Overqualified? New study says you should probably hide it

The job search: you just can’t win. You work hard, improve your skillset, and add to your qualifications. Then what? Employers just think you’re a flake.

Wait… what? Yeah.

A new study has found that being overqualified can cost candidates job opportunities because hiring managers will suspect you of “lacking commitment.” Researchers at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business examined how “signals of a candidate’s capability affect perceptions of that person’s commitment to an employer.”

Employers prefer to hire someone less qualified

According to the study abstract: “In four experimental studies that use hiring managers as subjects, we test and show that managers perceive highly capable candidates to have lower commitment to the organization than less capable but adequate candidates and, as a result, penalize high-capability candidates in the hiring process.” And managers may in fact choose to hire a less qualified candidate for that reason.

The results apparently show – if I understand correctly – that managers have concerns about high-capability candidates’ future commitment to the organization because they assume these candidates will care less about the mission and values of the organization and put less effort into that.

…which makes no sense to me. But OK.

Overqualified means “flight risk”

The authors also write that hiring managers assume highly capable candidates have more outside job options, increasing their flight risk, which does make some sense. Even if you don’t have offers on the table, if you’re overqualified for a job you might continue searching for something more suited to your experience level.

The authors write: ‘Our findings highlight that capability signals do not necessarily afford candidates an advantage in selection, suggesting an upper limit on credentials and other signals of capability in helping candidates get jobs.”

Oliver Hahl, assistant professor of organizational theory and strategy at Tepper, and a co-author on the study said in a statement, “Hiring managers tend to be pretty myopic about hiring for a particular job instead of hiring for the organization generally. They can’t really know what the applicant’s commitment might be. So they’re going to be right on some, and wrong on others.”

Maybe it’s different for women

The case might be different for women, Hahl said, because we’re apparently already seen as having commitment problems, particularly in our child-rearing years. So, in those cases, being overqualified can work in a woman’s favour, “because it overcomes the hiring manager’s perception bias.”

Tone it down

He said overqualified applicants might want to suppress some qualifications so they don’t hit the “capability ceiling.” But he also said that in hiring platforms such as LinkedIn, such a strategy could backfire by filtering out higher-end jobs for which the person is actually qualified.

As I said, you can’t win.

Show your commitment and enthusiasm

Fortunately, job candidates can apparently mitigate some of the damage caused by being overqualified or being women by communicating high levels of commitment in cover letters and interviews.

You should already be doing that anyway. Hiring managers want you to be enthusiastic about the position and the company. And they don’t want to hire someone who is just going to turn around and leave, so showing that you’re not going to run away is always a great strategy.

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