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The Art of Finding Work: A Candidate Being Overqualified is a Legitimate Concern

A fundamental principle of humanity—innate freedom—is that everyone has a right to pursue their own self-interests, which inherently lends itself to liberal democracy and capitalism. In other words, you and I are free, within the boundaries of laws established by politicians who were voted in because voters believed they’d best serve their self-interests to make life choices we believe are in our best interests.

You and I have the right to pursue our self-interests as long as our pursuits do not interfere with the interests of others. Ideally, harmony and easy-flowing relationships are established when self-interests support and complement each other. We also need to understand that if we want our self-interests respected, we need to respect the self-interests of others. 

Let’s apply this fundamental principle of humanity to the job market. Employers have their self-interests, the obvious being to run and maintain their business profitably, and job seekers have their self-interests, the obvious being to have an income. Job seekers’ self-interests often conflict with those of employers, whose self-interests trump theirs since they create the jobs (read: paycheques). Therefore, job seekers are always bubbling with emotion.  

Consider this: how often do you make a life choice that isn’t driven by your self-interest? Reflecting on this provides valuable insights into the role of self-interest in our decision-making processes, as well as that of employers. As you choose what’s in your best interests, employers choose what’s in the best interests of their business.

Job seekers like to point out all the supposed unfairness—touchpoints that don’t serve their self-interest—they can find throughout an employer’s hiring process, which the employer designed with their business’s interests in mind. 

A common complaint among job seekers is not being hired because they are supposedly “overqualified.” When the hiring process is viewed from the employer’s right to pursue their self-interests, you understand that a candidate being overqualified isn’t a bad thing; it’s, however, a risky thing for several reasons: 

  • They’re likely to become bored and become a flight risk. (Overqualified = too temporary. Employers don’t want to hire, train, and then lose their new hire.
  • An insubordination risk. (Often, an employer doesn’t want a go-getter; they just want someone reliable to plug in and do the job without making noise about advancing their career.)
  • Will want to make changes, causing distractions.
  • Will act as a know-it-all.
  • Will expect to be paid more.

All these, while not absolute, are valid concerns. Additionally, when you apply to a job posting, you’re entering a competition. Considering all the tangible and intangible factors that go into a hiring decision, being overqualified for a position doesn’t necessarily make you the best candidate. 

Contrary to beliefs designed to create excuses, overqualified candidates aren’t seen as someone who’ll be gunning for the boss’s job, nor is “overqualified” code for “too old.” Whether fair or not, a candidate’s qualifications level contributes to a hiring manager’s evaluation of whether they’ll be a “fit,” which, not surprisingly, many job seekers label as discrimination.

Would you hire a 5-star chef to flip hamburgers at your diner?

(Yes, an exaggeration, but the point is made.)

Elimination is integral to any hiring process; therefore, discrimination is inevitable. When receiving hundreds of applications for one position, an employer has no choice but to look for reasons to eliminate candidates to whittle down to the few who are phone and face-to-face interview-worthy. This is when the real “elimination discrimination” begins. 

As humans, hiring managers naturally focus on “what they like” or “who’ll be a good fit.” Many hiring managers, especially those at executive levels, evaluate candidates based on how they feel they’ll integrate with their team or can see themselves liking the candidate socially; therefore, if you’re likeable, your interviewer will probably overlook your being overqualified. Being likable trumps your skills and experience; thus, prioritize being likable over your skills and experience.   

Whenever you find yourself in an interview knowing you’re overqualified for the job, an indication that the employer is interested in hearing your career story and why you’re interested in the job, you need to address the elephant in the room ASAP. Addressing your interviewer’s concerns (e.g., age, commute time, overqualification) before they bring it up is a savvy job search strategy rarely utilized. When your interviewer raises their concerns, you’re put on the defensive. You want to be on the offensive. Therefore, prepare a “don’t worry about” script that you can use after exchanging pleasantries.

If it’s okay with you before we begin, I’d like to address something you might be wondering about, my [qualifications, experience]. Although I have X years of experience and have held more senior roles, I’m looking to scale back so I can better focus on delivering my best work while also [caring for an aging parent / spending time with my family].

Being upfront in addressing your interviewer’s concern(s), which I assure you they’ll very much appreciate, demonstrates you have the emotional intelligence to understand and respect the employer’s possible concerns, which will help you establish a positive relationship with your interviewer, thus increasing your odds of being hired.

Nick Kossovan

Nick Kossovan, a well-seasoned veteran of the corporate landscape, offers “unsweetened” job search advice. You can send Nick your questions to artoffindingwork@gmail.com.

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