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The Quandary of Hiring Overqualified Candidates

Hiring someone who seems overqualified for a position can seem risky, but the upside can also be considerable. Find out if hiring an experienced candidate is the best practice for you.

May 3, 2010
Sponsored by Robert Half Finance & Accounting

The recession has offered equal opportunity when it comes to unemployment. Through no fault of their own, many accomplished professionals have found themselves unexpectedly out of work. With the job market still extremely tight — and perhaps remaining that way for the foreseeable future — one apparent consequence of the employment crunch is an increase in the number of candidates applying for positions for which they would normally be considered overqualified.

Should employers even consider overqualified applicants? As is the case with most complicated questions: it depends.

To Hire or Not to Hire?

The primary benefit of bringing an overqualified candidate on board is the opportunity to hire a highly skilled employee who would otherwise be difficult to recruit if economic conditions were more favorable. In this way, companies can effectively upgrade the overall skills and experience of their teams. Even better, individuals who are overqualified may not command the high compensation one would normally expect.

Experienced workers also can bring with them knowledge that allows them to go beyond their formal job description — by suggesting and implementing process improvements, for example — or valuable contacts from previous roles. As a result, small and midsize firms, in particular, may be able to take advantage of new business opportunities and expand their operations.

Yet, companies also face the risk that an overqualified professional will be dissatisfied in a position that does not fully utilize his or her talents or allow for greater earning potential. Ultimately, these concerns may cause the professional to seek another opportunity when conditions improve, forcing the company to go through the hiring process once more.

The Post-recession Mind-set

Another factor in the equation is that the recession may have permanently altered the professional priorities and goals of many individuals. A new survey by Robert Half found that recent economic conditions have sharpened workers’ focus on employment stability. The study, which explores generational attitudes and opinions about the post-recession workplace, found that workers representing the three largest generational groups — baby boomers, Generation X and Generation Y — ranked “working for a stable company” and “having a strong sense of job security” as the work environment factors of greatest importance to them. For baby boomers, in particular, job security may outweigh other considerations.

The Value of a Stable Paycheck

At the same time, professionals of all generations have seen their nest eggs affected by the global financial crisis. Members of each group we surveyed said salary, benefits and job stability, in that order, were their priority considerations when evaluating an employment opportunity. By comparison, job title ranked ninth on a list of 12 considerations. These findings suggest that even so-called “overqualified” applicants may be willing to adjust their career aspirations for positions that offer the promise of good benefits and a steady paycheck.

Thorough Evaluations

When evaluating a potential hire who seems overqualified, be sure to do your homework. During the interview, ask questions designed to explore the person’s motivations, values and work preferences. Try to ascertain, for instance, whether the candidate might be genuinely attracted to a role that offers less responsibility but greater security. Does the individual view the role as a “layover” until he or she can locate a more appealing position, or is the person looking for a change in the direction of his or her career? Does the applicant seem genuinely excited about the company and position?

Also, talk to the candidate’s references in an effort to learn more about the job seeker’s capacity for change and whether they envision the individual making an easy transition into a job that may be significantly less challenging or prestigious than a previous one.

Employers who opt to “hire up” may be able to lessen the risk of eventually losing highly skilled professionals to more attractive opportunities by letting them know about possible routes for advancement as economic conditions improve. Experienced workers also appreciate autonomy and opportunities to make a real impact at their new firms.

The Bottom Line

Without a doubt, hiring someone who seems to be overqualified for a position can be a bit of a risk. But the upside can also be considerable if the person works out. Although conventional wisdom has considered it a bad practice, many long-held views are being upended in the post-recession workplace. For employers eager to enhance their talent bench, the more widespread availability of skilled candidates could mean it’s an ideal time to add depth and experience to their teams without having to pay a premium price.

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.roberthalffinance.com.