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Should you hire an 'overqualified' candidate?

With unemployment still relatively high and lots of charity professionals currently searching for a job, we’ve noticed that not for profit organisations are receiving more applications from ‘overqualified’ candidates.  But employers can be reluctant to consider these candidates, even though they would certainly be able to handle the role.

In this blog post, we look at what overqualified means and the pros and cons of hiring an overqualified candidate.

What is overqualified?

Candidates are described as overqualified when they are skilled or educated beyond the requirements for the role.  For example, while a person specification for a role may require a bachelor’s degree, employers could receive applications from candidates with a master’s degree.  Or employers could request candidates with some previous experience of that role, and receive applications from jobseekers with over ten years’ experience.

However, having lots of education or experience does not necessarily make a candidate overqualified.  The key is whether that education or experience is relevant to the role.  If not, they are really starting at the same level as any other candidate.

It is also very important to steer clear of any age discrimination when determining if candidates are overqualified.  Simply having worked for a long period of time does not automatically make an applicant overqualified.

Traditional objections to overqualified candidates

If employers are looking for certain skills and experience, you might think that a candidate exceeding their expectations would be snapped up, but many organisations are reluctant to consider overqualified candidates.  One of the most common reasons cited is a fear that the candidate will expect a higher salary in exchange for their qualifications.  The other is an assumption that the candidate is only using this role as a placeholder and will leave as soon as a better opportunity presents itself – this is a particular worry in the current job market, with many candidates agreeing to take any job purely to avoid unemployment.

Employers may also have concerns that an overqualified candidate would not be challenged or fully engaged in the role and become unproductive and unhappy.  One disgruntled employee can then have a knock-on effect on the rest of the team.

Dispelling the myths

Overqualification does not automatically lead to lower job satisfaction or higher turnover.  In a study from the US, sales associates who were thought to be overqualified actually performed better than their peers, and the more empowered they were in their role, the more likely they were to stay put.  Indeed, nearly half of graduates are now considered overqualified for their first role.

Candidates have a huge range of motivations for taking a charity job and overqualified applicants may have a very good reason for wanting that particular role, rather than simple desperation for a job.  They could be downshifting and looking to achieve a better work/life balance, or wanting to change sectors or roles following a previous unsatisfactory career move, or they could be moving to a new location.

The interview stage is the best time to determine an overqualified candidate’s level of seriousness about the role.  Questions like “Can you describe your favourite job from the past and what you did?” or “What did you not like doing in former jobs?” can help define their motivations and determine whether they would be a good fit for your team.  Have confidence in your organisation’s culture; if you choose to work for your organisation, other people will also want to.

Some ‘hidden’ benefits

There are some less obvious benefits to hiring an overqualified candidate that some employers would not immediately consider.  For example, it can be good for morale overall, as a more experienced employee will be able to pick up the work more quickly, relieving the rest of the team from having to cover the responsibilities.  This is particularly important during this period of belt-tightening, when many employees are already having to take on extra tasks.

In addition, most teams function best with a mixture of people, not just clones of your current or previous employees.  Someone with unexpected skills and lots of life experience may bring something extra to the table that you have not previously considered.

If an overqualified candidate has a good reason for wanting to take your role, chances are that they have really considered what they want to do and may actually be a better long-term proposition than a candidate who exactly fits the person specification.  For example, a jobseeker with lots of commercial experience may move into the charity sector looking for a more meaningful role.  Getting promoted or moving on may therefore be lower on their list of priorities than a candidate moving up within the sector.

Future proof your team

When considering a candidate who is overqualified for the job, it’s always worth looking at the big picture.  When making hiring decisions, the best leaders don’t just consider current needs, but also look to the future.

Overqualified candidates often have other skills in areas that are not required for a particular role but may be useful for the organisation as a whole.  This gives them greater flexibility for the future and could allow them to accomplish things in the future that you have not considered part of that role.  Rather than just fulfilling an immediate need, they could help your organisation grow and achieve even more.

These employees can also improve the skill set of the team as a whole, as they could mentor or train up others to their level.  They can also serve as a model for your employees and help challenge them to bring productivity up.  Having extra skills in your team can also give you the flexibility to react to challenges or opportunities that may arise in the future.  Making full use of their skills will also make them a more engaged employee.

Be honest

If you are considering an overqualified candidate for a position, it’s extremely important to be up front about the role’s potential right from the start.  Being honest about salary, benefits and promotion prospects will help to weed out candidates really looking for something else and will avoid an applicant expecting too much from a role.  But if you think they may be temporarily underutilised, but there is great potential for the future, make sure you make that clear.

You could use phone screening to go through these details, check that the candidate is happy with the terms and weed out those with unrealistic expectations before interview stage.

It is also very important to confirm that their manager would be comfortable working with them and vice versa.  Sometimes it can be difficult to manage an employee who has more years of experience than you do.  Make sure you explore this thoroughly at interview – again, it is worth being completely honest and asking them straight out if they foresee any problems.

It can’t hurt…

Rather than rejecting them out of hand, it’s always worth at least considering an overqualified candidate.  After all, they would certainly be able to handle the role advertised  Often it can be difficult to fully judge a candidate’s motivations and dedication to a role without at least offering them an opportunity to meet with you face to face in an interview.

If you do interview them and you feel that the candidate would still not be a good fit for your organisation, that could help you to refine your person specification and direct your job search.

Hiring an overqualified candidate can be a risk, but sometimes you have to take risks to realise your organisation’s full potential.  When weighing up the pros and cons, there are often more benefits to hiring an overqualified employee than downsides.  And even if they do turn out to be only there short-term, they could still make a positive long-term impact on your organisation.

There are also ways to mitigate some of the risk of hiring an overqualified employee.  You could offer them the role on a temporary or contract basis, to see how they will actually turn out on the job and to get the role filled.

There is a definite move in the commercial world to take advantage of the current candidate-heavy job market and actively seek out overqualified employees to get extra value for money.  Perhaps the charity sector should also be more open to capitalising on this talent glut.  After all, sometimes more is simply more.