360° Answers: The Quandary of Hiring Overqualified Candidates

We’re trying something new this month! Each of our workplace experts has weighed in on the following question from a reader to give you four points of view. Here’s the question, with our experts’ responses below:

I’m currently hiring for a policy analyst position. Our position description says that we expect a graduate degree in public policy or related field, and at least 2-5 years of work experience.

In the stack of applications, we’ve received several from people who have significantly more work experience than I do. In an ordinary labor market, I’d say that they were overqualified, and have the standard concerns — they don’t really understand the position, they will want more money than we can offer. But in this economy, I get that there are people who understand the money and the job, are overqualified, but want it anyway. And I don’t want to discriminate on the basis of age. Any suggestions for how to decide if they’re worth considering? What interview questions should I be asking if I do interview them?

Alison Green says…

Here’s the deal with hiring an overqualified candidate: Sometimes you end up with an employee who’s bored and eager to move on to something more challenging, and sometimes you end up with an employee who will excel in the role and accomplish things you never thought you could get from that role before. Not all overqualified candidates are the same, and your job is to figure out which you’re likely to get.

Too often when they’re faced with an overqualified candidate, managers decide that they know what that person is all about, without even bothering to ask. They decide the person is just desperate for a paycheck right now and will leave when something better comes along, or they decide that the candidate must not realize how junior the job is. But in fact, there are plenty of excellent candidates out there who are deliberately looking for something less demanding or more junior than the roles they’ve held previously. Some people take on managerial roles and realize they hate it and want to go back to only being responsible for their own work. Other people want to focus on their families or other interests and don’t want a job that’s all-consuming. And you won’t know who’s who unless you ask.

So ask. Say it directly: “This position is much less responsibility and challenge than you’ve had previously. What interests you about that kind of move?” And then listen to how they respond. Do they sound sincere? Does their response resonate with you? If so, that’s information worth considering.

Eva Rykr says…

Overqualification is an interesting concept. Selection systems are generally designed to eliminate the underqualified and create a comparison of ability between candidates. So someone being overqualified would seem to be a bonus. I suspect your concern is not that someone is overqualified. The concern, instead, is whether they are a good fit for the position, whether you can afford them, and if there will be a retention issue. Fortunately, these are easily addressed. For example, by being upfront with the salary for the position, you can eliminate the issue of pay right away.

When I am hiring for a position, I differentiate between screening questions and interview questions. Screening questions are asked immediately after a resume submission or application and they weed out (“select out”) inappropriate candidates. They have a way of highlighting red flags and obviously wrong candidates. In your case, screening questions might be about their desired salary or their expectations for the position. Interview questions, on the other hand, are presented to the top few candidates and are designed to narrow down (“select in”) the top candidates. Interview questions might include asking them why they want this position and asking them to make a case for why they are the best person for this role. Ask every candidate all the same questions and determine rating criteria and how you will evaluate candidates before you start.

It’s important to be methodical during the selection process because many of the concerns hiring managers have about overqualified candidates are based on stereotypes rather than reality. You do not want to miss out on top talent because of fear and ambiguous concerns. Be straightforward with the pay, the position, and the expectations. Examine the candidate in their entirety and what they can do for the organization—neither discount nor assign any extra weight to the fact that they may be “overqualified.”

Anita Bruzzese says….

First, let me say that I’ve interviewed some of the top leaders in this country during my career, and the one thing they all say is that one of the best moves they’ve made is surrounding themselves with smart people, who often knew more than they did. So I applaud your willingness to hire those with more experience than you – such a move may end up really helping your own career.

Second, while many “overqualified” people are more experienced, of course, chances are good they’re much more in touch with what they really want to do. Gunning for that next promotion may not be as high on their list of priorities, for example, as the desire to do work they enjoy or a need to feel that they’re contributing to an organization.

So, I’d ask things like: “Can you describe your favorite job from the past and what you did?” Or, “What did you not like doing in former jobs?”  Look for things they love to do and you’ll have a better understanding if they’d be a good fit.

Alexandra Levit says…

I suggest doing a phone screening first, and everyone above has great suggestions on what to say and ask during this first conversation.  Your goal is to make sure the candidate understands the situation and is applying for the job for a good reason (e.g. a different sort of challenge, a schedule that allows for more work/life balance, etc.) rather than out of desperation.

If you like what you hear, bring them in and get a feel for how they would mesh with the organizational culture as well as you and your co-workers.  You also want to get a sense of their level of enthusiasm and desire to stick with the organization for the long haul.  Someone willing to take a less prestigious job because they  are one foot out the door to retirement won’t do you very much good.

And finally, in making a decision, remember that overqualified candidates (note that overqualified is sometimes used as a euphemism for “older”) can often add much more value than less experienced ones because they tend to be more mature, loyal, and stable – and they’ve seen it all.  As Anita mentioned, you will probably find yourself learning from them, which is a good thing!

Since this is a new format for us, we’d like to get your feedback on providing multiple answers to a reader question. Do you like this format? Do you have questions you’d like to have answered by our experts? Let us know!

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  • KayDay

    I think the best thing to do if an other wise great-fit candidate is “over qualified” for the position, as originally intended, is to change the position. If the candidate has a lot of experience with X, give them more responsibility in that area. Give them more independence and more responsibility. If you cannot find a way to do this, in that case it is perhaps best not to take an “over qualified” person.

    • I disagree with this. I think that the applicant that is “over-qualified” put in for this position and should not be given a different position just because you think they have too much experience. I also hate it when people pass up the best fit for the position because they are “over-qualified.” I’ve personally been passed up for some great positions because the hiring manger thought that I had too much experience. If those managers had simply asked me why I wanted to be in the seemingly lower position I could have easily explained it to them.

  • Soaplakegirl

    I love this format! It’s great hearing the different opinions. 

    • Anonymous

       So glad to hear it.  We had fun too and are looking forward to doing it again!

  • I’d like to see a differentiation between “overqualified,” “over experienced” or “over educated” because sometimes they are used interchangeably. Just because someone has a lot of education doesn’t always mean they are overqualified for a particular position (especially if they are trying a career change). I particularly enjoyed this topic when it was discussed in HBR: http://blogs.hbr.org/hmu/2011/03/should-you-hire-an-overqualifi.html.

  • I’d like to see a differentiation between “overqualified,” “over experienced” or “over educated” because sometimes they are used interchangeably. Just because someone has a lot of education doesn’t always mean they are overqualified for a particular position (especially if they are trying a career change). I particularly enjoyed this topic when it was discussed in HBR: http://blogs.hbr.org/hmu/2011/03/should-you-hire-an-overqualifi.html.

    • Anonymous

       Great piece, thanks for sharing an added dimension to this topic.

  • Tsudd

    What bothered me most about this is when the OP said they have more experience than she does. What does her experience have to do with it? I may be blowing this out of proportion, but taking that is tha concern more her insecurities that the applicant? I want say that they is wrong, it is important that as a manager you are confident and you don’t want to work in a place where you are looking over your shoulder. But is that really an issue here or just a fear? That comment just stood out to me.

    • Anonymous

       I see what you mean – the OP’s experience may have nothing to do with it, unless the candidate happened to be interviewing for the same position as or a position definitively underneath the OP.  Maybe he/she was using his/her own experience as a bar for comparison.

      • village

        “tend to engage in counterproductive work behaviors more so than those people who feel they fit the job requirements” It is more or less saying ‘can you jump through hoops we throw in your way without complaining about them’?

  • Original Poster

    I’m the OP and thanks for taking on my question.  We’re still working to fill this position.  We got to the point of making an offer, and were turned down, in part because we’re not paying as much as the candidate had hoped.  (And we’re a small nonprofit, and really don’t have the ability to just raise the salary.)

    I did do phone interviews with two of the people who I had flagged as “possibly overqualified.”  One of them did poorly enough to take herself out of the running

    • Original Poste

       … the other looked good, but then totally flaked out twice in a row when we tried to schedule an in-person interview.  So, I don’t know what to make of that.

      I definitely have learned that we need to be up-front about the salary earlier in the process, so we don’t waste our time or candidates’ time.  (Raising salaries would also be good, but is not within my control.)

  • Love this format. Very interesting to get these different angles

  • Anita

    Be sure to let us know if there’s a question you’d like us to weigh in on. I think this is a great opportunity to become empowered through knowledge.

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