Saturday, March 2, 2013


An acquaintance recently confided that he was officially rejected from consideration for a position because he was ‘overqualified”.  Mind you, he had four interviews so somebody (plural) thought there was promise and legitimacy in his candidacy. It appeared that he wasn’t just trying to salve a bruised ego by offering me that information.  The alarm bells in my HR driven brain (such as it is) started going off. I wondered how naïve (potentially dangerous) it was to actually buy into using just “overqualified” as the only reason to reject an otherwise credible candidate. Now, we aren’t questioning the validity of the decision not to continue with this candidate, rather the way the employment process was handled. 

So, why do I care? First of all, I’m not an attorney and not offering legal advice, so please treat this as an observation and personal opinion – nothing more.  In my utopian business world it would be nice to see HR and Recruiting folks in all companies behave in a professional manner for the benefit of their organizations and clients and not expose themselves to the potential of a discrimination lawsuit. It goes without saying (OK, I will) that the ultimate goal in Recruiting is to source/attract, recruit and select qualified candidates who are best suited for the job, and leave that candidate with a good impression of your company.  

Candidates who meet and/or exceed all Bona Fide Occupational Qualifications (BFOQ) with substantive, relevant work experiences and the motivation and desire to work a particular position could be great finds for any company, able to hit the ground running, performing well above expectations and capable of mentoring the less-experienced members of that work force. These candidates (however young or mature of whatever gender, persuasion or race) tend to positively influence those in their sphere raising the bar and can as one manager recently opined, “be used as innovators, troubleshooters and strategists” adding knowledge and value to that organization. We agree.

Companies that use “overqualified” as a euphemism for not revealing the true reasons for rejecting an applicant are walking on thin ice.  On the other hand a potential employer who second guesses a well-qualified candidate’s motivation and out-of-pocket summarily dismisses their candidacy because of those experiences can be irresponsible and equally risky.  In case you haven’t noticed, the world has changed even in the last ten years. War Babies and Boomers are continuing to seek work because 1) they’re living longer and need to support themselves, 2) They can and they’re bored, 3) They have to because of their/our financial crisis and 4) experienced and/or mature workers are being outsourced, replaced, automated, etc. as our business models (d)evolve in the 21st century.  

I was appalled the other day when on a respected web site there were forum comments from short sighted participants viscerally chastising so called “overqualified” candidates for applying for positions and the recruiters even for considering them citing the great potential for a short term employee and how it would be unfair to the company and on it went, ad nauseum.  We need mention that they were mostly very young if their photos are accurate. Hmmm. There was little mention of the worth of that candidate let along the potential for litigation for discrimination for hiring younger, prettier, stronger, less qualified candidates – well, you get the message.  They seemed oblivious to recent studies which show that skilled workers do not exit less challenging jobs quickly or in high numbers or that recent court decisions reflecting that the use of “Overqualified” could constitute discrimination even to the point that courts are using that as a flag for potential discrimination.  Employers need to be careful when dropping the “O” word if, indeed, they should use it at all.  If they do, they need to understand and explain their BFOQ in great detail or fear the potential for litigation.  It would appear that if Recruiters (that includes independent and contract players) are making these mistakes they need to be first certified as HR practitioners who understand the law and what the ground rules are. It’s a lot more than just production metrics…

So, everything else being equal, if the company that considered our acquaintance sincerely thought that “overqualified” was a legitimate reason to deny a candidate, then they are walking that tightrope.  If there was a compelling, legitimate reason for their decision then they were just deflecting, believing they were taking the easy way out. If that was the case it was, at least, an error in communication.  Candidates might not be a fit for any one of a number of other legitimate reasons, but “Overqualified” just doesn’t make sense. Again, for the purposes of this post we are assuming that the candidate is, indeed, qualified and there is no underlying credible reason to reject them. It also begs the question, how does a company then defend the hiring of a less qualified candidate against the so-called overqualified candidate in a protected class?  Answer-they can’t!

Having said all that, the by now confused candidate could adopt a negative opinion of the company. He or she could assume some ulterior motive and whether in a protected category or not, open the door to a discrimination lawsuit.

Key: When interacting with Candidates you should always try to turn them into positive, professional experiences. Always endeavor to offer and perpetuate a positive image of your company assuming that they could be your future customers/clients, that perfect candidate for another opening in your company or a future colleague or even – are you ready – future Boss! In thirty-five years of recruiting we have seen that happen several times and in one instance, much to the chagrin and dismay of the offending recruiter. We thought it justice sublime…

We have hired C-level candidates to work at jobs some folks would think beneath their station and work experience.  Those that we have seriously engaged were motivated, sincere and when reminded that the company was looking for committed employees provided the degree of assurance that was a factor in their hire. All embraced the company’s core values and mission, lived up to their commitment and were exemplary Employees. And, they have remained supportive and sometimes collaborative Friends with the company.
We would offer that many if not most of those so-called “overqualified" candidates have the potential to contribute mightily to enlightened employers intent on strengthening their organizations. Employers need to take a second (or third) look at their hiring and employment practices and, if necessary, make the necessary adjustments to qualify those who would bring greater worth to their companies and their clients.  It’s a win, win proposition.

And if you are a mature candidate with substantial work experience make sure that the skills you possess are relevant in today’s workplace. Know how to market yourself and communicate how you can positively contribute to the organization. Find out what the BFOQ are for a particular position and then see whether you fit and proceed accordingly. 

Yes, some may consider me overqualified for my present position. I guess that by now I should’ve gotten this out of my system… Welcome to the “new normal.”


Ned Buxton

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