Overqualified candidates: our bias against them won’t go away


New research sheds light on the many reasons we disqualify the overqualified and instead hire less impressive candidates.

Sometimes in HR, time is a flat circle. Recruiting myths are never slain just once, they have to be slain over and over again. The belief that overqualified candidates aren’t worth picking is one of them.

Two years ago, HRM wrote a story on research that showed overqualified candidates were worth picking as they would not just be more efficient, they would job craft. As co-author of the research Jing Zhou explained to Fast Company, “Overqualified workers tend to try different things, and through the process they bring creative insights and find better ways of doing their work.”

But new research shows that the bias against the possibly too qualified is alive and well. Which leads us to think something almost too shocking to contemplate. But there is no other explanation. Not enough people read our article!

Despite this outrage, we will struggle on. The new paper published in Administrative Science Quarterly does a good job of outlining the various reasons why the bias persists. It’s based around the fear that they won’t take the job, fear that they will not be motivated to do it once hired, and fear they will leave soon after being hired.

Too cool for school

The research seems very thorough, and involved several individual studies. The subjects were all people who had some experience as hiring managers (HR graduate students in the first study, working hiring managers in the second, etc) to evaluate one or both of two candidates. 

To make it clear one had extremely high-capability and the other moderately high-capability, they adjusted mock-up LinkedIn pages. According to the paper, though both had the same job function one “managed ‘a team of 10 direct reports to assess and pitch investment opportunities and created LBO [leveraged buyout] financing models to support closed deals worth $1.5 billion.” The other “managed a team of 2 direct reports to assess and pitch investment opportunities and created LBO financing models to support closed deals worth $15 million.”

Basically, one was a leader of eight more people and closed deals worth 100 times more money.

In order to eliminate biases around perceived cultural fit, they were also given the social media profiles of the candidates, which were designed to be practically similar. 

The subjects were asked to review the two candidates on capability and competence. They were asked questions like:

  • How long do you think each candidate will work at the organisation?
  • How committed do you think they will be?
  • How likely are you to interview the candidate, and how likely to give them an offer?
  • How concerned are you that the applicant won’t accept the job offer? 

The results from the various studies showed that:

  • Hiring managers were less likely to select the seemingly more impressive candidate, and that they did so because of perceptions around motivation to do the job.
  • Hiring managers were less likely to select the extremely high-capability candidate because of concerns around their lack of interest in the organisation’s mission and objectives.
  • Hiring managers would select the moderately high-capability candidate over the more impressive one because of fears the latter would soon leave for other jobs.

It’s useful to restate this central finding. All things being equal, hiring managers recommended the less impressive candidate. The one who had made his previous firm 100x less money.

The key test conducted by the researchers is that they specifically assuaged these various fears. In some studies, subjects were given extra information about applicants that said they were motivated, interested in the organisation’s mission, or had turned down other job offers. This did have a positive effect, but not to the extent you would expect. The bias persisted.

Plus, it turns out hirers are scared wonderful candidates won’t accept the job and that they will not be motivated to do it very well, or will quit quickly. So even if such a candidate 100 per cent guarantees they will take the job, they might not get it.

Weirdly, the researchers seem to be saying that if an extremely high-capable candidate wants to get a job, they would do well to lie and seem less impressive. Because even if they go the extra mile and tell people in their cover letter “I know my resume looks amazing, but please don’t hold that against me, I really want to work for you” – there’s a significant chance they will still be viewed with suspicion.

Fear of success

So why does the bias exist? There are lots of answers. It could be that some people are scared of being outshone by the new person, that the person is too good to be true (i.e. they’re actually terrible), or that their company can’t risk hiring someone so wonderful because they’ll want to leave (let’s call this organisational self-loathing). 

But whatever the reason, the lesson from the research is that highly qualified candidates are worth interviewing so you can evaluate whether your concerns are valid.

Of course, there might be some truth to those concerns. So, there are a few things you should do to make sure overqualified candidates are not a problem for your recruitment.

  • Avoid vague job ads/expectations – Whether you should put salary expectations in a job ad is a whole different article, but the best way to get the overqualified to self-select out of a job is to make it very clear what you are and aren’t looking for. Don’t rely on a job title to convey seniority, as their responsibilities and remuneration shift from organisation to organisation.
  • Quash unwarranted optimism – This tends to happen when more senior people are involved in the hire, and they read an impressive resume – filled with capabilities they hadn’t imagined for the role – and get excited about the possibilities. That’s great if there’s the budget and scope, but if you ultimately want a worker bee, you’re just wasting time.
  • Investigate your age bias Ageism is real, and often subconscious. It’s all too easy to dismiss an older candidate on the assumption that they will be overqualified. But perhaps they’re looking for a mid or late-career change. Or maybe they want a more junior role for lifestyle reasons. If you’re assuming that their greater age means more experience, then you should also assume they knew what they were doing when they applied for the job.

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Matt Poland
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Matt Poland

In my experience it’s the hiring managers who assume that an “over” qualified person either won’t stay or won’t feel challenged. We know what assume stands for, try asking them a question that delves into this issue!!

Kate Norton
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Kate Norton

This is an interesting discussion and research area. Recruiting and supporting mainly small/medium businesses, I spend a considerable amount of time understanding the context of a hiring opportunity. As you note above, there are a number of considerations from the business circumstances influencing the review of a candidate, and who to put through to interview. It’s often worth a phone call and clarification with the high level candidate re goals for applying etc. Interestingly, what happens in organisations when there’s a top performer, over qualified for a lower level role? I would suggest that it’s not just a bias towards… Read more »

Colleen Avis
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Colleen Avis

Too true, I have had to leave the workforce temporarily to care for my terminally ill husband. I am really worried that after 40 years in the workforce, (working at senior levels in human resources), that when I am able to return to work, age bias, and my level of experience will go against me. This is happening to many people and in my view is a lost opportunity for companies to employ motivated and experienced people who actually will stay and be loyal to employers.

Adrian Kaminski
Guest
Adrian Kaminski

Lots of assumptions on both sides. Not a surprise really. Nothing open and honest communication from both sides wouldn’t fix. I find it amazing that the industry looks at A.I as biased and when it really deep down comes from within all of us. Adrian

Sheila Baker
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Sheila Baker

Interesting thoughts – but I’d suggest the bias comes from having burnt fingers. Overqualified candidates DO leave jobs when something arises that is closer to their skills and experience – and previous pay packet. The trick is to find the one that is really committed. When we know candidates routinely lie to recruiters, that can be hard to figure out.

More on HRM
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Overqualified candidates: our bias against them won’t go away


New research sheds light on the many reasons we disqualify the overqualified and instead hire less impressive candidates.

Sometimes in HR, time is a flat circle. Recruiting myths are never slain just once, they have to be slain over and over again. The belief that overqualified candidates aren’t worth picking is one of them.

Two years ago, HRM wrote a story on research that showed overqualified candidates were worth picking as they would not just be more efficient, they would job craft. As co-author of the research Jing Zhou explained to Fast Company, “Overqualified workers tend to try different things, and through the process they bring creative insights and find better ways of doing their work.”

But new research shows that the bias against the possibly too qualified is alive and well. Which leads us to think something almost too shocking to contemplate. But there is no other explanation. Not enough people read our article!

Despite this outrage, we will struggle on. The new paper published in Administrative Science Quarterly does a good job of outlining the various reasons why the bias persists. It’s based around the fear that they won’t take the job, fear that they will not be motivated to do it once hired, and fear they will leave soon after being hired.

Too cool for school

The research seems very thorough, and involved several individual studies. The subjects were all people who had some experience as hiring managers (HR graduate students in the first study, working hiring managers in the second, etc) to evaluate one or both of two candidates. 

To make it clear one had extremely high-capability and the other moderately high-capability, they adjusted mock-up LinkedIn pages. According to the paper, though both had the same job function one “managed ‘a team of 10 direct reports to assess and pitch investment opportunities and created LBO [leveraged buyout] financing models to support closed deals worth $1.5 billion.” The other “managed a team of 2 direct reports to assess and pitch investment opportunities and created LBO financing models to support closed deals worth $15 million.”

Basically, one was a leader of eight more people and closed deals worth 100 times more money.

In order to eliminate biases around perceived cultural fit, they were also given the social media profiles of the candidates, which were designed to be practically similar. 

The subjects were asked to review the two candidates on capability and competence. They were asked questions like:

  • How long do you think each candidate will work at the organisation?
  • How committed do you think they will be?
  • How likely are you to interview the candidate, and how likely to give them an offer?
  • How concerned are you that the applicant won’t accept the job offer? 

The results from the various studies showed that:

  • Hiring managers were less likely to select the seemingly more impressive candidate, and that they did so because of perceptions around motivation to do the job.
  • Hiring managers were less likely to select the extremely high-capability candidate because of concerns around their lack of interest in the organisation’s mission and objectives.
  • Hiring managers would select the moderately high-capability candidate over the more impressive one because of fears the latter would soon leave for other jobs.

It’s useful to restate this central finding. All things being equal, hiring managers recommended the less impressive candidate. The one who had made his previous firm 100x less money.

The key test conducted by the researchers is that they specifically assuaged these various fears. In some studies, subjects were given extra information about applicants that said they were motivated, interested in the organisation’s mission, or had turned down other job offers. This did have a positive effect, but not to the extent you would expect. The bias persisted.

Plus, it turns out hirers are scared wonderful candidates won’t accept the job and that they will not be motivated to do it very well, or will quit quickly. So even if such a candidate 100 per cent guarantees they will take the job, they might not get it.

Weirdly, the researchers seem to be saying that if an extremely high-capable candidate wants to get a job, they would do well to lie and seem less impressive. Because even if they go the extra mile and tell people in their cover letter “I know my resume looks amazing, but please don’t hold that against me, I really want to work for you” – there’s a significant chance they will still be viewed with suspicion.

Fear of success

So why does the bias exist? There are lots of answers. It could be that some people are scared of being outshone by the new person, that the person is too good to be true (i.e. they’re actually terrible), or that their company can’t risk hiring someone so wonderful because they’ll want to leave (let’s call this organisational self-loathing). 

But whatever the reason, the lesson from the research is that highly qualified candidates are worth interviewing so you can evaluate whether your concerns are valid.

Of course, there might be some truth to those concerns. So, there are a few things you should do to make sure overqualified candidates are not a problem for your recruitment.

  • Avoid vague job ads/expectations – Whether you should put salary expectations in a job ad is a whole different article, but the best way to get the overqualified to self-select out of a job is to make it very clear what you are and aren’t looking for. Don’t rely on a job title to convey seniority, as their responsibilities and remuneration shift from organisation to organisation.
  • Quash unwarranted optimism – This tends to happen when more senior people are involved in the hire, and they read an impressive resume – filled with capabilities they hadn’t imagined for the role – and get excited about the possibilities. That’s great if there’s the budget and scope, but if you ultimately want a worker bee, you’re just wasting time.
  • Investigate your age bias Ageism is real, and often subconscious. It’s all too easy to dismiss an older candidate on the assumption that they will be overqualified. But perhaps they’re looking for a mid or late-career change. Or maybe they want a more junior role for lifestyle reasons. If you’re assuming that their greater age means more experience, then you should also assume they knew what they were doing when they applied for the job.

10
Leave a reply

avatar
100000
  Subscribe to receive comments  
Notify me of
Matt Poland
Guest
Matt Poland

In my experience it’s the hiring managers who assume that an “over” qualified person either won’t stay or won’t feel challenged. We know what assume stands for, try asking them a question that delves into this issue!!

Kate Norton
Guest
Kate Norton

This is an interesting discussion and research area. Recruiting and supporting mainly small/medium businesses, I spend a considerable amount of time understanding the context of a hiring opportunity. As you note above, there are a number of considerations from the business circumstances influencing the review of a candidate, and who to put through to interview. It’s often worth a phone call and clarification with the high level candidate re goals for applying etc. Interestingly, what happens in organisations when there’s a top performer, over qualified for a lower level role? I would suggest that it’s not just a bias towards… Read more »

Colleen Avis
Guest
Colleen Avis

Too true, I have had to leave the workforce temporarily to care for my terminally ill husband. I am really worried that after 40 years in the workforce, (working at senior levels in human resources), that when I am able to return to work, age bias, and my level of experience will go against me. This is happening to many people and in my view is a lost opportunity for companies to employ motivated and experienced people who actually will stay and be loyal to employers.

Adrian Kaminski
Guest
Adrian Kaminski

Lots of assumptions on both sides. Not a surprise really. Nothing open and honest communication from both sides wouldn’t fix. I find it amazing that the industry looks at A.I as biased and when it really deep down comes from within all of us. Adrian

Sheila Baker
Guest
Sheila Baker

Interesting thoughts – but I’d suggest the bias comes from having burnt fingers. Overqualified candidates DO leave jobs when something arises that is closer to their skills and experience – and previous pay packet. The trick is to find the one that is really committed. When we know candidates routinely lie to recruiters, that can be hard to figure out.

Sorry, no posts matched your criteria.
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