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Overcoming the 'Overqualified' Label

While employers can choose to rule out job candidates for any number of reasons, there's nothing quite as frustrating as being rejected because you’re too qualified. Learn strategies to overcome this vexing perception problem.

January 22, 2009
from Robert Half Finance & Accounting

While employers can choose to rule out job candidates for any number of reasons, there’s nothing quite as frustrating as being rejected because you’re too qualified. And as more tenured workers land in the labor pool due to the economic downturn, more people are being tagged with the frustrating “overqualified” label.

To develop job-search strategies to overcome this vexing perception problem, you must first understand the reasons employers are wary of hiring individuals they consider overqualified:

“You’ll view the job as a short-term solution. You’re interested in the position as a stopgap measure to tide you over until the economy improves, and you’ll jump ship the minute a better opportunity comes along.”

“You’re unaffordable. Based on your most recent job title, I doubt you’d be willing to accept a pay cut.”

“You’ll get bored. I’m convinced that unchallenged employees are typically unhappy employees.”

“You’ll have unrealistic expectations. Coming into the job with an attitude of entitlement, you’ll view some duties as being beneath you and expect to be put on the fast track to promotions and raises.”

“You’ll undermine your manager’s authority. You’ll be a know-it-all who has difficulty taking direction from a supervisor with equal (or less) industry experience.”

“You’ll have low morale. You’re only applying because you’re desperate for a job, and you’ll find it humiliating to be lower on the totem pole.”

Underlying all of these concerns is the fear that you won’t be a good long-term fit. And given the substantial time commitment and costs associated with training new employees, many companies are unwilling to risk hiring candidates whom they feel may leave relatively quickly. Your mission is to allay these fears. Following are tips on how to avoid the “overqualified” label and effectively market yourself to prospective employers today:

Revamp your resume. Most job seekers use a chronological resume, which offers an easy-to-follow snapshot of a person’s work history. But if you can’t find a job at your previous level and hiring managers say you’re overqualified for less-senior roles, consider a functional resume. This format, which is organized around your top skills and abilities, downplays job titles and dates. While you should never be untruthful about your work history, a functional resume is a way of focusing your candidacy on the key strengths you bring to the table.

Get relevant. On the other hand, if you decide to stick with the standard chronological resume, give weight to your most recent professional experiences. A good rule of thumb is to emphasize what you’ve done in the last 10 years. Also, use the employment ad as your guide. Mirror the language in the job posting to call attention to your qualifications, accomplishments and personal attributes that are most germane to the position. You can leave out extraneous details about high-level responsibilities irrelevant to the position you’re applying for, but never misrepresent yourself. “Dumbing down” a prestigious job title, fudging dates of employment or omitting academic degrees can come back to haunt you.

Write a customized cover letter. You’re not doing yourself any favors if you submit the same one-size-fits-all cover letter to everyone. Research each company to understand their unique needs. Then, demonstrate your knowledge of the firm and provide specific reasons you’re a perfect match. Again, zero in on the tremendous skills you offer and your ability to hit the ground running. In addition, proactively put doubts to rest by pointing out that you’re a highly motivated, adaptable and loyal team player seeking a long-term arrangement. It also can be helpful to come right out and mention that you’re flexible about compensation. (Remember: When a job offer is extended, you can try to offset a lower salary by negotiating for extra vacation time, more flexible work hours, performance-based bonuses, etc.)

Be upbeat and up-front in job interviews. As the saying goes, attitude is everything. Displaying enthusiasm and optimism in a face-to-face meeting can go a long way toward winning over a prospective employer. When a hiring manager expresses concerns that you’re overqualified, it’s counterproductive to debate his or her contention.

Instead, stay positive and reiterate why the job appeals to you. Speak of your sincere interest in both the position and the organization. And don’t be afraid to be honest about your motive for downshifting. If, for instance, you’ve spent years in a high-pressure job working 70-hour weeks, explain that a less stressful position will enable you to enjoy better work/life balance. Or, perhaps, the job, while lower level, is appealing because you’ve always worked in accounting for publishing companies and you now want to learn about a different industry.

Finally, be careful not to downplay your years of experience to an extreme during interviews. If you impressively demonstrate your expertise, an employer may decide you’re just the right accounting professional for a different role.

For more career advice, listen to Robert Half’s podcast series, The Management Minute, at www.rhi.com/podcasts.

Founded in 1948, Robert Half Finance & Accounting, a division of Robert Half International, is one of the world's first and largest specialized financial recruitment service. The company has more than 360 locations throughout North America, South America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region and offers online job search services at www.roberthalf.com.