Overcoming the "Overqualified" Stigma

I would like to rank the term “overqualified” as used by HR professionals, hiring managers and headhunters up there with terms like “ideal candidate” and “dearth of talent” when it comes to assessing who’s truly qualified to fill a job. When it comes right down to it how can anyone be overqualified? The simple answer is you can either do a job or you can’t.

Just like the term “ideal candidate” is an overstatement when we are all missing a qualification or two, and the term “dearth of talent” is an oxymoron when recruiting in a highly educated workforce, the term “overqualified” has no purposeful meaning other than for covering up what companies fail to understand about a candidate.

Maybe my interpretation of the term “overqualified” is a bit simplified, but nevertheless a real nightmare for job hunters who are quickly screened out from jobs they’re perfectly qualified to fill. Based on such faulty assumptions as you’re too old, you make too much money, or you lack commitment recruiters won’t say as much (and for good legal reasons) because it’s much easier to apply the “overqualified” moniker.

When you did deeper behind these assumptions, especially for the older worker, there are other such reasons as “you’re too old to learn,” not “digitally savvy,” “won’t fit into a team environment,” “will be resistant to a younger manager,” or “you’ll get sick more often.” Even though these assumptions are faulty (and there’s data and studies to prove such) they keep otherwise very qualified people from getting jobs.

If you’re being labeled as “overqualified” on too many job opportunities that you feel perfectly qualified to fill don’t make these faulty assumptions your problem. I’ve worked with a number of clients who are too quick to put the blame on themselves by taking a defeatist attitude when confronted with the perception they’re too old, make too much money, or are missing some esoteric technical skill which in most cases they could learn.

Be the CEO of Your Career

Be positive about yourself and the many experiences, accomplishments and skills you bring to a job. If at a point in your career you’re looking to downsize in responsibilities, and recognize that pursuing a less responsible but yet rewarding job may mean less salary, don’t be discouraged by people turning you away because they think you won’t be happy making less money. Be the CEO of your career and let people know this is exactly the type of work you want, and be passionate about it.

If you’re being turned away from job opportunities because of lacking a particular skill, experience or credential be resourceful, and think about comparable experiences, training or education you’ve had that demonstrate your ability to learn a new skill or task. I’ve worked with a number of IT professionals who will tell you that while the language of computers constantly changes there’s a similar logic underlying it. Make that your focus not that you’re not “digitally savvy.”

If you’re in job hunt mode, and experiencing any of these faulty assumptions about your qualifications, start by sending everyone with whom you come into contact an affirmative message about yourself. Avoid the issue of age or salary when networking with people and in interviews; shed doubts about yourself, feelings of inadequacy, and other self-defeating behaviors which only feed into the faulty perceptions people might have of you; and demonstrate a flexibility to work in a job market that is constantly changing.

Several years ago when running a job search strategy session with a group of earnest, yet sometimes self-doubting job hunters, one member who in her early 60’s shared her conversation with a hiring manager and answered his question about her work experience by saying “Well, I can tell you one thing, I’ve been around the block a few times.” Everyone else in the group immediately reacted by telling her “No, no, no, don’t say that, it will only bring attention to the age issue.” I think they started to get it, and I hope you do too.

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