How To Tell If An Overqualified Applicant Is Right For The Job

Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues–everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

I’m hiring for a mostly entry-level position, a basic administrative job that has been categorized at times as both an administrative assistant or office manager. This position recently became vacant after an employee of one year decided to leave. We knew he was highly overqualified for the position, but he said that he was looking or a role with less responsibility due to family issues, so we hired him. During his employment, he grew disgruntled and felt that his ideas were ignored. There are many factors that contributed to this, but I can’t help but think that his professional background made it difficult for him to swallow things that he didn’t like.

So here we are, hiring for the position. We have one applicant who seems really great — very smart, capable, and driven by our mission. However, she has many years of team leadership and project management experience. The position we’re looking to fill is a basic receptionist position with little opportunity for expansion. I’m sure she’d be able to manage the duties of the position, but I’m very skeptical that she’d find it fulfilling for longer than a year (if that). I’m also concerned that she would struggle to adopt the supportive role and that we’d see the same issues that we had with the previous person. She wants this position because she wants to work for our organization. She’s given no indication that she’s looking for a job with less responsibility and less hours (this position is both). She’d be a good fit in our culture, but I’m concerned she wouldn’t be a good fit in this position.

Am I letting our past employee influence my decision too much here? Are there questions that we can ask to figure out if she’ll be able to successfully shift to this lower level position?

The deal with overqualified applicants is that in general you don’t want to decide for them what they would and wouldn’t be happy with — or at least, not without talking to them and hearing what they have to say. After that you can use your own judgment, but you should at least hear them out before making any assumptions.

Of course, that assumes that you think the person would actually be good at the role! Sometimes “overqualified” means “could do this work in her sleep,” but sometimes it means “has lots of higher-level experience doing other things.” The latter doesn’t translate to “could do any lower-level job,” since different jobs require different skills and traits. That’s important, and people often miss it.

But assuming that you think she could potentially be great at this specific work, the next thing I’d look at is what she’s said about the job so far. If she just applied for it with zero explanation in her cover letter or elsewhere about why she’s applying for a job that appears to be vastly different from her previous work and a real step down, that’s a red flag to me. Generally you want to see that the candidate is being thoughtful about the potential step down and proactively explaining why she might be right for the role, and why she’d be interested in it. If she didn’t do that, it’s often a flag that she doesn’t fully realize what the job is or thinks she can expand it into something else.

But the best way to figure this out is to talk the person and ask about it directly. Say something like, “This position is one we generally consider entry-level, and it’s much less responsibility and challenge than you’ve had previously. What interests you about that kind of move?” Then listen to the response. You might hear a compelling answer that convinces you that this is in fact exactly what the applicant is looking for, and she’s thought it through enough that she’s not likely to change her mind three months in. Or you might hear an answer that sounds like she’s hoping she can wow you and expand the position into something else, in a way you’re not seeking. But really listen — both to the substance of her answer and the way she talks about it.

Make sure, too, that you’re being transparent about the nature of the work, since people sometimes put on rose-colored glasses when they want a job. You could say something like, “This position is responsible for basic admin work, like ordering office supplies, answering phones, and covering reception, and I want to be up-front that because that work on its own fills up the job, there’s not much room for expanding the role.How does that line up with what you’re looking for?”

Also, assuming it’s entry-level pay, that’s a good thing to flag early on too.

Ultimately, though, you have to make the call about how well you think her skills and motivations line up with this particular job. It is a thing that overqualified candidates will sometimes say the job is exactly what they’re looking for, and then quickly get bored with it and push for more or just leave. You are allowed to have concerns about that, and if you’re not convinced from your conversation with the candidate that’s not a risk here, you’re allowed to choose a different candidate instead. It’s not unreasonable to choose someone who feels less risky.

At the same time, though, it’s worth factoring in what special skills or expertise she might bring to the position. In some cases, it might be worth it to get a very experienced, skilled person in the role even if she won’t be in it long-term — because she might make major enough strides in the time she is there to justify the time you’ll invest in training her and then hiring someone new when she leaves. In other cases, it won’t make sense; Sometimes you really just need someone to deal with phones and reception and you don’t have time to manage someone’s interest in expanding beyond that, and if that’s the reality of what you need, then that’s what you need. Just don’t get so rigid that you miss other ways you could configure the job that would be good for the organization, if they exist.

But if you end up thinking that her real interest is in your organization but not this particular job, it’s okay to say, “I don’t think the match for this role is as strong as what we’re looking for, but we’ re often seeking people with Skills X and Y for other positions, and I think you could be a great fit for those when one opens up.”

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to alison@askamanager.org.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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