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Posted: June 15, 2009

Sorry, you’re overqualified

Overqualified job candidates must make a case for downshifting to get the job

Liz Ryan

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 is a former Fortune 500 HR exec and an advisor to organizations and job-seekers. Reach her at or

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Readers Respond

Great conversation your article started, Liz! Just to respond with a close up and personal example of both getting past the resume screen and some companies out there who DO get it... I am a success story personally. Late last year my calendar was open, I was considering my options (including job seeking), and holidays aren't easy times to start consulting projects. I accepted a short term contract with a prospect I had wanted to work with for awhile at a significant discount, but it met both our needs. That agreement converted to a contract employee position. The company has been hiring in a lot of superior talent, and we're rocking the arena while working hard, and having a lot of fun building a good-to-great company. One of my colleagues who also came 'inside' from the 'outside' said it perfectly.... "I'm kinda diggin' this office team thing." We're doing what we do - building better organizations. So keep looking for those companies who get it, and follow every piece of advice Liz and the community have been making. It ain't easy, but it's easier than waiting for the system to change. And keep being honest with your network. For leads and support. I wouldn't be anywhere without my informal sales team. By Trina on 2009 08 26
I have to agree with Anthony; if hiring managers truly think there's such a thing as "overqualified", then they're doing their company a disservice. One of the greatest complaints business owners have is incompetent employees, which do far more damage to the integrity of a business than any "overqualified" applicant can ever do. Why some (but not all) HR professions don't aim to minimize this problem by finding the best talent is a mystery, but I suspect this attitude is geared to protect HR staff from potential competition and an increased workload (since great talent has a way of moving up the corporate ladder). Mind you, the best talent are far more adaptable to crises in the workplace and thus save businesses the expense of contracting outside emergency help. Network down? Perhaps the janitor can help; he's a former IT guy. By David on 2009 07 08
Thank you for this article! Big question among my networking associates. Hiring pattern that I have seen disallows for OQ employees. Many managers when approached on the subject, say 'we can train someone exactly how we want them to perform from entry level. So it takes a little time but saves the company money'. But when the less experienced person is told to take a back seat or go back to school and the OQ individual is called back it gets messy. I have been in this spot myself, you know you won't get the job with an I told you so to the same hiring manager. By Ann on 2009 06 21
Thanks for the kind words, Trina! A. Anthony -- there is no application anyway that requires you to list every past job. That decision is entirely up to you. You choose what to include on an application and what to leave out. I would never, ever advise a job-seeker to say "I've got a lot of years of experience" on a resume. That would be totally pointless and even negative. We should use the resume Summary and the body of the resume to talk about our accomplishments. I can't tell you why employers aren't taking advantage of the huge talent pool in Colorado - it's short-sighted, to be sure. We talk about the Overqualified issue and tons of other thorny job-search issues in our job-search coaching groups. There is a new Virtual Job-Search Coaching group launching on June 25. Details are at Cheers, Liz Ryan By Liz Ryan on 2009 06 17
Sounds great...IF you've made it to the interview. However, 'how do you get past the resume and application process that most times REQUIRE you to list your 'specified' years of employment - Stating that you've had " a lot of years" on the cover letter is well and good, but sadly, the hiring folks don't just look at the cover letter.. Also, let's not lie to ourselves, the real truth is that MOST of us that do have 'extensive' years of experience and take on an 'overqualified' and UNDERPAID job, WILL in fact leave the minute something better comes along; However, that being said, a new employee with years of experience can hit the job running, saving an employer months of training, which would seem to me to be cost effective (especially NOW if you're not having to pay them any MORE then the less experienced employee). Quickly performing the job is only one of the many advantages 'experience' brings to the table. IF employers were smart, even if that person left when something better came along, they have a HUGE pool of unemployed VERY TALENTED and experienced folks out there looking for jobs-they could quickly rehire and immediately reap the benefits! Why aren't they taking advantage of that??? By A. Anthony on 2009 06 16
Liz - Well put! Selling yourself with honesty and integrity may take a little time - the fears are real - but the smart job seeker and the even smarter business leaders are scooping up awesome talent at a good price. Tough course correction, but it is what it is. Thanks for this article. I'm sending the link to several seeking colleagues. By Trina Hoefling on 2009 06 16

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