When You’re Overqualified
by Tom Washington

One of the biggest frustrations my clients face comes from being overqualified. It’s often worded something like this: “There are no jobs in my field, and I can’t even get a job at Subway.” Or, “I can’t even get an interview for the type of work I did five years ago. A recruiter told me my problem is I’m overqualified for that type of work. Hey, I need a job and I’m willing to work for less money and less status, but they won’t hire me.”

The Overqualified/Underqualified Dilemma

The above diagram shows the dilemma many job seekers face. Person A is extremely overqualified for a position and has almost no possibility of being hired or even getting an interview. Person B is slightly overqualified and could be offered his desired position if he demonstrates he truly wants the job and convinces the hiring manager that he will not leave at the first opportunity to get a higher paying position elsewhere. This is the person who will be described in this article.

Person C is slightly underqualified for a desired position. There will always be other candidates who are considered more qualified than this person. She has a shot at the job only if she demonstrates that she has always learned new jobs quickly and has a history of being given added responsibilities. Person D is so underqualified that it would be nearly impossible for him to be considered for a position.

Employers have several views of the overqualified person, and there is enough truth in each one to perpetuate the stereotypes. To help with this problem, let’s look at the concerns employers have regarding those who appear to be overqualified. Below I discuss some of the objections raised for interviewing or hiring overqualified people. If you do get an interview, the following issues will disqualify you unless you convince the hiring manager that you really do want the position.

Remember—what you are doing is overcoming an objection. If you believe you will be perceived as overqualified, the objection or concern may never actually be stated or may be stated in a subtle way. You must anticipate it and find subtle ways to deal with it when it is not specifically raised in the interview. For example, you would never say, “I know you probably think I’m overqualified. Let me tell you why I’m not.” This is inappropriate since the interviewer has not mentioned being overqualified. It’s simply too blunt. Instead, look for opportunities to explain why the job is right for you and how you would benefit the organization.

You can assume you are viewed as overqualified if you have as much experience as your prospective boss, you’ve held higher-level positions than the one you’re applying for now, you are considerably older than your coworkers, or you have earned considerably more than the job pays.

1) Objection: You will leave at the first opportunity for a higher paying position.
 Let’s face it—in many cases it’s true. You’ve been searching in your field for several months and feel forced to consider lesser positions. You don’t like applying for lower-level jobs, but that’s life. The employer may sympathize with your predicament, but is unwilling to pay you to learn the job and then have you give notice four months later when that better job comes along. If you’ve had a series of short-term jobs, this perception will be even stronger.

Counter: Your only hope is to convince the employer that you really want the job, that you will work hard at it, and that you will not leave at the first opportunity for a higher paying position. Explain what makes the job desirable. It might be the rapid growth of the organization making opportunities for promotion, the reputation of the organization as a great place to work, or the opportunity to work on cutting edge stuff. If the job entails aspects that you’ve done for years, explain that you enjoy those duties. Sell a short learning curve. Sell the fact that you will be able to produce on day one.

2) Objection: You’ll want too much money. Employers will often not even offer an interview if they assume you will want more than their budget allows. If they do interview you, suspecting they can’t afford you, you will often be asked early in the interview process for the salary you require. If you indicate that you are certain that something acceptable to both parties can be worked out, you may then be asked specifically what your needs are.

Plan to give a range of several thousand dollars in which the top of your range is probably higher than the top of their range, and the bottom of your range is probably higher than the bottom of their range. Use a range that overlaps significantly with their probable range. That will typically at least keep the interview going. If you really want the job and you know it won’t pay what you’re worth, determine the lowest salary that you could accept. It does not mean that you should aspire to that low a salary; it only shows that you could survive on it until you got sufficient raises.

Counter: Throughout the interview discuss your accomplishments, especially those where you solved major problems or saved money. In this way you will stimulate the employer to want you and to find a way to pay you what you’re worth. Work hard at showing why you are the perfect candidate. Show how you cut costs, increased productivity, or increased revenue. Make them believe, based on your achieved results, that they need you even if they have to offer more than the the top of the salary range.

3) Objection: You’ll be bored and unhappy and will eventually cause problems for your boss or coworkers. Bored people don’t perform up to their potential. It is all too common for bored and unhappy employees to cause problems. They may get into arguments with the supervisor or coworkers or try to boss their fellow employees. Often even the simplest task is not completed on schedule and barely meets standards. People who are capable of great work often underperform when they are bored or under-motivated.

Counter: At appropriate times in the interview, describe what makes the job desirable to you. You might say, “What I like about this job is that it will allow me to do things that I’m very good at and have a lot of experience at. I really enjoy training and helping coworkers, and would be happy to do that.” Point out that you have a lot of experience but that you will also be doing some new things that will make the job challenging.

Sell the fact that you have always been a team player and that you have excellent references from former bosses. Show that you have always been an asset, take initiative to improve things, and get along well with coworkers.

If the job you are interviewing for is nonmanagement, yet you have a management background, the employer probably wants to know why you are interested in the position. You might say, “At this time I’m not looking for a management position. Perhaps in two or three years I’ll be interested again.” Be prepared to explain why you are not seeking management positions at this time.

4) Objection: Your prospective boss is intimidated by you or thinks you really want her job. Some managers are intimidated if they sense you can do their job better than they can. A person who is fully confident in her ability should want to hire the very best person available, but sometimes a lack of confidence prevents this. Managers rarely reveal feeling intimidated. If you are clearly more qualified than your prospective boss, assume this person is at least concerned about your superior background and respond accordingly. Intimidated managers sometimes reveal their concern by acting rudely or by putting down aspects of your background.

Counter: If you suspect the manager may feel intimidated by you or your background, do nothing that could give the appearance of superiority. For example, you would not  correct the person if you detected a misstatement. Show that you have always been a loyal employee who has helped make his bosses successful. If a former boss has taken you with her when she moved to another organization, this story would lend credence to your statements about being valuable to bosses. Be subtle as you stress that you are loyal. A manager will never come right out and say that he fears you because you know more than he does.

When the employer tells you that you are overqualified. If you’re explicitly told you are overqualified, ask the manager to describe the ideal candidate. If you are indeed overqualified, you will probably match the dream candidate quite nicely. This should then cause the manager to figure out how she can find additional money in her budget to hire you. Managers can do a lot of things when they are highly motivated to make it happen. Visualizing you helping them get promoted is highly motivating.

When an employer states that you are overqualified, remember that this is not a rejection, but an opportunity to show that you really want the job, that you will stay a reasonable time, and that while in the position you will be a strong contributor. Explain that you are indeed very qualified. “I don’t see myself as overqualified. I do have a lot of experience, and I’ve had more responsibility before, but this job is desirable to me for several reasons, including ____, _____, and _____.”

Fortunately, some managers love to hire overqualified people, confident they will get a lot out of them for the period they stay. These are managers who know how to help employees grow and are not intimidated by people who know more than they do in certain areas. In periods of high unemployment, some managers are attracted to overqualified people because recessions tend to cause employees to stay longer.

Getting hired when you are overqualified can be challenging. Go into interviews prepared, and go in ready to share experiences that demonstrate your value and your commitment. Convince the hiring manager that you have the ability to make money, save money, or solve problems facing the organization. (link see p 62-67 IP) Sell those three and you’re likely to be hired, and hired at the salary level you know you’re worth.

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