by Meridith Levinson

Overqualified Job Seekers: Beware This HR Copout

Jun 11, 2010

Telling candidates they're overqualified for a job can be an easy way for recruiters, hiring and HR managers to let them down.

Has a hiring manager, HR manager or recruiter ever rejected you for a job opportunity because you’re “overqualified” for it? I’ve spoken with numerous IT managers who’ve been fed this line, and it frustrates them to no end. They can understand being passed up for a job because they don’t meet the qualifications for it, they’ve told me, but getting rejected on the basis of being overqualified mystifies them. Why wouldn’t a hiring manager want a candidate who could do a job blindfolded and who would bring more knowledge and experience to the role than the average job seeker, they wonder?

In fact, hiring managers have many reasons to pass on overqualified candidates, and I detail their concerns in my article, Job Search: What to Do When You’re Overqualified. The article also offers overqualified job seekers advice on addressing hiring managers’ concerns about their candidacy.

One question that occurred to me while I was reporting the story on overqualified candidates was whether hiring managers and HR managers ever use “You’re overqualified,” as an easy letdown for candidates. After all, telling a job seeker he’s overqualified could prop up the job seeker’s self-esteem. It gives him some external confirmation that he’s smart and competent. Plus, it sounds nicer than, “You have the personality of a gnat,” which may be the real reason the candidate was rejected.

I posed my question to Michael Kohlman, one of the IT hiring managers I interviewed for the story, and he confirmed my suspicion. Kohlman told me that telling a job seeker he or she is overqualified can indeed be an easy and politically correct way to let a candidate down.

“One thing you run into as a hiring manager today is that everyone is afraid of a fairly litigious environment,” says the information systems manager. “If you talk to HR legal experts, they’ll tell you not to tell a candidate anything [about why they were passed up] because the concern is that anything you say will come back to bite the company later on. The standard advice is to come up with a one sentence response: ‘Sorry, you’re overqualified,’ or ‘We found another candidate who was a better fit’ are the classic choices these days.”

(For the record, Kohlman doesn’t shy away from overqualified job seekers. In fact, he most recently hired a programmer with 10 years of experience to fill a position for a documentation specialist.)

So when you’re rejected because you’re “overqualified,” you may not in fact be overqualified in the hiring manager’s eyes. Telling you you’re overqualified may, sadly, be just a copout.