The overqualified conundrum

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HR Roundtable panelist and SHRM-Atlanta member Bill Pinto delves into the controversial subject of being “overqualified” from both a human resources and a job seeker perspective:

With all of the recent layoffs, the market is full of individuals with years of experience and/or advanced degrees. Many of these people would love to find a job just like the one they left for the same pay. In a different market, that might be possible. In today’s market, many find themselves looking for any position that will provide income for their families. But when they try to apply for certain positions, they are told that they are overqualified for the position.

There are two sides to the overqualified conundrum. First, employees are legitimately concerned about earning a living – even at lower wages and in entry-level positions. Employees with longer work histories should be prepared to address the “overqualified” issue. Why are you interested in this position? Perhaps the focus should be on the company or organization. Research the company and determine whether it is a place you could see yourself working long-term. Maybe there is not a position available at the moment that matches your experience, but when the economy turns around, there will be. If you are already working there in a lower-level role – and performing that job well – you will be positioned to apply for the job that fits your résumé because most companies prefer to hire from within.

Second, employers are concerned about hiring someone labeled as “overqualified” because they do not want to hire people who work for a short time only to leave when they are offered positions more in line with their experience and salary history. Turnover is expensive for employers to endure. Training new employees costs employers money.

Employers’ concerns are legitimate, but those who recruit and hire should be cautious when using the term “overqualified” in a knee-jerk fashion when they make employment decisions. There is nothing unlawful about the term “overqualified.” However, relying on that term as a catch-all to deny employment to applicants could be problematic. For example, it can unintentionally impact a number of applicants who are 40 or older. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) protects applicants who are at least 40 years old. Those who have long work histories and/or advanced degrees who get pegged as “overqualified” also often fall within the 40 or older segment. So be sure that all employment decisions are based on non-discriminatory reasons. As a general rule, no one should be denied the opportunity to apply for a position – even someone with a Ph.D. applying for a warehouse position who may seem otherwise “overqualified.”

This is not the time to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. The market is flush with people who have years of experience that could be assets to companies when business starts taking off again. Perhaps that “overqualified” person has skills and experience that would be perfect in 12-18 months when things get turned around.

Have you ever been told you were overqualified for a job? Do you think it’s a fair practice?

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