The nonsense of not hiring the over-qualified

In a recent edition of the Harvard Business Review, there was an article that caught my eye. The age old myth of – Bob would have been great for the role, but he’s just too qualified – was given a good run for its money. They made the case, and presented evidence of companies that do it, that this is a falsehood we shouldn’t be blind-sided by. The case goes something like this. We assume that someone with a high qualification will be get bored or won’t feel utilised because they’re so highly qualified/skilled. They could do well in the post, it’s just more likely that they’ll still be searching for a new job as soon as they’ve started. Accepted wisdom, right?

Here’s what HBR goes on to say. In fact, these overqualified individuals are exactly the kind of person you should be looking to hire, and there are some compelling reasons to do this. Research has found that they won’t be quickly seeking to move on, they’re just keen to get on and do a good job. Importantly though, they have every incentive to do a good job. Why? Because they’re already motivated to do a good job. With their qualifications, their big brains are simply bursting with information they are waiting to use. They’ve sat through all the lectures and high level thinking they need to make you proud. They’re waiting to produce insights and improve working practices, because they’ve been taught how to! And you don’t want to hire them?

Let’s think about the other benefits then. They won’t be leaving to do their further studies, because they’ve already had the motivation to get off their backsides and do it themselves. With their own cash. And most likely when they were working part time. So what do we understand from this? That they are highly motivated individuals who are more than worth their salt. That means you’re likely to get 4-5 years out of them until they start to get itchy feet. Treat them well during this time, and they’ll likely stay longer. Treat them mean, and you’re probably experiencing other problems aren’t you?

The cost saving you will make on hiring someone already qualified is significant. Supporting someone to go through a post grad degree can cost a business anywhere between £4000-£20000. If your incumbent leaves to join Company Y because they’re after career progression, you then have a hiring cost you have to factor in. Anywhere between 12%-20% of the salary? If we assume a salary of £27k that’s somewhere between £3240-£5400. And atop these there will be lost days to studies, exams, and if you’re a kind employer, resources for studying too. Right, so you don’t want to hire someone who is over-qualified because your team members are doing a good job of things, and they won’t leave or ask to study further?

So, if you’re thinking at the end of this ‘Oh, but everyone knows this is true’, then challenge that line of thinking. I dare you. If you don’t want to challenge the way you think about hiring those who are over-qualified, it’s cos you are lazy and you don’t want to consider what rich resources are ready made waiting to help your business succeed.

As an aside, have you heard of Peter Hros? He has a BSc and MSc in Human Resource Management, is an Associate of the CIPD and is working towards a Chartered Masters upgrade. This post is in honour of Peter. Everything I’ve written above captures (I hope) why he should be hired. He’s immensely keen to get into HR, but is constantly faced with the ‘sorry, you’re too qualified’ answer, which is just crap. If you are looking for someone to work in HR, then please give him due consideration.

UPDATE 24/07/14

Peter did get a job a short while after this post, but not because of this post.


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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

20 thoughts on “The nonsense of not hiring the over-qualified”

  1. This very excuse is the bane of every recruiter’s life. “I’m sorry but this candidate is too expensive / experienced / over-qualified for this job” or “has been in a more senior role before, earning more money than we are paying”.

    Whilst relevant in some cases, what they are totally ignoring is the huge opportunity they are being presented with! Here is a candidate who read the advert, applied for the job, came for interview, and says he/she wants the job. If you can get such a fantastic person for a bargain price, why would you look a gift horse in the mouth? Perhaps it’s the suspicious nature of the interviewer. “He’s lying. I wouldn’t want this job in his position. What is he hiding”. Perhaps they might see the candidate as a threat to their own position, and don’t need the competition, or that they’d be so good, it would expose the manager’s own foibles.

    In my considerable experience, those wise employers who take the perceived risk of recruiting an older, wiser, more experienced and capable candidate like this, are almost always rewarded for their actions. What is vital, is to talk about these very things with the candidate at interview. Ask why they want the job, why they would accept less salary than previously, and what kind of challenge the job would present them with. If you are happy with the answers, make the bleeding offer, and reap the benefits.

    As we now know, the career paths of us all are far from linear, and we all work where we do for a very wide range of reasons. Do yourself a favour, and surround yourself with the very best people you can get, and your own position will be greatly enhanced as a result.

    1. As a member of the unemployed workforce I just got an email from an HR person asking me why I was applying for a junior level position (unsaid) when I was a senior level position. I replied that I was not interested in climbing the corporate ladder at this point in my career but wanted to utilize my skill sets to be a great field employee with this company. I also added that I could hit the ground running with my experience. After being unemployed for over one year I have realized that in order to get on with another company I may have to take a pay decrease or come up with my own business. At this point I don’t have much to loose. In my former position I was a hiring manager for part time representatives. I too was wary of individuals with high qualifications. However, motivation and need can be determined if you are a good interviewer or can communicate that to the hiring manager. As a friend of mine put it: If you were shopping for a 100% broad cloth dress shirt and were willing to spend 75$, found one for 50$ , perfect size, color, thread count would you hold out and buy the one for 75$ which could be easily found?

  2. I think this is fine as long as they are leaving full-time employment to join you. However, at the moment I am seeing a lot of people either out of work or moving from a contract position – which absolutely makes me wary about their motives.

    1. I left contracting to enter a career where I could make decisions and have people place their trust in me to do so. I wanted to learn to manage people and increase my capabilities and offerings. I told the business this and they have rewarded me with exactly that.

      That I now earn about 40% of what I did previously is not an issue – I sometimes wish I still could hop on a plane and go anywhere for any length of time I with whoever I wanted – but I don’t really miss it because I now believe in what I do.

      I know I was a good contractor. I always took pride in my work but now people appreciate what I do and that matters a great deal. The bottom line is that if you are the kind of person that wants to do a good job, you’ll do a good job whatever you get paid. It’s not all about the money.

  3. How kind of you Sukh,
    Recently I have approached one of the leading recruitment agencies after being rejected on the basis of being overqualified and in very gentle way asked them simple question “Where does war for talent take place?!” I’ve never got a reply.
    After talking to many friends recruiters and CV experts, my understanding is that I simply don’t fit the typical profile of HR professional for the entry level jobs due to my qualification.
    Yet this was my strategy over last 5 years. To make sure that I have more to offer to the job market than people I am competing with. Getting all possible education within HR field, was supposed to make my job hunt easy.
    At the other hand while I have 15 years of working experience within industry where people are the biggest asset and was holding various managerial positions for last 8 years, none of my previous roles is considered as part of the HR mixture. Hence only entry level jobs are suitable for me.

    Well, my passion for HR got bigger and bigger over the years of academic preparation, only to find out at the end of this journey, that this is not necessarily what employers look for.

    Today I am still waiting for my 8 years of operational management …

    (where I was involved directly in HRD via constant learning and development intervention; non-stop demand for leadership skills so much needed to ensure great performance of your workforce; clear understanding of business case of any people oriented decision; run change management project on at least 3 different occasions; being involved directly in almost all stages of people resourcing, from recruitment throughout selection process all the way to induction of new employees; recognised potential of employee involvement practices causing significant changes within culture of the workplace; advised not only on ER issues to GM and HR manager in my organisation for last 4 years; produced numerous “best practice” procedures and policies; made two research studies from which one was recognised as suitable for publication in academic journal; and list goes on…)

    …to be recognised as the ideal set of skills and abilities HR professional can have. In addition I am never giving up on keeping my HR knowledge up to date, reading and contributing wherever possible.

    So which skills can HR wish more for if not the ones I’ve mentioned?
    Funnily enough you can not surprise me with questioning my administration background either, as I have also 2 years of experience within environment where phone didn’t stop ringing and outlook non stop notified of incoming emails. I am touch typing and have very strong methodological approach to everything I do. Running number of projects simultaneously also makes me happy at work.

    Anyway I am not trying to sell myself here; just showing that my package doesn’t seem to be wrong one. My only problem is that I’ve never had “HR” letters in the name of my job role. Another problem reflecting my lack of progress in my job hunt is that I am holding full time position working up to 50 hours a week (Thanks God for that), paying my bills but leaving very little time for applying for jobs.

    In conclusion I know, that I have to talk their language to get chance to prove myself and start by rewriting my CV. I just thought someone; somewhere looks for RIGHT PEOPLE to do the job, rather than ticking the boxes.

    Thank you again Sukh for this post and for mentioning my name.


    1. Great post, Sukh. I’ve always thought the “over qualified” stuff was garbage – especially when people’s motivation is right.

      You know what I think the real issue is? Many managers, yes, including HR ones, are frightened at the thought of how they’ll be able to manage smart people who may ultimately either win more kudos, or move further in the hierarchy than them. It’s easier to hire “smaller” people that they may have more control over.

      And, Peter, I’m only sorry that I don’t work in corporate HR jobs any more. I’d hire you in a shot. Your business experience, HR knowledge, personality and eagerness to succeed are worth their weight in gold.

      1. You are definitely one of my “HR Angels” Christine. Thanks to you and some others, I believe there is “outside box” looking person who will employ me one day. Until then there is never enough of encouragement and support from you and other mostly #connectingHR folks. It is people like you who make HR soft and social without loosing touch with business case.

  4. I agree with Doug – thanks Sukh for writing this and Peter, I am sure your time is coming!


  5. Hello, great post and great to see strong support for Peter.
    Ben, what are you wary of? People wanting to work and being prepared to reduce salary, or undertake a sideways move may show both humility and commitment. For some there is more to work than an upwards trajectory, and if people are out of work and have a family to support surely their motives are transparent and it’s for them and the employer to decide the fit?
    Overqualified is a fairly subjective term – what does it actually mean? I thought that all research showed that attitudes were a stronger indicator of a successful placement.

    1. I’m just going on past experience. Hiring someone that has been running a team to do the job that their team did can cause problems as with the best will in the world they might have thought they were happy to do the job and then realised they weren’t. On the other hand, someone that has specifically applied because they were recently made a manager and realised they much preferred the ‘doing’ I would look at.

      I’ve also had the issue of someone starting on a lower salary, but always referring to the days when they used to earn more.

      I am really talking about over-experienced in all of these examples, not really ‘over-qualified’ I’d like to make sure the person has a stimulating job that challenges them and keeps them motivated – and someone taking a step back in their career looks less likely to to have those challenges than someone stepping up.

  6. Great post and I think Christine hits the misnomer of “over-qualified” firmly on the head! Anyone quoting “over-qualified” merits greater scrutiny in my book – either they are fearful or not exploring the motives & commitment of the candidate through the interview process.

  7. I’m not sure this is really about over qualification per se. I think this is about reality tallying with expectations.

    There are undoubtedly people at the moment looking for “a job” because they have a financial imperative. With people in this scenario, there will be a risk that they move on sooner than you’d like. I interviewed a candidate recently who through gentle probing and discussion admitted that the role was a stop gap. That then leaves a dilemma, “How bought into the role are they?” and also “Do I want to have an additional known vacancy risk?”

    In other situations though, I think it is making the candidate aware of the realities of the job and checking whether they are ok with that. And if they are, you have to take them at their word. So you have an MBA, but if I am clear to you that this role is heavily admin focussed and you can convince me that you are ok with that, then I’d be a fool not to hire you (if you have the admin skills!).

    As with anything, it is about an honest and open dialogue. The recruiter being clear on the reality of the job, the candidate being clear on their intentions and needs. And in most cases you can only find that out through discussion – or an interview.

    On a side not, in reference to Christine’s point. I’m a firm believer that A class managers recruit A class people. But a B class manager will never recruit an A class person.

  8. Thanks all for your comments, this has certainly been a fascinating discussion. There’s a lot of great comments which is difficult to respond to individually. Much appreciated all, and thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

  9. Many decades ago, I remember sitting down with a former subordinate who was now managing a regional office. I was chatting with him about joining his staff as I was not satisfied with my present role. After talking for some time he came right out and said, I’m not sure I would be comfortable having someone work for me that knew more than me. I looked him right in the eye and told him that I had known when he worked for me that he would go on to much bigger things and that he knew more about some things than I did when he worked for me. I told him the key is knowing when to utilize others talents to mutually foster both parties interests. Good people below you help you get ahead as well.

  10. I was feeling down these days until I saw this place. Recently I went for an interview, as soon as the manager went through my cv, he said you are over qualified for this position. I told him that I don’t have any experience in the field I am applying and that is why I wanted to start at the lower position. I understand the job discription and wages. Then he said all the people for this position just start their career life, I want a harmony working environment, I don’t want you feel proud and look down at them. I said every morning when I wake up I start from zero, I am looking for a long term growth in the company. Well, there was a assistant manager interviewing me as well , he just kept telling me this job is very different than you thought…
    Well, I won’t apply for this job if it is not ranked as No. 1 in its field. I am upset not because I did not get the job, all I smelled is that people felt threatened, and judge book of its cover. Smart leader should always seek someone can help them to contribute the growth of the business, but not someone like a pet to obey their orders.

  11. Just as it had been said already – class A managers hire class A subordinates. But – to become class A manager – you have to mature to this – that there are people who are younger, more experienced, more qualified in some areas. In my opinion the key to become matured as this is to understand that it doesn’t mean you are getting unusefull – but to understand how it can improve your team: nobody is perfect in everythinh, at this stage of knowledge developement there are no Leonadros DaVincis – so the key to manage your team is to sellect people who can – as a team – be One Leonardo.


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