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Sorry, you’re overqualified

My friend George asked me, "Liz, how long does it take the average person to get comfortable at a new job?"
"I'd say about six months," I replied, "give or take."

"So after six months, the average person's got the job pretty much down pat?" George asked.

"Depending on the job..." I said.

I wasn't sure where George was headed.

"You could say that after six months on the job, most of us are up to speed," he went on. "After that point, you could almost call us" (and here, George paused for emphasis) "overqualified." I had to laugh. George was right.
If a reasonably smart person can pick up any new job in a year or less - after which time, we have to assume, there's at least a certain part of the day spent on autopilot - why are employers so terrified of overqualified job-seekers? For one thing, they fear that the "O"-type candidate will bolt whenever a slightly more suitable (and better-paying) job comes along. For another, employers may fear that the well-qualified applicant may be bored on the job or make other people feel small or want the boss' job ... the list goes on.

What's sad about the rampant "O"-phobia among employers is that in this economy, it's possible to get some very sharp and creative folks on your staff who might not have joined the organization at other times. You can get them, and if you treat them decently (with acknowledgement for their contributions and whatever pay increases are possible in these squeaky-budget times) you may even be able to keep them.
So why are employers so unwilling to consider candidates who have more qualifications than the job requires? And is there anything a frustrated, superbly-qualified job-seeker can do about the door that slams shut when the dreaded overqualified word is spoken?
In my experience, the applicant who can make the best case for his or her 'downshifting' has the best shot at a job that s/he'd appear to be over-qualified for. That's because Fear Factor Number One for hiring managers considering highly-qualified candidates is the fear of a quick exit when the economy turns around. If your resume says "I have 25 years of senior management experience" and the job calls for five years of on-the-ground marketing experience, few employers will take a chance on you. But if your cover letter says "After a lot of years running marketing departments, I'm looking for a fun and fast-paced marketing job that will let me focus on the nuts and bolts and leave the management task to someone else" you may have a shot. After all, the last thing you want to inject into your job-search pitch is uncertainty, and an overqualified candidate is one who raises questions in a hiring manager's mind. If your materials make it clear why you want to shift to a lower gear at this juncture, you're less likely to have your resume tossed on the "No thanks" pile.
Another common "O"-phobia item relates to compensation. I hear at least once a week from hiring managers, "I was interested in this guy who seemed to be hugely overqualified, but he told me he wanted to interview anyway. I told him the job pays around 60 kay, and he said fine; but when I finally made him the offer, he told me he needed 95. It was a huge waste of my time, and I'm not taking that chance again."
Notwithstanding your stellar qualifications, if a job pays X at the outset, you're unlikely to budge the hiring manager much past 110 percent of X, so why waste your time trying? You'll only annoy the hiring manager, burn a bridge and squander your own valuable job-search time. Rather than trying to convince a hiring manager you're worth twice what he's budgeted for the job, you're better off seeking out more lucrative opportunities.
If you're willing to take the salary cut associated with a job you performed 10 years ago, say so right in your cover letter. Say it again at the interview - not to grovel, but to let the hiring manager know you're serious about the job he's got open and not the imaginary job you wish he were filling. If you can't come to terms, propose a consulting deal that would let you devote some - but not all - of your time to the assignment and keep the manager under his budget for the work. And remember, you don't have to dumb down your resume to get a job - you just have to speak to the manager's wants, needs and fears, focusing on the requirements of the job versus your long list of awards and accolades.

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Liz Ryan

Liz Ryan is a former Fortune 500 HR exec and an advisor to organizations and job-seekers. Reach her at liz@asklizryan.com or www.asklizryan.com.

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