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Recruiters Say Experience Top Factor in Applicant Evaluation

SHRM study finds overqualified candidates chosen more often than underqualified ones

A business woman is sitting at a table with papers and a laptop.

​Recruiters typically aren't deciding between two perfect candidates for an open role. Instead, they are weighing which partially qualified person may be the best choice.

According to recent SHRM research, relevant experience is the factor recruiters weigh most heavily when initially evaluating applicants, with a focus on balance—having enough experience to succeed in the job, but not so much that a more senior role would be a better fit.

The logic recruiters use to make these decisions, especially when choosing among underqualified or overqualified applicants in these talent-constrained times, is the focus of the study, titled Matching Applicants & Roles: Finding the Right Fit.  

Over 1,030 recruiters completed a survey and participated in an experiment with simulated applications in December 2022. It is important to note that the survey and findings apply to the initial application stage, or recruiter screen, and not to the final candidate evaluation process when hiring decisions are made.

Experience Counts

When recruiters were asked what factors were important in their initial review of candidates, most said years of experience (84 percent) and type of experience (83 percent).

Less weight was given to minimum expected salary (45 percent), skilled credentials (37 percent) and education level (35 percent).   

Relevant experience remained the most important evaluation consideration when recruiters took part in a behavioral experiment evaluating hypothetical applicants. Skilled credentials were found to compensate for a below-minimum education level in some roles, particularly in combination with a low salary expectation, but skills were not judged as a substitute for insufficient experience.

"We can conclusively say that recruiters put the most weight on relevant experience," said Mark Smith, Ph.D., director of HR thought leadership at SHRM. "Recruiters try to look at a lot of things when evaluating an applicant, but experience has more value. Education is being seen as less valuable than it was in the past."

The decreasing focus on a college degree aligns with the burgeoning skills-first hiring movement, but despite what's being said at the thought-leader level, recruiters on the front lines are evidently not practicing skills-first hiring.

"This study is showing what recruiters are doing, and not necessarily what they should be doing," Smith said.

Skills-based hiring has many benefits, according to one recruiting executive.

"As a recruiting professional, I recognize the value of the skills-first, hire-for-potential movement in attracting and evaluating candidates with diverse experiences and backgrounds," said Katie Birkelo, senior vice president at staffing and recruiting firm Randstad US. "Emphasizing potential over existing qualifications allows for a more inclusive approach to recruitment and enables organizations to build a more diverse and dynamic workforce." However, it is crucial to balance a candidate's potential with their existing qualifications to ensure they can thrive in the role and contribute effectively, she added.

"Ultimately, adopting a more holistic approach to evaluating candidates that combines their skills, potential and aspirations can result in a more productive and fulfilling workplace for employees and yield long-term benefits for the organization," Birkelo said.

Smith pointed out that at the screening stage—the front end of the hiring process examined by SHRM—recruiters are typically only looking at an applicant's resume, where skills may be harder to ascertain. He noted that skills-testing assessments are typically done later in the hiring process.

"Credentials do appear on a resume, however," he said. "Recruiters do value certain certifications and credentials, like the PMP for project management or the SHRM-CP for HR roles." 

Underqualified vs. Overqualified

SHRM researchers found that when a recruiter was deciding between an overqualified and underqualified applicant, the overqualified job seeker had the edge. Recruiters are twice as likely to say they "virtually never" hire an underqualified candidate compared to an overqualified one.

The risks of hiring underqualified and overqualified candidates are well-known. Underqualified candidates may need extensive training and orientation and may not be able to hack it on the job, while overqualified employees may be a bad fit and become a flight risk.

"An overqualified employee's extensive experience and industry knowledge can provide valuable mentorship opportunities to existing team members and can help fill the knowledge gap created by retirements," Birkelo said. "However, it's important to note that overqualified candidates could come with preconceived notions about their roles, potentially causing conflicts with the team or organizational culture."

On the other hand, she pointed out that underqualified candidates can bring ambition, eagerness to learn, and potential for growth within an organization. "With proper resources for training and mentoring, they can be an excellent choice for developing future leaders and building a strong talent pipeline," she said. "It's crucial, though, to consider that underqualified hires may require additional support and investment in training."

For recruiters, "the goal is to hire the one who is 'just right' for the job," Smith said. "There is a trade-off of sorts between skill level and motivation level. This person is well-skilled but still has room to grow in the position, so they are capable of doing the job and are motivated to do it well."

SHRM also studied how recruiters decide whether an applicant is underqualified or overqualified for a position. Shortcomings in experience and education are the main factors recruiters use to determine that someone is underqualified.

"Curiously, although recruiters report that education is not very important in the initial application review, it is more relevant in determining that an individual is underqualified," Smith said. "Also of note is that low salary expectations are not a significant factor in a job seeker being viewed as underqualified. In other words, low salary expectations are not a red flag."

Generally, requesting a high salary and having work experience at higher levels of responsibility are signs of overqualified applicants, the research found.

"Greater responsibility, growth and career progression are credible measurements of overqualification," Birkelo said. "But I suggest being cautious when using compensation as a measurement."

She said there are far too many factors to consider when reviewing compensation, including a particular labor market or talent scarcity at the time previous compensation was offered.

"Things as simple as a company's desperation to keep people and/or an applicant's negotiating skills all play a part," Birkelo said. "Less qualified candidates in challenging markets can negotiate higher salaries. That's why I say stick to skills and experience."

Recommendations for Employers

Experts recommended that recruiters start the application review by selecting those with the minimum relevant experience and consider any evidence that skills gained in other areas would transfer to the expectations in the job posting.

"Invest the time to research skilled credentials relevant to a position you are recruiting for, to

identify what that knowledge might bring to your organization," Smith said. "For individuals who have close to the minimum required experience, consider whether skilled credentials in combination with a fair salary offer in the lower part of the range would make the applicant attractive."

When screening applicants via an interview, ask behavior-based questions, Birkelo said. "For those underqualified candidates, look for examples of how an applicant uses resources available to them to gain knowledge," she advised. "For those overqualified, ask more behavior-based cultural questions."

Smith said that a good question for an overqualified candidate is, " 'You appear to have very high qualifications. What interests you about this position?' Such a question leaves an opening for the candidate to offer an explanation."

Birkelo said that another good question is asking applicants for an example of their best leader, and then compare that to the leader they will report to.

"A match there can compensate for overqualified or underqualified backgrounds," she said. 


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