What "overqualified" really means, and how to handle it

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A new client reached out to me recently and said, “I just don’t know what else to do. I apply for jobs that I’m BEYOND qualified for, and all I get in response is some version of, ‘Thanks, but you’re overqualified.’ How am I ever supposed to get into a new company if no one is willing to value my experience!? I’m sorry I’ve accomplished TOO MUCH!”

Here’s the thing. This is one of those situations you have to dig for the WHY behind what you’re hearing. At face value, it may feel like ageism. It may feel like you’re being personally insulted for “not knowing your place” or that you’re being told you “just wouldn’t fit in…” Regardless, it all hurts. But… trust me when I say, this response may be coming from a very different place than you think. I’ve been in the hiring game for over a decade and truth be told, I’ve been on the other end of this feedback more times than I can count, and while it may sound cliché, I always tried explaining to candidates, “it’s not you; it’s us.”

For anyone who has faced this type of rejection recently with no further explanation of where the hiring manager’s head was at, I’m sorry. I can’t make up for any recruiter’s lack of empathy, or lack of tact in having these discussions (if they’re having them at all), but many of us out there try and ensure you know the WHY behind this common response. For those of you who never received that courtesy, here’s a peek behind the curtain of what’s actually going on when a company tells you “you’re overqualified.”

What they say:

We loved your background, but unfortunately you’re just overqualified for this one.

What they mean:

We love you, but we’re scared of putting you into this role and having you feel bored in six weeks. We know we can’t promote you into anything else for 12 months per our internal policy, and fear you’ll get frustrated…and we’ll have to recruit and train for this all over again when you leave.

We also acknowledge you were probably making way more money in your last position, and this role is only budgeted for half that. We’re afraid you’ll get your first few paychecks and feel the difference, prompting you to secretly keep looking for something that pays more in line with what you’re used to … and we’ll have to recruit and train for this all over again when you leave.

We also fear you’ll start to feel undervalued because the work you’re doing is stellar, but we’re not able to break internal equity and compensate you more for it. If you’re visibly unhappy at work, it impacts the overall culture… and we’ll have to recruit and train for this all over again when you - or someone else - leaves.

We also know you love driving strategy and making an impact on the bottom-line, and this role is incredibly transactional in nature, so we’re nervous you won’t actually enjoy the work you’ll be doing day in and day out… and we’ll have to recruit and train for this all over again when you leave.

We also know you’re used to operating at a higher level, and in this role, you’d be supportingthe people on that level. We’re afraid you’ll have a hard time operating in a support role alongside more junior colleagues, rather than a leadership role alongside people you may relate to more…and we’ll have to recruit and train for this all over again when you leave.


You seeming “Overqualified” is a result of their fears… not your years.

It’s not personal.  They probably wish they could hire you tomorrow, but these fears stop them from executing that, mostly because we’re in a market that is NOT fun for managers to fish for talent in. The fear of having to go through the recruiting and training process all over again is anxiety provoking for anyone in a hiring capacity right now. And, no, that’s not your fault, but that’s the reality of it.

If you’re able to leave a voicemail, send an email, or start a conversation… try to counter these fears rather than advocate for your years of experience. (Your resume should already be doing that.)

Lean in to their real concerns. Because now you know what they are. 

Krystal Hicks