Dealing with Overqualification

Some might think that more skills, more experience, and a higher level of responsibility than required would elevate the candidate to the top of the resume pile. That may be true in some cases. For example, consider a software development engineer job that requires three years of C/C++ and Java coding experience in an Android environment. The candidate with five years of experience, could have a leg up on the competition. Another candidate applies with seven years of Java and C/C++ experience, but without experience in an Android environment. That extra coding experience could give them a shot at an interview. On the other hand, what about a candidate with the coding experience earlier in their career and recent experience as a Senior Engineering Manager? That candidate is clearly overqualified.

The hiring manager may have several reasons not to interview an over-qualified candidate.

1.) The HR or hiring manager may be concerned that this job is only a paycheck until something more suitable is available.

2.) This candidate will require a salary higher than the company’s budget allows.

3.) A hiring manager may be uncomfortable hiring a candidate with more management experience and deeper skills than he or she has. Perhaps the candidate won’t respect the less-experienced manager.

4.) The job would be a major step backward and the candidate would be bored and less productive.

Earlier, I chose the word, “may,” intentionally because a candidate can minimize the effect of overqualification. There are strategies to employ as you write your resume, LinkedIn profile, and cover letter as well as in your networking and interviewing encounters.

As you would in any job search scenario, gain understanding of the target job’s requirements, major functions, scope of authority, and reporting relationships. Compare that to your current and most recent roles. Do you best to downplay areas of overqualification without falsifying your work history. For example, if you managed project budgets up to $1.2 million and budgets averaged $120,000. Choose to share the figure closest to the target job’s scope. If the target job does not involve budgeting, perhaps you omit this function. Use the space on your resume and LinkedIn profile to cover the functions that are aligned with the target job.

When writing your cover letter, you may address some of your high-level functions by sharing how those functions could be beneficial. For example, “Because of my experience managing development projects, I have become a more efficient programmer and I am able to identify issues proactively.”

Leverage your resume profile, LinkedIn summary, and cover letter to craft a theme to your career. You want to convey why you are excited about your career goal and how your goal supports your career growth. Expressing a progression and opportunity for challenge shows a candidate’s long-term potential with the target employer.

Consider our example of the senior manager applying for a developer role. The candidate might explain in the cover letter that although in the short-term this is a step back in terms of responsibility, it is a move to a company at which he or she has always wanted to work and in a field of great interest. The candidate may share that this is not so much a step back, but a change of direction to follow his/her aspirations. In time, the candidate would be back in a leadership role.

Salary is a subject to be broached tactfully in any job search situation. However, in the case of a potentially over-qualified candidate, it can be a barrier. Raising the subject first in a cover letter or resume, can seem defensive and diminish your negotiation power. Each case is unique. However, in most cases it is wise not to initiate the topic of salary. If the hiring manager expresses concern that a candidate might be too expensive, a reply might be “As you get to know me and I learn more about the position, I am confident that we will agree upon compensation consistent with the job’s market value.”

Networking is an excellent way to get a foot in the door at a company, even if the candidate may be overqualified for the opportunity at hand. A colleague can champion an over-qualified candidate more effectively than any cover letter or resume.

Lastly, applying for a position for which you are over-qualified should be done after thorough consideration. Consider all other options because the employer’s objections are often valid. Many candidates who take a step back are unchallenged, are frustrated by reporting to a less-experienced manager, and the cut in pay is difficult for practical reasons. For those reasons, it is likely that a candidate in this situation will be eager to move when something better is offered. On the other hand, a lesser job may be the smart decision for financial survival. If you must take the lower role, be considerate to your employer by committing to stay for a set term, such as two years. Or, only take a lower role in a company in which there is the opportunity to rise to your former level in a reasonable amount of time.

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Tamara Dowling