Hiring Overqualified Workers

Generally, when someone is labeled as "overqualified," it means they have a more extensive and more impressive resume than the hiring manager expected. Regardless of their ability and willingness to do the job, they frequently are screened out by HR and the hiring manager never sees the resume. That is unfortunate for a variety of reasons.

  • HR may not know how much additional qualification is acceptable so they rule out everyone beyond the minimum requirements the hiring manager set.
  • Individuals with more than the required qualifications never have an opportunity to demonstrate that they are the best candidate.
  • The hiring manager spends time training and developing a less qualified person and passing up someone who could have done the job well almost from day one.

Why Is An Overqualified Worker a Bad Thing?

Some managers are reluctant to hire overqualified workers for many reasons. Some are valid is some cases. Some are not.

  • Too expensive: This is the most common reason given for not hiring overqualified workers. In some cases, this is valid. In most cases, it is not. If the company posts the salary (or salary range) for a position, it is appropriate to assume that anyone who applies for the position is willing to do the work for that salary. Yes, a more experienced worker may ask for a higher salary because they know how much more they can contribute, but if that's the best salary you can offer, they will do the job for that salary and do it well.
  • Hard to train: Many managers, especially new ones, worry that if they hire someone more experienced, that person will want to do things their own way rather than the way the manager wants. It is a question you need to get an answer from the candidate for, but that should be during the interview process, not used as a screening tool. If they want to do things their way, dump them and move on to the next candidate. However, if they say they can suggest things based on their experience but are certainly willing to follow company procedures, you have the best of both worlds. You may get a better way from them and, if not, they will do it your way anyway.
  • Skills not current: Again, this is something the manager should ask about in the interview process, not something to use as a screening tool. If anything, an overqualified worker probably has better skills because they have broader skills, both technically and interpersonally. You can teach them any new techniques they need to do the job and you can take advantage of their greater ability to multi-task and to get more done because of their ability to work across functional boundaries.
  • Will be bored: This may seem like a broken record, but rather than using this possibility as an artificial reason to screen out an overqualified worker, this is something the manager should ask about during the interview. And as you will see in the Overqualified Worker Grid below, sometimes bored is a good thing.
  • Will leave when things improve: Yes, they may leave when things improve, but so will other workers. It is up to you as the manager to make them feel appreciated and motivated so they and their knowledge will stay with you after things turn around. An overqualified worker may actually be a more stable, long-term choice.

Fit This Into a Decision Matrix

The grid at the bottom of this page compares a manager's skills against workers' motivation. This simple four-square matrix can help you decide whether to hire an overqualified worker. Remember that in order to hire the best candidate you will need to get some of these overqualified workers past HR's screening, but with an understanding of this matrix you will be able to do that. While this grid is shown as two types on each axis, there is actually a range from one side to the other.

Overqualified Worker Types

What type of an employee the overqualified worker is will only come out during the interview process. The manager must ask the right questions and carefully listen for the answers. Some employees take a job only as a means to the next job. These people are continually driven for more. Most employees, however, are just happy in their job. They would be happy to take a promotion if it came along, but they aren't going to push anyone out of the way to get it. 

Underqualified Managers

The biggest obstacle to hiring overqualified workers is under-qualified managers—someone who got promoted beyond their skill level and just tries to hide. They don't want to make mistakes or to be noticed. They don't want anyone in their team to do anything because it might reflect badly on the manager.

These managers don't stop to consider that something done well by their team reflects well on them. They are too busy protecting their own job. These are the managers who hope HR screens out the overqualified workers because they're scared of them.

Good managers, however, welcome overqualified workers. They know that in order to get promoted, they have to have someone ready to take over their job. These managers welcome overqualified workers because they know these employees will make them look good and are a stepping stone to their own promotion.

Good managers also know that to get promoted, their team must produce beyond expectations. An overqualified worker, even if only for a year or two, can make major contributions both in terms of personal output and of mentoring other employees in the group.

The Bottom Line

Good managers hire the best workers they can afford. They aren't afraid of workers who might be older, smarter, or more experienced. They manage the skills of their employees to help the team produce at its best level. That's what gets managers promoted. Be manager RER, not BLP, and you will go far.

Overqualified Worker Decision Matrix

Manager Manager
Manager wants to be promoted Manager protecting own job
Employee Employee wants promotion A - Hire Overqualified B - Don't hire overqualified
Employee Employee happy in the job C - Hire Overqualified D - Hire Overqualified