What does being overqualified really mean? Cracking the hiring code

What does being overqualified really mean?  Is it about ageism? Is it just a lazy trite hiring excuse?  How can you  get to the truth?  How can you navigate and minimise the job search risk?

These questions keep millions of executives and professionals awake whilst scratching their heads.  And there is no one size fits all answer as I will dive into here in cracking the hiring code..

But what is congruent to all options is that people :

a/ fear making a mistake &  b/ dislike delivering negative feedback (with the potential of legalistic backlash etc).

Taking a sales approach to the issue is first cab of the rank for candidates. This means addressing potential objections before they arise.  And hiring managers need to take a journalist approach in asking deep questions with an unbiased lens.

Truths, Lies & Stages

The truth is that a rejection of being overqualified is often code for ageism.  It’s a lazy trope to dish out with the hope that a person will feel good about being skilled. And it can well be a smokescreen for the hiring manager feeling insecure.

But it mostly masks the real issues at hand of which have validity … sometimes!

When that hiring objection is given matters.  Is it at application stage?  Or is it after interviews? 

I guarantee you that if it’s after an interview it is totally code for something else. If it’s at the application stage, generally the candidate has missed the opportunity to squash initial concerns from their resume.    

As I said above, people don’t like making a mistake.  Comfort and risk management is always front and centre of hiring processes decisions. 

People need to be assured and comforted that they will not make a mistake.  And of course, stereotypes and biases clouds perceptions.

I know this first hand as I was a recruiter for over 11 years (2004 to 2015).  I recall well advertising positions and receiving applications with considerable more experience than I advertised. 

And men and women who had been self-employed or in their own business for many years now putting their hat back into employment.

Curiosity as to why they applied was the basis of every discussion.  I would encourage phone conversations to allow candidates to promote and pitch themselves along with sending in written applications.

Back to those who had considerable more experience or had been self-employed.  Sure they could do the jobs easily and had a deep understanding the industry or clients.  But was that good enough to proceed? 

No it wasn’t, I needed to determine what their real motivations were in applying?  And how they would deal with different management reports, or for the first time in years, reporting to others.  And of course, if they were simply desperate for anything.

Truth is, taking a journalist approach as I did to find the truth and be fair about it, did cut out many candidates.  And likewise, there were many candidates who passed muster who who I put forward for roles. I had confidence they were suitable and would fit into the team dynamics. 

The only way to determine suitability and truth is by clever open questions.

And the truth is not everyone wants to manage people in their careers.  Or some have reached the point in their careers they rather be hands on and not continue the stress of management and staff responsibilities.  

Now, mind you that didn’t mean recruiting into roles was easy as I had to convince my clients to interview them.  Thankfully most took my advice but I had to overcome their biases and stereotypes.

Irony of contracting

The other irony of hiring people with more experience than required is it should be considered a HUGE BONUS for the company. 

Another truth is that when candidates take on contract assignments, the issue of being overqualified doesn’t raise a whisper.  Why?

Because the company is just focussing on the tasks and job role at hand.  Does the candidate have the skills to do the job well and play nicely whilst doing it is the question?

The irony is that if a person had a PhD in a field it would not preclude them from the job as it’s a contract.  Think about that for a minute.  If the candidate is happy with the salary and role at hand, the company should be over the moon.

This of course brings the question as to why more contracts versus permanent roles are not considered in the hiring ecosystem.  But I digress.

 Answer the objection before it arises – addressing the elephant in the room

The sales perspective of minimising rejection of being overqualified sits with you.  Sorry hard truth, but important. In sales and marketing we try and answer objections (think FAQ) before they are verbalised or thought.  Same rule applies here to minimise being rejected at the application stage.

Now this strategy won’t work 100% every time, after all the only guarantees are death and taxes in life.    But by gee, by addressing the elephant in the room of why you may not be a top candidate to talk with is key.  Remember it comes back to giving comfort to minimise making mistakes. 

Firstly, you need to be crystal clear on your own who, what and why and sit in the seat of the hiring company. How would you view you?

Know why the role is available and do deep prior research. Even call the hiring managers before applying for more insights to include in your application.

Calling that elephant out in the room is addressing potential issues of:

1/  Salary Concerns: Does the salary expectations meet with what is on offer. Will the candidate expect more based on their background?

2/  Job Satisfaction & Challenge:  Will the candidate find the role challenging enough and not get bored

3/  Flight Risk: Will the candidates use the job as a temporary stopgap measure until they find a more suitable role. 

4/  Cultural Fit: Does the candidate really match values, goals, or work culture

5/  Management Supervision:  Is the candidate open to being managed and supervised

6/  Team Dynamics: How will the candidate fit with our team members? Will they feel threatened and resentful?

7/  Ageism – yes the age issue. Will the personality, attitude and skills match our needs?

Whilst many of the above can be totally illogical, we all know that bias and fear creates illogical thoughts. 

If there is insecurity in the hiring managers or team, this can also play out. So worthwhile doing some prior research there.

So how do you address these issues?  Be honest, direct and confident.  Demonstrate you understand potential issues and why it’s not a concern. 

How do you address these issues?  Be honest, direct and confident.  Demonstrate you understand potential issues and why it’s not a concern.  For example, in a cover letter, or on your CV you might say:

“I have had a wonderful career managing retail staff, but now am pivoting to a wholesale focus in the sector’.  I could xyzyz in this role…..


Whilst having been a business owner for several years, I want to be part of a group where I can contribute and enjoy the camaraderie.  This role would be …..”


I appreciate that (name of company) has a  vibrant and youthful culture. For the many years I have worked in the industry, I have achieved results internally and externally with fresh ideas and a willingness to take technology solutions into new areas to meet market needs in customer service

You get the drift here with some basic ideas. Read more tips on cover letters here

And on your LinkedIn profile you can elegantly mention and allude to your change of direction and career focus.  It’s all in the marketing and positioning.  Don’t forget that your LinkedIn profile is going to be rigour sly viewed by recruiters, HR and hiring teams.

Dealing with the objection after interviews

If the rejection comes after an interview, you can bet your bottom dollar it’s because of other issues and they are just taking the easy way out by saying you are overqualified. 

Given the scope for backlash and discrimination legalities, companies are very cagey in delivering interview feedback which can be difficult.

But like all communication, there is ways to do that to minimise risk.  

So if you receive that feedback, directly or indirectly, it will be due to the fears of 1-7 above.  You need to address those elephants in the room and ask for feedback.

Final word on the ole objection nut

Look the ole chestnut of a candidate being overqualified is code for other issues.  Is it ageism, yes often it can be and requires answering those issues?  You can find more about handling ageism here on my blog   Strategies to navigate career ageism.

But generally like all hiring issues and rejections, there is other aspects that you as a candidate can help mitigate.  Biases and stereotypes are not going away any time soon (big bloody sigh), but by gee you can give it a red hot crack with a fresh marketing mindset approach.


I wrote a version of this article in HR Leader for employers, HR & recruiters HERE 




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