Photo of a man revealing a superman logo on his chest under his shirt

Most of us have experienced, or at least heard of, occasions where a potential new hire has been rejected by the hiring company because someone thought the candidate was “overqualified”.

I can understand some hirers fearing candidates that appear to be smarter than they are. There’s that old saw about “‘A’-grade players hire other ‘A’ players, ‘B’s hire ‘C’s – people who don’t threaten them”.

And I can understand the fear that a highly-qualified candidate might find themselves in a job which fails to stretch them, and thus the possibility that they might not stick around in that job for long. Which would entail going through the whole hiring process again in just a few weeks or months.

Note: I say I can understand these fears, not that I regard them as having any merit.

But actually, these two issues are much more often about capability than qualifications (the latter being a poor indication of capability in any case). I suspect people use the term “over-qualified” rather than “over-capable” to cover up their fears – in the hope of making them undiscussable.


So, to speak plainly, some folks are fearful about hiring people who appear more capable than themselves, and some folks fear that highly-capable candidates might not tolerate a situation where their capabilities are being under-used.

To my mind these are two separate issues.

The first – fear of hiring capable people – speaks to the attitudes which might prevail in particular hirers.

I’m more interested in this post to look at the second issue – the fear that highly-capable candidates might leave out of boredom or lack of challenge.

The Path of Decline

Basically, what this says is that in the hiring organisation, good (capable) people will not have the opportunity to do good work. Which speaks to the system (the way the work works) in that organisation. It means that people already within the organisation realise (implicitly or explicitly) that the way the work works is borked. But rather than fix it, hirers choose to hire second- or third-rate candidates. It means that hirers accept that the organisation is going to be stuffed with less-capable people. It means that the organisation – probably unwittingly – has accepted a path of decline (a.k.a. left-drift).

How does your organisation deal with the over-capable candidates? And how often have you been declined, after interview, as over-capable?

– Bob

Further Reading

Discussing the Undiscussable ~ Willam R. Noonan
Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs: Chasing After the ‘Purple Squirrel’ ~ Knowledge@Wharton (Book review, interview)

  1. Bob,

    I also find that the term “over-capable” is a major excuse used by headhunters and the like to sift through candidates who are over 50. In many ways it is ageism in disguise.

    The structure of work (and jobs) is changing (slowly), but the whole recruitment industry is buoyed-up by the supposed requirement to find employees or temporary staff that are actually under-capable – so they will not challenge the status-quo, nor, more importantly will they challenge their boss / company structure / clothes of the emperor, etc..

    If the company is young, then the idea of taking on someone who is the age of many of the employees’ fathers – however capable – is not what is being asked for. But you can’t put the ideal age of the candidate on a recruitment ad. So you have to dumb-down the job so that over-qualified, over-capable folk won’t make the short list.

    This has become particularly true since the credit crunch, when many folk within work are nervous about trying to keep their particular jalopy on the corporate motorway. The last thing they want is to be told how it really works by someone more experienced. Some may want to find out for themselves. Others will simply want to keep the show on the road and not have what you call “good work” performed around them so they can have an easy life and keep their jobs.

    I find that a consulting-led approach which sells a project and an outcome seems to be one way around this – but that approach is under a lot of pressure as any external interventions are seen as easy areas to cut costs.

    The couple of other ways I can think of is as you do: blog about it – or to run training courses on “good work”. Have not seen too many of those around!

  2. jjosullivan said:

    I completely agree. This shows more about the organisation than it does the candidate. Capable, motivated candidates are hard to come by. If you came across one, even if they didn’t fit the job spec, why wouldn’t you hire them? I see this as one of the many problems with hierarchical organisations. By hiring this person you are probably going to cause someone to be threatened. I see any role as only a starting point. I like to forge my own path in organisations by doing what needs to be done to add value. I get frustrated when I’m held back by my current position and not able to do what needs to be done.

    I’ve been seen as over-qualified many times in the last few years. Recruiters have even told me to lie on my CV by telling me to remove experience that would make me over-qualified. I don’t think that’s a good idea at all because at some stage it’s going to come out. Another problem is being in limbo where you’re supposedly over-qualified for one position but under-qualified for the next move. I’ve experienced this myself when my leadership experience from a small company doesn’t translate to a similar role at a medium or large org.

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