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Reconsidering "Overqualified"

By Mary Lloyd

Have you ever ruled out job candidates because they were way too good to be true? We call it "overqualified" but what are we really saying?

It's a buyers market for hiring right now. Hundreds eagerly apply for a single opening. To help winnow the mass of information down to a manageable size, you instantly rule out anyone who's "overqualified." You've just saved yourself-and the company--a lot of headaches, right? But have you? Or have you just kissed off the chance to get a Ferrari for the price of a Miata?

Per Webster's, "overqualified" means having more education, training, or experience than a job calls for. When it comes to job candidates, why do we believe that's automatically a bad thing?

We rationalize that workers with lots of experience will want a higher salary, get bored, be hard to train and supervise, and they will leave when the economy improves. That may not be the case at all. Perhaps these diamonds in the rhinestone bin love what they do -- and are really good at it -- but want to throttle back. Perhaps they need a new job because they've moved to be closer to an ailing parent. Perhaps they just don't want the intensity of the level at which they've been working.

This idea that we know that these folks won't fit in the job when we have no idea of their motives for seeking it is as silly as assuming we know which exit the car in front of us is going to take on the freeway. But instead of discovering why they want the job, we take something a lot less useful -- a much less experienced hire -- just to be sure we're not getting "too much." Select talent the way you select machinery -- with an eye toward what you're going to need down the road.

Deciding that this person is not of interest when you might need that exact set of skills and experience in three years is just plain stupid. It's easy to do though when there are so many candidates that staff without that knowledge (HR or a staffing firm) are making the first cuts for you. How can you avoid missing out on the "best deals" in the employment arena?

  • Put the job in context for those doing the first cut. The more those who are assisting in the hiring process know about what you're going to need eventually, the better they will be at spotting it.
  • Include keywords that go beyond the titles of your current software. Thinking a person is less qualified because they have not yet used your accounting software when they've effectively used three other accounting packages is like assuming Jeff Gordon will be less capable with your car than your teenage daughter who just took her driver's test in it.
  • Don't put upper limits on experience requirements in your qualification parameters. Come on now, isn't that a bit like limiting yourself to winning a million in the lottery when mega-millions are available? If your IT people insist on a top limit, make it so high that it won't rule anyone out. And don't give it any weight in the decision-making process.
  • Find out why the person wants the job. Words like "reduce stress" and "more time for family" are legitimate reasons to seek work at a level that's less than what they've already done. Also savvy experienced workers accept that they have to "pay their dues" by starting at something that takes less than what they have to offer to prove themselves to a new company. Even more important, many who have reached retirement age still want to work but don't want as much responsibility. The reason that person wants the job is unique. Check it out instead of assuming you know.
  • Don't evaluate costs of the hire on salary alone. If the person you hire can hit the ground running, you save money-on errors, on time spent training, on customer complaints, on problem solving. Hiring someone with limited or no experience when you can get more is far more expensive than it looks.
  • Respect "chemistry." Choosing candidates who fit with the way your organization works is essential. Starting with a blank slate new hire doesn't automatically assure that though. Evaluate candidates on this dimension and hire people who can get along with the group and focus on getting the work done. Experience usually makes people both mellower and more effective.
  • Realize that it's not all about the money. Study after study has confirmed that high salaries are not as motivating as the chance to do work you enjoy. As Daniel Pink put it in his groundbreaking book Drive, "Carrots and sticks are so last century…for 21st century work, we need autonomy, mastery, and purpose." Older workers understand that better and seek those motivators.

Any hiring you do now is Bargain Central. You can get a lot more for your money and give your company a head start on the future by moving toward hiring experience rather than ruling it out.