July 27, 2017

The Struggle is Real for Job Seekers

By Shayne Merrick, Partner and Manager, Sales


“We’re very impressed with your resume, but we feel you’re overqualified.” For an active, eager job seeker, the word “overqualified” can deflate egos and derail the entire job hunting process. It’s the human resources version of the dreaded relationship ender: “let’s just be friends.”

Sometimes, hiring managers use the “overqualified” as an excuse to cover a perceived flaw that’s hard for them to define — perhaps they just didn’t feel like an individual was right for the role or the team. Additionally, many see an abundance of qualifications as a serious impediment to a potential employee’s future with their company.

The reasons for dismissing an applicant as “overqualified” vary from manager to manager, but each objection can be overcome by a savvy recruit. As FlexJobs.com points out: “contrary to popular belief, being overqualified for a job is not a bad thing. What can hurt your chances for being hired is how you react to the situation.”

Objection: You’ll Just Leave for Something Better

Many hiring managers labor under the “myth” that an overqualified applicant is seeking the position as a placeholder until something better comes along. Although this may be true in some cases, most “overqualified” job seekers are taking the long view with an eye towards growing within the new company. Diffuse this potential interview explosion by being up-front with the interviewer: “I have a strong desire to grow within this company and I’m eager to invest in the long term.” It may also be helpful to focus in on what kind of time window the company is seeking for the position and commit above and beyond that window. This may be a part of the standard “Where do you see yourself?” line of questioning standard to most job interviews.

Ride the Elephant in the Room

Long before the “overqualified” charge is even leveled at an applicant, many interviewees can sense that their interviewer feels it, based on his or her questions or overall attitude. The proactive response? Don’t just address the elephant in the room — saddle up and take the reins. Explain why your resume may not resemble those of other applicants for the position and why that actually makes you a stronger candidate. If salary seems to be an issue, detail the non-financial considerations that may have led you to apply (location, schedule, etc.).

Here’s an example: candidate John worked as a sales manager for 15 years. Due to volatile shifts in his industry, though, John is seeking a position in a new sector as a sales associate. John’s position as a sales manager fell into his lap and he’s never been completely comfortable as a supervisor; one-on-one sales — closing the deal — has always been his passion, and as such, he’s applied for a sales representative position. In order to alleviate “overqualified” concerns, John could point out that in additional to his supervisory duties as a manager, he also landed some of his company’s largest clients. This draws attention away from John’s managerial experience and focuses on the core competency for the sales position: closing the deal.

Don’t Be a Quitter

One of the top reasons recruiters give for passing on “overqualified” candidates is their (unfounded) fear that experienced employees will simply leave when something better comes along. As U.S. News and World Reports employment guru Alison Green states, hiring managers “often assume that you’re only interested in the job because you’re feeling desperate. They figure you’ll take it for the paycheck, but that you’ll leave as soon as something more suited to your background comes along.”

But this is far from the case. Harvard Business Review expert Andrew O’Connell notes that “new research shows that overqualified workers tend to perform better than other employees, and they don’t quit any sooner. Furthermore, a simple managerial tactic — empowerment — can mitigate any dissatisfaction they may feel.”

Savvy applicants should address this concern honestly in their interviews. Assure interviewers that you’re on this journey for the long haul, and point out concrete examples of past employer and team loyalty.

Stay Relevant

Many applicants may assume that “overqualified” really means “too old.” Employers may be forbidden by law from discriminating based on age but, whether we’d like to admit it or not, it still happens more frequently than we’d like.

“Overqualified” may be used in situations in which the hiring manager is even younger than the applicant; that applicant’s age and industry experience could intimidate the young manager or elicit a sense that because they’re older, the applicant is probably “out of touch.” The solution? Make sure you stay relevant — keep up with the latest industry jargon, take extra classes to demonstrate your technology prowess, and research that company’s culture. For example, don’t wear a suit to an interview at a tech startup where t-shirts and jeans are the norm. Finally, stay active on social media with content that shows you’re engaged and knowledgeable about your industry. Understand what the manager’s ideal candidate is and become that, even if they aren’t expecting the perfect candidate to look like you do.

It’s Who You Know

We like to pretend that the hiring process is an objective, fact-based competition in which the most qualified candidate always gets the job. But the reality is that relationships with key people at a target company can make all the difference. In the same way that a great network can make you a frontrunner for a job, it can also prevent you from being labeled as “overqualified.” Professional networks like LinkedIn and regional chambers of commerce are excellent vehicles for maintaining a high profile within a given business community; attendance at workshops, networking events, and conferences is also encouraged. A manager who grows to know and respect you beforehand is less likely to think you’re “overqualified” and more likely to think you’re a superstar they’d be lucky to have on their team.

The reality is that “overqualified” candidates are actually a myth: according to research reported by Harvard Business Review, supposedly “overqualified” employees consistently outperform their peers and stay with companies as long or longer than their coworkers. Myth or reality, however, the “o” word will continue to be an obstacle for millions of job seekers, and crafting a solid strategy to combat the often unfair label takes effort and careful planning. Once you understand the concerns of a hiring manager, though, diffusing them can launch your resume to the top of the pile.