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Making the Case For—and Against—Hiring Overqualified Candidates

Suzanne Lucas

Founder, Evil HR Lady

We've all seen it before—you get an application from a candidate that is simply overqualified for the position that she's seeking. After all, why would an applicant with over twenty years of experience be vying for a mid-level role? But here's the problem with calling someone "overqualified." At some companies, the term has become an easy way to reject someone without saying "you're too old."

Not only is that potentially discriminatory against applicants that are being overlooked simply for their age, but you're also likely missing out on employees with unique professional backgrounds and life experiences that have a lot to offer your company, regardless of their position.

It turns out, there are actually plenty of reasons why people may want to step down—and it's up to you to determine whether or not they're valid. Here are three occasions when you should give overqualified applicants a chance, and three situations in which to avoid them.

When to Hire

They're Ready to Slow Down: I love my job—it's exciting and interesting and every day is different, but it doesn't end at 5:00 pm. There are times I wish I could slow down, and I'm not the only person to feel that way. When an employee is tired of a previously-held high pressure job, they may want to stay in the same industry and take a position with less responsibility and stress.

A major life change—a baby, a suddenly empty nest, a spouse retiring, or a health problem that calls for a less demanding role—is another common reason for wanting to take a lower-level job. That person's experience could prove tremendously valuable to your company, and in return you'll be giving someone a more manageable work schedule. It's a win-win.

You're Expanding the Role: We tell people not to dress for the role they have, but for the role they want. Maybe you should consider hiring for an expanded role as well. If you're a startup and you only have the budget for one marketing person, hiring someone with not only marketing experience but also tons of management prowess may help you in the long run.

If growth is on your horizon, that person may be well-positioned to take over as a manager as your company grows. Note: if this is your plan, please be clear with the candidate. They may be looking to step down to avoid a managerial role, so if you spring management responsibilities on them six months down the line, they'll be unhappy.

It's a New Role and the Manager Needs Support: Sometimes the best candidate for a totally new function is an expert. She might have to do the job without support because the manager might not know exactly what to do yet, so you'll be glad you have someone on the team with valuable experience.

When to Consider Other Candidates

The 'Step Down' Isn't Justified: If a candidate is hemming and hawing about her reasons for taking a position for which she is overqualified, that could be a red flag. If she's unemployed, that may explain why—and it may be a smart move for her. But it may also mean that as soon as she's hired, she'll start looking for a higher level position.

It's possible that she simply wants a foot in the door of your company and plans to post out of the job as soon as possible. If she really seems like the best candidate, make your expectations clear before offering a job, and be honest about the fact that her role might not change much regardless of her qualifications. You don't want to be interviewing candidates again in six months.

Critical Skills Are Missing: Someone who has been a Director of Quality Assurance may not remember how to perform simple lab tests any more. Sure, she can be trained, but will that training be more difficult than hiring someone who is currently up to date? Will she be frustrated when the current director who does things differently than she did?

If you have reason to believe that she might be missing skills that will be crucial for the job, ask her about them directly. If they are indeed missing, you'll need to move on.

You Know He'll Be Miserable: You don't want an employee who will be unhappy in his role. If he has been a manager for a long time, and the position is for an independent contributor role, ask specifically how he'll feel about not having any authority over others in the department. Listen carefully, and consider his responses with care.

If the candidate seems unsure about how he'll feel taking a true step down, you may be better off considering someone else.

There isn't always a straight forward path when you're considering an overqualified candidate, but rejecting one doesn't necessarily mean you are discriminating against the candidate's age. Focus on asking yourself if this person will be a good person for the job, be happy there and stick around for at least a couple of years.

Photo: Creative Commons

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