#157 from R&D Innovator Volume 4, Number 5          May 1995

Why Not Hire Someone Who Is Overqualified?
by Harvey Gittler

Mr. Gittler of Oberlin, Ohio, retired a few years ago after 40 years as a manufacturing executive.  He now writes and lectures on management issues.

My friend "Sam" called recently to say that he'd been turned down for a job at "XYZ Development Labs" because he was overqualified.  Six months ago, when he was a vice president of research and development, he became another victim of the rash of realignments, reorganizations and mergers that's sweeping American industry.  He was fired.

Was Sam overqualified for the new position?  Perhaps--he did have a Ph.D., and I do know that he could have done the job with the proverbial "one hand tied behind his back."

This wasn't the first such experience for my friend, who had also recently been turned down for a job as a research associate, a position he had held years before and which required no Ph.D.  Since is still young, age discrimination was not a factor, and the only reasonable conclusion was that he was simply "overqualified."

Many companies use this term to politely reject candidates they're afraid to hire for reasons that are, at best, spurious. 

During the interview at XYZ, Sam tried to assure his prospective employer that he was willing to sign on for the long haul, knew the job carried reduced responsibility, and realized he'd be taking a pay cut.  Did the company worry that my friend wanted only a temporary paycheck while seeking a better job?  From my experience, I'd say the personnel department should have noticed that Sam had been jobless for six months, and that he wanted to stay in the region.

Sam explained that he and his family were happy to adjust to the new position and salary.  He was so eager to get back to work that he would guarantee to remain for a certain number of years.  (The company, to the contrary, wasn't willing to guarantee any term of employment.)

Still, the company deemed Sam—with his Ph.D. and his history of working at a higher level—an insuperable obstacle, and turned him down. 

Value of the Overqualified

Let's examine this notion of "overqualified" by looking at the flip side.   Almost anytime an executive, manager or supervisor is promoted, he or she is, at least for the moment, under qualified and overpaid.  Yet companies don't seem to be worried about this.

Although some companies profess to worry that "overqualified" candidates might be unhappy and unchallenged, they don't seem to understand that almost any job is a relief from the boredom and unhappiness of unemployment.

I speak from experience.  Several years ago, when I was eased out in a merger and looking for a job and I, too, was repeatedly called "overqualified," I had difficulty even getting interviews.  Finally, through business connections, I was offered a position at a lower level.  The man who hired me said, "It's going to be a pleasure, just once, to have someone on the staff who is not only fully qualified but who will bring a little more to the job."  This remark set a wonderful tone for starting the new job.

That experience started me to wondering: would most interviewers, facing major surgery, reject an "overqualified" surgeon in favor of a tyro?

You could apply the same test to lawyers, stockbrokers (I wish mine were overqualified!) and auto mechanics.  Flying over the ocean, have you ever been afraid that the airplane mechanics down in the hanger were too proficient? 

Too often, interviewers seem oblivious to the difficulty that many people have finding any position in today's contracting job market.  The real question is this:  overqualified for what?  To perform the job effectively with experience and knowledge?  To possess abilities that should assure excellence in performance?

How could XYZ have suffered by hiring a research associate with years of experience--and a Ph.D.?  When Sam finally did find a job--it was lower-level and required no Ph.D.-- he did it by explaining that the firm was getting a bargain.  He put it this way: "a hire like me is any purchasing department's dream—the highest quality at the lowest cost."  He wasn't overqualified, he explained, but rather highly qualified.

I think many managers reject the "overqualified" simply because they feel threatened.  They panic because such an employee could present competition.  They are insecure in their jobs and unaware that the one true way to assure their own success is to surround themselves with the best (most overqualified) people they can find.

How should stockholders feel about hiring the "overqualified?"  I'd think they'd be pleased to know that the business in which they've invested has a wealth of personnel technical and management skills.

In the search for excellence that is the current holy grail of American industry, I'd think that a staff that is utterly overqualified could help achieve success. 

Think of today's cutbacks as an embarrassment of riches--rarely has such a glut of talent been unexploited.

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