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A Modest Discussion of Over Qualified Candidates – Danger Ahead

An overqualified candidate is someone whose career has taken them beyond the open position. It is often something they have done earlier in their career before moving on to bigger things.  There are two perspectives on the overqualified candidate.


The first is from the candidate side and the second, of course, from the client side. I am not a fan of hiring an overqualified candidate, with one exception that I will go into later. In this White Paper, I will try to lay out my concerns in a logical way.


It is important to remember that any hiring solution that does not work out costs the company a great deal of money. The expense of a bad hire is more than just salary lost. It is time, resources and starting a hiring process again from scratch.  That is a major part of my concern. We look for the highest probability of success, for both client and candidate.


Candidate Perspective


I occasionally get calls from people who “want to take a step back”. They want a less stressful job that will improve their quality of life. Salary is a secondary concern, they often say. Some times it’s a Manager seeking an individual role. Sometimes an Executive seeking a senior project role – you get the idea.


I can rarely help them. Here is why.


There is no such thing as a less stressful job. Every job has stress, but the stress is different at each level. Any manager who thinks that an individual contributor job is less stressful because it has less responsibility forgets what it is like to be an individual contributor. Any executive who thinks that a senior project role is easy, has forgotten what it’s like to have a deadline and no support team. Also, leaders seeking to trade stress for quality of life forget one thing – they forget what it is like to have a boss. Bosses can be tough.


It’s human nature to look back on a period in one’s life and see it as an idyllic time. Many adults remember high school and college as the best years of their lives. Yet every high school and college student I have spoken with, sees their lives as stressful and are anxious about their future. Will I do well on this test? Does Johnny/Janie really like me? Why do people pick on me? Stress, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder.


It takes 20 years for those concerns to become minor. When they defined your life, they certainly looked major. Stepping back to some career Eden when you calmly sailed through your daily tasks is not realistic for most people, I fear. There never was an Eden. There is always a job that needs to be done. Done Now. Done Well. And Done Quickly.


From our client’s perspective, what happens when you’ve taken that step back and decided it was not what you wanted after all? You quit. Hence, the problem.


There is another discussion that I’ve had with people seeking to take a step back. This discussion usually occurs in times of economic weakness and hasn’t come up in a few years due to the stronger economy. But, unless economic cycles have been repealed, I am sure it will resurface at some point.


Here is an example. A candidate is out of work. He or she had been a manager making $140K but wants to be considered for a project level role paying $100K. After being out of work for 3 months, pressure for a paycheck builds and a pay cut seems rational.


Indeed, it is rational to the candidate, but I work for the company. I will rarely consider someone like that. Why? Not because I am hard-hearted, I hope. The reason is that it rarely works.  It doesn’t work because the minute a $140K job appears, or a $130K job, or a $120K job, the person will quit the $100K job and take the higher paying job. Wouldn’t you? I would. My concern in those situations is that I am doing a disservice to my client. Why present a candidate for a job who will probably leave in 3-6 months? This would create added expense and lost time for the employer. That is not why they hire me.


The exception is a situation where the salary discrepancy can be made up in a year or two. In the experience above it was a 40k differential and that would probably take 5-8 years to catch up. But, assume that a company has a manager in place retiring in 2 years and needs someone who can be promoted into that slot. Now we have a different situation. We have successfully moved people into those roles, and, in fact, some of them are clients now. It’s the delta between salaries that is key. Does the person have a realistic chance of catching up before lifestyle changes are required because of a massive salary cut? If so, it might be a good match.


Client Perspective


Many of our clients own their own business and most are growing. In fact, one of our strengths is in filling newly created positions. Growing companies always have newly created jobs. Growth creates needs that did not exist previously. In the past 6 months, we completed projects for the following jobs for functions that did not exist prior:


  • 2 HR Business Partners
  • 2 Controllers
  • 1 Engineering Manager


In most of these projects, we had to caution our client against overreach – hiring someone whose position now may sound similar in title, but is different in fact. Here is an example:


A $40,000,000/year services company in Kentucky was seeking their first HR professional. The owner and founder had never worked at a company that had a HR person so he was approaching the job a vacuum. He knew what the person needed to do for him, but not how they were “packaged” now. What type of background would best prepare someone for his needs?


His first thought was to call the job a Director. He wanted to show that the person was going to be part of his executive team. He thought someone with a Director title, especially someone at a large firm, would be able to contribute at a high level. His first set of specs was for someone who as the top HR person at a company of $100,000,000/year or more. That was 3x the size of his firm.


When I told him that the salary for someone like that was about $50,000 more than his targeted $120,000 salary he did not balk. I pushed back a little, but in the end it was his decision. I also knew that sometimes the process itself informs a client. They see what they thought they wanted and then realize they were wrong. That’s what we did.


Our first candidates were all solid people with the exact experience he wanted. They were the top person in a larger firm. Yet, none of them excited the client. They all managed staff, which they would not do at his firm. They all had large budgets, which they would not have at his firm. Our client then realized something important.


Running a HR department, or any department, at a larger firm is not necessarily a continual progression from being a Senior member at a smaller company. It is a fundamentally different job. One does not necessarily prepare you for the other. A great manager can be a middling individual contributor and vice versa. Even if one of the first slate of candidates would have been interested because of salary, that did not mean that they could do the job or, would do the job for a long period of time. Remember our discussion above about taking a step back. In our equation, the probability of success with our client’s strategy was low. Fortunately, we were able to recalibrate.


There is one exception to this, however. If the rate of growth you anticipate is so rapid as to require creating a department, not just a single job, then the over hiring is the correct strategy. Hire the manager first and them have him or her tell you how the department should be configured.  Don’t do it from the bottom up. Do it from the top down. Of course, this scenario is a massive investment. Before proceeding with this strategy be sure you are ready for the investment or you will have hired a Manager with no resources to manage.


So, there you have it. We’ve looked at both sides and tried to evaluate how and when to consider over hiring for your organization. Hopefully, you are growing and this has relevance for your firm. As ever, thanks for getting this far and please consider Right Recruiting in Blue Bell, PA for any recruitment needs at your firm.


All the best,






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