Best of TLNT 2017: It’s a Mistake to Overlook Overqualified Candidates

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Aug 22, 2017

Editor’s Note: It’s an annual tradition for TLNT to count down the most popular posts of the previous 12 months. We’re reposting each of the top 30 articles through January 2nd. This is No. 15 of 2017. You can find the complete list here.


Overqualified candidates often pose a difficult challenge: experience, knowledge and self-sufficiency can be a big draw, but potential risks of boredom in the workplace and high turnover are enough to put any employer on edge.

One out of every four workers with a bachelor’s degree is overqualified for their job, according to a recent study, which means HR executives are likely to encounter this issue across a variety of positions and departments. While there are both benefits and downsides to hiring overqualified candidates, finding a middle ground is key to gaining the most value from these hires — and providing skilled people with work that continues to challenge them.

Experience is worth the investment

The right overqualified candidate can bring a wealth of benefits to an organization, including expertise, experience, proficiency in basic skills, leadership potential and the ability to take on challenging projects and tasks.

However, it’s not uncommon for these candidates to be ruled out after a quick scan of their resume. There’s often a presumed risk among hiring managers that these candidates will be bored, unmotivated or leave the position quickly.

“I worry that the term ‘overqualified’ frequently prevents companies from looking at talented candidates because they don’t fit the mold of previous hires, or their skills don’t exactly mirror the job description,” says Mikaela Kiner, founder and CEO of Uniquely HR, a Seattle-based HR consulting company. “Often the people we label as overqualified are experienced, talented and bring a level of maturity that you may not find in younger workers.”

Overqualified candidates are likely to be able to hit the ground running. Because they already have the basic skills needed for the position, they likely don’t require too much hands-on training or oversight. This can help your organization save time and money when it comes to onboarding.

One huge benefit is ingenuity, adds Stephanie Troiano, vice president of recruitment and marketing at talent search firm The Hire Talent.

“Someone who is overqualified for the role they’re applying for, in terms of skills or experience, can bring new ideas, fresh perspectives and ways of doing things that they’ve already tried or tested, and know works,” she explains.

Find the right balance

Of course, there are potential downsides to hiring an overqualified employee. These candidates may actually be harder to train if they are stuck in their way of doing things. If they meet the majority of requirements for the position, they may become bored and complacent quickly, which can lead to underperformance.

Hiring an overqualified person can also be stressful for managers, who may feel that the new hire is in competition for their job, out to make them look bad or challenging to manage because they have similar qualifications as themselves.

One of the biggest potential downsides is salary. Often, overqualified candidates will ask for a salary commensurate with their skills. The company may choose to increase the rate if it can afford it and if the candidate’s experience warrants it, but this can make it difficult for small businesses to make the hire. Or if the candidate decides to take the lower salary, it can become a bigger problem down the road.

“Even if they say they don’t mind, salary eventually comes to be the final straw in most cases,” says Troiano.

Another concern is that someone who is overqualified may feel that they don’t have enough room to grow or the ability to contribute in ways they are used to.

“Unless the new firm has a strong plan of action to get this overqualified person into a suitable role where they feel like they can learn more and are being challenged, this person isn’t going to enjoy being the overqualified person for very long,” she says.

Avoid being the life raft

However, there are many ways to avoid these pitfalls. Most of all, it is important to be honest with a candidate. Explain your concerns about the role in comparison to their experience, and be upfront about expectations.

A candidate that comes off as desperate in these conversations may see the role as a stepping-stone to the next one. Troiano cautions against falling into this trap of becoming a life raft, providing support for an over qualified candidate while they go out and find their next opportunity.

During hiring conversations, be sure to ask about the candidate’s long-term career goals, why they are motivated to apply for the job, and what they think they can contribute to your company.

Listen closely to the candidate’s story, Kiner advises, to make sure it sounds genuine and they truly understand the details of the job.

Last but not least, keep an open mind. Just because a candidate seems overqualified based on their resume, they may have an entirely personal reason for applying to the position. They could be looking to switch industries, find a better work-life balance or work for their “dream company.”

“In my experience, the candidates we label as overqualified are often some of the most talented, independent and motivated people in the workforce,” Kiner says.

This article originally appeared on ReWork, a publication exploring the future of work.