Why hiring overqualified applicants could be your smartest move

Conventional wisdom says it’s stupid for companies to hire individuals who are overqualified for open positions — they’re just going to make a break for it when the job market improves. Conventional wisdom is wrong.

At least that’s the opinion of Dr. John Sullivan, a California-based HR author and consultant. Writing on ere.net, Sullivan says that the assumption that hiring “overqualified” candidates will always result in frustrated employees and quick exits is badly off-target.
According to Sullivan, “There is also no credible public or corporate evidence that overqualified candidates get bored, are less motivated, are absent more, or have any unique team or performance problems.”
To the contrary, he says a study from Portland State University concluded that the overqualified, if hired, get higher performance appraisal ratings and perform better than average hires. And if these new hires are empowered as employees, they do not have lower job satisfaction, lower intentions to remain, or higher voluntary turnover.

The many charms of the ‘OQs’

Sullivan’s compiled a pretty exhaustive argument in favor of hiring the so-called overqualified:

  • If you reject them out of hand, you’re going to overlook an awful lot of potentially great people. Given the softness of the job market, the number of overqualified job seekers has grown exponentially. Do you really want to just skip over what could be the deep end of the talent pool?
  • The “overqualifieds” (OK, from here on in we’re calling them “OQs”) desire to work may be stronger. Here’s what Sullivan thinks: “Because so many highly qualified individuals have been let go from organizations in recent years, their desire to work will likely overpower any feeling of entitlement or resistance to taking a lower-level job. A combination of a candidate’s inability to move and limited local job opportunities may make them more than willing to happily work below their experience level.”
  • Even if they do leave early, they still add value. How can it ever hurt a company to have an outstanding performer, even if it’s only for a short time? They’ll likely bring you new ideas and fresh approaches to jobs that might have not been in the spotlight until the OQs arrived.
  • They may well be easier to manage. More experience, more sophistication and more confidence help ensure OQs perform without much drama. “If their over-qualifications includes leadership experience and skills, they may be able to help the manager,” Sullivan points out.
  • They could turn out to be very valuable in the future. Sullivan says, “Smart firms like Google hire individuals for ‘this and the next job’ based on the premise that most employees will eventually move internally or get promoted. And by hiring the overqualified, you make sure that some new hires will already have most of the qualifications and skills that they will need for their next job.”

Dodging the pitfalls

Hiring the OQs isn’t without its risks, Sullivan admits. Some steps to take to prevent problems:

  • Make sure the OQ’s manager isn’t threatened by the new hire. Not unsurprisingly, some hiring managers reject OQs because they’re afraid the new hire will show them up in some way. “You certainly don’t want hiring managers to hurt your firm by selfishly refusing to hire over-qualified individuals,” Sullivan says. “It may be necessary for HR to work with hiring managers to avoid this kind of selfish company-damaging behavior.”
  • Give the new hire some freedom. No reason companies can’t allow OQs to expand their jobs as they grow into the company. Empowering these folks helps eliminate the possibility that the OQ will get bored in the job and seek greener pastures.
  • Be flexible. Here, again, is an opportunity for the organization to get more productivity out of a particular job. “By simply changing or adding responsibilities to match the overqualified candidate’s skill set, they will have more business impact while at the same time reducing any potential frustrations from working beneath their experience/skill level,” Sullivan says.
  • Draw up a development plan. Letting OQs know there is a plan — which includes timelines — for their career development should allay whatever fears they may have about being stuck in a particular role. Such a plan, Sullivan says, “could make it more likely that the overqualified individual could move quickly internally to another job that more closely fits their qualifications.”