By Jack Kelly
On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal unveiled the tough challenges confronted by overqualified job seekers.
The article builds upon a study conducted by university professors at Carnegie Mellon, Stanford and Johns Hopkins. Their research concludes, “The managers perceive highly capable candidates to have lower commitment to the organization than less capable, but adequate candidates and, as a result, penalize high-capability candidates in the hiring process.”
In addition to the pretentious manner in which the professors portray the results, outside of the ivory tower studies, the circumstances are even worse for overqualified candidates.When the résumé of an individual whose experience level far surpasses the role ends up on the desk of a hiring manager or human resources professional, they will ask either why this person wants the job and inquire what is up with this person.
There is an inherent prejudice built in. The company representatives are highly suspect of why a person who has achieved such a high level of success, status and compensation is willing to take a step backwards. This is an anathema to most type-A corporate professionals. They are convinced there has to be something wrong—maybe the person flamed out, they reached their own level of incompetence or just want to coast.
There is an underlying resentment at work too. An overqualified person—with degrees from prestigious elite universities and a résumé with top-tier companies—could be a turn off. A manager and others in the hiring process will view these qualifications as a detriment. They will believe, without any tangible proof, that this type of candidate will be conceited, arrogant and difficult to work with. There is a tinge of petty jealousy involved and a perverse pleasure in denying someone who they perceive to have had an easy ride in life.
You would like to believe that when people hire they have the best interests of the company in mind. The reality is that they are more concerned about their own careers. If the manager is in her mid 30s and the job seeker is north of 45 years-old, she would rationally feel that all of the attention will be diverted to the older, more experienced person. At meetings, all heads will turn to him or her. They will ask the overqualified person all of the questions instead of the younger and less experienced manager. The staff may also turn to the person for advice, feeling that they have a wealth of practical and life experiences. The manager will be concerned about being pushed aside. She may believe that this is a ruse and the experienced person didn’t want to settle at all, but rather push her out of her job and take over.
There is also a direct correlation between experience and compensation. Although the over-experienced applicant may suggest that they’ll take less money, there is the concern that this attitude may quickly change. After embedding themselves in the job, taking on important responsibilities and becoming an integral part of the company, there is a fear that the person will then push for more money and a higher title—now that he has leverage. In an uncomfortable spot, management may have no choice other than to acquiesce or risk a now-valued person leaving. If a raise or promotion is offered, the others in the groups will feel misled and betrayed by the person.
WSJ touches on another hot-button issue—ageism. I have corresponded with many corporate professionals, between the ages of 30 and 50 years-old, who have been downsized. Various reasons were given for the layoff, but they all suspect that their age and compensation is the root cause. They are all having a very difficult time finding new comparable jobs. I have also noticed a strong trend of companies seeking out younger employees who ask for far less money compared to their older counterparts.
Another related trend is the movement of jobs to lower-cost cities or countries. When this happens, there are less relevant available jobs for experienced professionals. When they do arise, it’s a simple question for the company: do we hire an overqualified person in New York City—which is very costly when you factor in real estate costs, insurance and other benefits—or do we simply fill the position with a younger person in Salt Lake City or Jacksonville, Florida. To save even more money, they’ll even consider Poland or India.
There is another bias. Some people believe that if you are overqualified (which usually parallels with age), the person will act like a know-it-all, not work as hard, complain about how poorly things are run and what he’d differently, have an unpleasant authoritarian demeanor, talk down to junior counterparts and not fit into the corporate culture. This is a form of prejudice that is out in the open and accepted by many.
As raised in WSJ, there is a perceived risk that the overqualified person is settling for a temporary job until a better one is found. Once a more suitable role is procured, the person will immediately leave for more money and a higher title.
If you are in this situation, here’s what you need to do.
Go into the interview knowing that there will be an inherent bias and suspicion. When it arises, you won’t be caught off guard. Before the interviewer asks the question, tell them about what happened with your last job and why you want this role. You should be very transparent, even if it’s uncomfortable to do so. If you don’t have a tight, honest and compelling narrative, they’ll assume the worst. In your words and actions, show them that you are a team player and work well with others. Demonstrate enthusiasm and motivation to counteract any preconceived notions. Ensure that you are empathetic, listen attentively and show respect and deference to the interviewers. Assure them that this is not a port-in-the-storm job and that you are there for the long haul.
Sadly, you won’t be offered the same remuneration and title that you previously enjoyed when you take on a lesser role. It’s unfortunate that an overqualified person needs to bend over backwards for the interviewers. However, that is what’s needed when you’re up against intrinsic, negative stereotypes. Don’t despair; this often happens in people’s careers. View this as an opportunity to regroup, learn new skills, make fresh connections and as a foundation to build upon for future success.