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October 8, 2019

Why employers think you're 'overqualified' (and what you can do about it)

Daily Briefing
    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on March 19, 2021.

    Being told you're overqualified for a new position can be one of the most perplexing and frustrating experiences for job applicants, Sue Shellenbarger reports for the Wall Street Journal. The challenge can affect applicants at varying career levels, from recent college graduates to former executives, but there are ways applicants can overcome the label and land the job they want, Shellenbarger reports.

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    Why managers think you're overqualified

    While many job seekers assume extensive experience and an elite education will better position them to land a job, hiring "[d]ecisions are often much more nuanced than that," according to Oliver Hahl, an assistant professor of organization theory and strategy at Carnegie Mellon University who's studied hiring decisions.

    For instance, Hahl and colleagues recently discovered that when presented with two candidates who both had degrees from elite colleges and previously worked for similar companies, hiring managers were more likely to offer the position to the candidate who led a smaller team.

    According to Hahl, the hiring managers in this case made a few assumptions that influenced their final hiring decision. For instance, they assumed the candidate with more leadership experience would be less motivated in the position and less likely to remain in the position than the other applicant.

    The managers also assumed that the applicant's bosses would feel threatened by the candidate's experience, possibly fearing that the candidate, if hired, wouldn't take direction well or would eventually take their job, according to Hahl.

    In some instances, having a degree from an Ivy League school can come with unexpected disadvantages in the hiring world, Shellenbarger writes.

    While some employers prefer to hire graduates from elite schools, others "want applicants who went to a second-tier MBA program, worked while they were in school, got straight As and were scrappy," according to Julie Kantor, an executive coach in New York. "For them, it's about looking under the hood."

    Some hiring managers also assume that stellar job candidates won't work well with others, and that having too many rock stars on one team could create discord at the expense of the organization.

    Bill Sandbrook, chair and chief executive of U.S. Concrete, said he rejected a candidate with an impressive background because "you could just tell he thought, 'You need to hire me because I'm me.'"

    6 was to overcome being labeled 'overqualified'

    But in many cases hiring managers' assumptions are unfounded, and job candidates most work to address those assumptions head on, Shellenbarger writes.

    For instance, Shellenbarger writes that some candidates have "legitimate reasons for applying for jobs beneath their capabilities, such as gaining more time for family-care duties or recovering from burnout."

    These applicants have to be able to make their case, according to Elaine Varelas, managing partner of Keystone Partners. And to do so, Shellenbarger, offers six tips job seekers can use to persuade hiring managers that you're the right fit for a position that seems beneath your capabilities:

    • Explain your motivations;
    • Research the job so you can describe how it matches your experience;
    • Be consistent in explaining the reason you want the job;
    • Demonstrate openness and flexibility by talking about things you want to learn through the position;
    • Line up references who will vouch for your commitment; and
    • Network with colleagues who know people at the company.

    Together, these tips can enable a candidate to clearly demonstrate that they have a legitimate motivation for wanting the position and to show their passion for the company's mission.

    For instance, Elaine Varelas, managing partner of Keystone Partners, shared the story of one senior executive who was seeking a lower paying job because "[s]he was tired of having to deal with employees who were complaining about whether their bonus was $200,000 or $210,000." The executive seemed overqualified for the new position, but when she explained that her commitment to the job was genuine, she got hired, Varelas said (Shellenbarger, Wall Street Journal, 8/19).

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