“Over-qualified” or Too Old?


old man

It seems to be a common assumption today that if someone says “You’re overqualified” for a job, it’s merely code for “you’re too old.” In my experience, this is a possibility, however, don’t assume that is their true motivation in rejecting you for the position you’ve applied for. There are legitimate reasons for deeming a person “overqualified” for a position regardless of age. Yet, too often, people make this assumption and it can negatively impact their future prospects as they attribute false motives to anyone who might be younger than them.

I learned this the hard way early in my search career. While doing a search for a Regional Manager for an orthopedic company, I happened to be contacted by a former colleague who had been at the national level in sales management. He was gainfully employed, yet he wanted to have a smaller area of responsibility. He had a young family and felt he was missing too much his children’s lives while traveling up to 80% of the time and often cross country.  All of his reasons for demoting himself seemed reasonable, even honorable for this father of two young boys. Like many professionals,he was in his early 40’s and had experienced significant success early in his career and believed that this season of his life was more about his kids than his career and he was taking the initiative and making the professional sacrifice for his family. 

This all made perfect sense to me as a father of four kids who made the similar decision to have a local job with minimal travel so I could be a dad first. Here is what happened in this scenario that informed me about the legitimate argument for someone being overqualified.

I presented this talented sales leader to my client company. During the interview process, it was obvious to all parties that this was a considerable step back in his career. Since his situation was self-imposed and everyone felt that they adequately vetted him to be as sure as you can be that he really felt strongly enough to keep himself there long term. However, it didn’t take more than six months for him to begin to see that he was in fact a much better leader than his boss who was about his same age. After all, he had excelled to the national stage before, and his boss hadn’t. Once he began to sense his bosses comparative weaknesses, he became more and more frustrated with the way his boss would manage him and his leadership role. He began to see every flaw in strategy and execution that his boss had and it began to undermine their relationship.  At first, he was able to shrug it off and remind himself that he was in this role for a higher purpose than his own career and that seemed to work, briefly. 

Within nine months, he was no longer able to be gracious to his boss about his perceived “ineptness.” He had become aggressive and critical and it came down to which man would remain and which one would have to leave the company. My candidate didn’t go down without a fight, but he eventually lost the “war” and his job. As you might imagine, he realized that he was a much better leader than a follower, particularly of people who he felt more capable than and rightly so, perhaps.

I considered that placement as a missed opportunity to deliver the right solution to my client and through it I have learned that even when someone tells you that they want to take a “step back” with great passion and commitment, in a high percentage of the cases, they simply cannot sustain the transition. Their ego and high achievement drive cannot be constrained without great difficulty. To this day, I am reticent to ever place anyone in less a role than they previously enjoyed. There is great risk to the hiring company and managers.

In all reality, if you are applying for a job that is below your prior experience level, you ARE an increased flight risk. This doesn’t mean it you can’t do the job or that it never works, but search professionals are in the business of mitigating their client’s risk so if they won’t present you on a job that you really want, but is a step back, this is likely why. If this happens to you, you’ll likely hear that you’re “over qualified.”

The most common reason for calling someone “overqualified” is actually not based upon the candidate’s age in my experience. That is not to say that age is never a factor. I have had conversations with a hiring manager who essentially told me the approximate age of the “ideal candidate.” As an ethical search professional, you would dismiss that comment as it is irrelevant to one’s ability to execute the duties and it is “age discrimination,” which is frowned upon by certain people in the US Government. So, although age discrimination exists, don’t be too quick to assume this to be the case if you’re overlooked for a role. There are legitimate reasons one might be eliminated from consideration. Ultimately, those making the decision are going attempt to do what they think is in the best interests of their company. (Well, at least almost always.)

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