003, but McCann believes EEOC data “isn’t reflective of the real numbers out there.”

She says that problems of proof hamper age-bias cases, especially when the question is failure to hire. The reason is that it’s often hard for victims to pinpoint—and ultimately prove—direct evidence of bias in the hiring decision.

For example, in a job-promotion situation, an older employee presumably will know if a less-qualified, younger applicant gets the position. In the new-hire situation, however, the older applicant typically never knows who else competed for the job—or what swayed the hiring manager’s decision.

“Victims exist,” says McCann, “but they don’t know with certainty or aren’t aware that they’re victims.”

If the government’s numbers aren’t painting the true picture, anecdotal evidence seems to be. When her organization of 36 million members—nearly half of whom are employed—covers age bias in its member publications, for example, McCann says it produces a “huge response from people who say, ‘Hey, that’s what happened to me.

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