New research sheds light on the many reasons we disqualify the overqualified and instead hire less impressive candidates.
Too cool for school
The recent research published in Administrative Science Quarterly seems very thorough and involved several individual studies. The subjects were all people who had some experience as hiring managers (HR graduate students in the first study, working hiring managers in the second, etc) to evaluate one or both of two candidates.
The results from the various studies showed that:
- Hiring managers were less likely to select the seemingly more impressive candidate, and that they did so because of perceptions around motivation to do the job.
- Hiring managers were less likely to select the extremely high-capability candidate because of concerns around their lack of interest in the organisation’s mission and objectives.
- Hiring managers would select the moderately high-capability candidate over the more impressive one because of fears the latter would soon leave for other jobs.
The key test conducted by the researchers is that they specifically assuaged these various fears. In some studies, subjects were given extra information about applicants that said they were motivated, interested in the organisation’s mission, or had turned down other job offers. This did have a positive effect, but not to the extent you would expect. The bias persisted.
Plus, it turns out hirers are scared wonderful candidates won’t accept the job and that they will not be motivated to do it very well or will quit quickly. So even if such a candidate 100 per cent guarantees they will take the job, they might not get it.
Weirdly, the researchers seem to be saying that if an extremely high-capable candidate wants to get a job, they would do well to lie and seem less impressive. Because even if they go the extra mile and tell people in their cover letter “I know my resume looks amazing, but please don’t hold that against me, I really want to work for you” – there’s a significant chance they will still be viewed with suspicion.
Fear of success
So why does the bias exist? There are lots of answers. It could be that some people are scared of being outshone by the new person, that the person is too good to be true (i.e. they’re actually terrible), or that their company can’t risk hiring someone so wonderful because they’ll want to leave.
But whatever the reason, the lesson from the research is that highly qualified candidates are worth interviewing so you can evaluate whether your concerns are valid.
Of course, there might be some truth to those concerns. So, there are a few things you should do to make sure overqualified candidates are not a problem for your recruitment.
- Avoid vague job ads/expectations – Whether you should put salary expectations in a job ad is a whole different article, but the best way to get the overqualified to self-select out of a job is to make it very clear what you are and aren’t looking for. Don’t rely on a job title to convey seniority, as their responsibilities and remuneration shift from organisation to organisation.
- Quash unwarranted optimism – This tends to happen when more senior people are involved in the hire, and they read an impressive resume – filled with capabilities they hadn’t imagined for the role – and get excited about the possibilities. That’s great if there’s the budget and scope, but if you ultimately want a worker bee, you’re just wasting time.
- Investigate your age bias – Ageism is real, and often subconscious. It’s all too easy to dismiss an older candidate on the assumption that they will be overqualified. But perhaps they’re looking for a mid or late-career change. Or maybe they want a more junior role for lifestyle reasons. If you’re assuming that their greater age means more experience, then you should also assume they knew what they were doing when they applied for the job.
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