What it really means to tell a candidate they’re overqualified for a role
Hiring 4 minute read

What it really means to tell a candidate they’re overqualified for a role

Megan Orr | December 2, 2021

Have you ever told a candidate that they’re overqualified for a role when explaining why you aren’t offering them the job? Learn what candidates actually hear and why it might be time to retire the term. 

Indeed writes that being described as overqualified for a role “typically means that you have skills or experience beyond what is required for the job position. Companies try to find the best match for a position based on experience level and qualifications”.

It’s generally understood that telling someone they’re overqualified for a role is more of an umbrella term, full of subtext. “Overqualified” is a way to tell someone that they’re great, but just not great for the role for various reasons. Here are some of the ways that candidates might interpret being told they’re overqualified. 

We don’t have enough growth opportunities and are worried you’ll leave the company quickly. 

The most common reason employers give is that they anticipate that someone who’s overqualified has a higher chance of leaving the company quickly. Additionally, it can be unfair to a candidate that is ambitious to give them a role that you (the employer) know doesn’t have any opportunities for growth. 

Ask job candidates why they’re considering taking a role that they’re overqualified for. If they say that, for example, they prefer that type of work over what they’re currently doing or want better work-life balance that their current role can provide—don’t disqualify them yet. If you’re worried that a candidate wants growth opportunities that you can’t offer, you can always keep them in mind for future roles. 

We cannot pay you what you’re worth. 

When you tell a potential employee that they’re overqualified for a role, they might be thinking that you’re not able to pay them a competitive salary that matches the industry standard and their level of experience. 

Forbes writes that this situation says to candidates not that they’re overqualified but that you “plan to hire someone that is underqualified”. Forbes also advises job hunters to “be aware that pay philosophies often signal a company’s priorities. If the company doesn’t want to pay for top talent, they may not value their people as much as they say they do”.

However, if your job posting requires three years’ experience and you have someone with ten years of experience applying that expects a salary that reflects their level of experience, it’s fair that you might not be able to meet that expectation. 

You’re more qualified than the person you would be reporting to. 

Having someone who is equally or more qualified than their manager can make for a challenging power dynamic. Employers may worry that their new hire will not respect the authority of their manager and be generally difficult to manage. 

While having a wide breadth of experience can be an asset for a role, it makes sense for employers to err on the side of caution to ensure a harmonious work environment. 

In worst-case scenarios, telling someone that they’re overqualified for a role can be interpreted as age discrimination. 

Although an employer might not intentionally disqualify a candidate because of their age, the subtext of overqualification can be too much experience—or too old. Forbes writes that “the recruiter or hiring manager may picture the ideal candidate being in a particular age demographic and is ruling you out because you don’t fit that image, not because you can’t do or wouldn’t be happy in the job they have to offer”.

Instead of telling a candidate that they’re overqualified for a role, why not give them a better explanation. 

Overqualified is a blanket term that doesn’t actually give a candidate a clear understanding of why they didn’t get the job. It’s better to say something like “We don’t think we will be able to meet your salary expectations” or “This role will not be challenging enough for you” so that the candidate has a chance to evaluate whether they really want the role. 

Perhaps someone who is overqualified for a role will make a great fit if they’re given the opportunity to make their case.

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