Are You “Overqualified?” Handling The Age Issue …

September 20, 2010 at 12:01 am 11 comments

If you are a job-seeker who is over a certain age – sooner or later it’s not uncommon to hear that you’ve been passed over for an opportunity that you applied and/or interviewed for because you were judged to be “overqualified.” That’s such an interesting word: “overqualified.” Think about it … it means, literally, that you possess experience and qualifications that exceed the stated job requirements. So, you might ask, why should that be a bad thing? Wouldn’t any company want someone who exceeds their requirements instead of someone who does not? Well, we all know what’s really going on when someone says you are “overqualified.” It’s a euphemism for “too old” or “too expensive” or both, right?

Not long ago, I represented a very savvy 50-something year-old candidate who was invited in for a final face-to-face interview for a key position with a Fortune 500 client company I was working with. His job history and specific qualifications were an exact match for what they were looking for. He fit the requirements listed for the job to a tee. In addition, he knew the salary range they had defined for this position, and was fine with it. He had already filled out an extensive job application, taken a 2-hour online personality and skills assessment test, had a lengthy phone interview, and met in-person with two different HR people. Based on all of that, his chances seemed excellent. When he walked into the interview room, he met the actual decision-maker – the person who would be his immediate supervisor for this position. She was a very attractive, 20-something year-old woman – very sharp, with an MBA from a prominent business school, 5 years of increasing responsibilities at this company and a rising star in their corporate culture. (Now I’m imagining this next part … so please forgive me for this narrative license!) They looked at each other, and he thought: “She’s young enough to be my daughter!” And she thought: “He’s old enough to be my father!” It was reminiscent of a scene from the movie “In Good Company.” The interview continued in a very professional manner – but needless to say, he didn’t get the job and was never given any direct explanation why. When I later questioned my HR contact at the company, I heard the “O” word mentioned in passing … but not much else.

Age discrimination is a fact of life in the business world. While the definition of someone’s “prime” working ages varies from industry to industry, from company to company, and from position to position … if I had to guess based on my own experience as a recruiter, I’d say that candidates who range in age from their early 30’s to mid 40’s are probably the group who have the least trouble with age discrimination. Much younger than that, and most job-seekers would be looking mostly at low paying, “entry-level” positions (the woman in the previous example notwithstanding.) And, of course, job-seekers in their 50’s and beyond encounter the “overqualified” objection much more often.

So, what is an “older” job-seeker supposed to do? What advice or strategies can I offer to help those candidates in that more senior category? Well, first of all I suggest you read “Age Discrimination: Exposing Inconvenient Truths.” At the bottom of that article, I’ve already detailed several concrete ideas designed to help older job-seekers overcome the age discrimination issue. Those ideas included:
●   Targeting “age friendly” companies.
●   Only pursuing positions that really match your level of experience.
●   Keeping up to date on technology.
●   Maintaining your health and appearance.
●   Embracing a positive attitude.

Beyond those general ideas, I want to offer some other more specific suggestions, ideas and tips that might help older job-seekers in their pursuit of their goals. These are mostly interview strategies to consider when the “overqualified” objection seems to be coming up, either overtly or by implication:

  • During interviews, emphasize your capabilities, not your experience.
  • When interviewing with a hiring manager, try to find out what their problems, needs, and concerns are. Then, explain how you can help. Offer ideas for solutions to problems. This is known as the “consultative sales” approach. A younger person with little to no experience will be much less likely to know how to do this. [Read “Why Job Hunting is a Consultative Sales Position” for more on this concept.]
  • If you are getting asked questions during an interview that indicate the interviewer wants to know your age, respond by saying: “I think what you’re asking me is ‘How long will I be in this position?’” Then, pause and say firmly: “I’m committed to staying at your company at least five years. How many young candidates will promise you that?”
  • Don’t use phrases like: “At my age…,” “Years ago…,” “Back then…,” When I was younger…,” “It used to be that …,” We used to…,” “…up in years,” “Nowadays…,” etc. Avoid statements in résumés and cover letters like: “I have 25 years experience in …” And don’t make references to your grandchildren!
  • If someone comes right out and asks how old you are, say: “I’m only xx”. The word only is very important. Without coming out and saying it, the word implies to the other person that you think you’ve got many productive years ahead of you.
  • If a prospective employer comes right out and says: “you’re overqualified,” consider responding with a statement like: “Well, you wouldn’t feel that way about your surgeon, would you? Don’t you want a person that you’re confident can do this job without requiring a lot of training and a lot of your time?”
  • Or consider saying: “Wouldn’t you rather hire someone who exceeds your requirements instead of someone who doesn’t?”
  • You probably won’t be able to overcome the “overqualified” objection unless you understand what the employer believes is the underlying problem. You might say: “What problems do you foresee if I were overqualified?”
  • Consider saying: “When you say that I’m overqualified, does that mean you are concerned about what you might have to pay me? I would be happy to discuss compensation with you. What did you think is reasonable?” [Read “Answering the Dreaded Salary Question” for more strategies on handling this issue.]
  • Finally, as an interview closer, consider saying something like: “I understand your concerns as far as you thinking I’m ‘overqualified.’ However, I am confident that you will find me a valuable asset in this position. In addition, should you want to promote internal talent in the future, I’ll have proven myself and have the years of experience to assume more responsibilities successfully. My sole objective is to prove myself over time.”

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Entry filed under: Advice for Job Seekers. Tags: , , , .

Comic Relief: Job-Seeking Humor – Volume 4 Advice for Recent Grads and Career-Changers

11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Thomas Keplar  |  September 20, 2010 at 4:12 am

    over qualified is a top key word for age discrimination. until/unless the government (people) take action this will continue indefinitely like other forms of discrimination. little to say, one of his few options is self-employment in the form his own business, maybe contracting, maybe, maybe, maybe…endless. funny how we keep justifying things and let everyone use excuses like this young lady did. then again it is so rampant everywhere including government that it is criminal. such is life. move on.

    Reply
  • 2. Don Harkness  |  September 20, 2010 at 9:43 am

    This is a good article with a lot of good advise. I speak from experience over 40 years (oops!), as a manager, job hunter several times starting at age 56, and as a recruiter.
    In my 30 some years as a manager I never struggled with hiring “over qualified” people. I understood from the get go that I was only as good as the people working in my organization. Perhaps it’s from my Marine Corps exposure. Hence, over qualified made no sense.
    When you build an organization, you’re like a prospector looking for gold. Something to make your organization richer. And who ever heard of a prospector saying that they found too much gold?

    The advice about searching at “age friendly” companies certainly makes sense. But when I hit the bricks and became a long-in-the-tooth job hunter I evolved to finding my own age friendly companies, but making it quite clear that I was old. So my cover letters and resumes would say I have over 40 years of experience. True that certainly limited responses and interest, but those that responded signaled a good probability that they at least didn’t care about my age, or preferably valued the experience.
    I picked up my current job at age 69 1/2, based on value of experience. So it can be done

    Reply
  • 3. "The Recruit4U Guy"  |  September 20, 2010 at 9:56 am

    Michael,
    This is great STUFF!!!! WOW, spot on. Keep up the great work and include me all your happenings. Thank you and I enjoyed the funnies of our wacky world of recruitment!!
    My best line in a resume recently in terms of the candidates job descriptors was: “Cooked Hibachi for some clown” … seriously, I am not talented enough to make that one up!!
    Be well and have a great day!!!
    Steve

    Reply
  • 4. Maureen Paulett  |  September 20, 2010 at 10:22 am

    Michael,
    You make some very good points for the “O” overqualified and or older worker. The only thing is I clearly remember when several years ago I had worked at a pharmacy and overheard a new graduate say to the pharmacist that she had just applied for a local job. She had a degree in business and had applied to a local insurance company. To her, as with many, overqualified meant they weren’t willing or able to pay her what her degree would have commanded. She was all of 22 years old.

    Reply
  • 5. Rob Rabil  |  September 20, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    I do not believe that “overqualified” is used as an excuse for age discrimination nearly as often as some people believe it is. From my experience, it equates to either money or presumed tenure. The likelihood that an overqualified candidate would stay in a role that is below his/her qualifications if a position which better matches his/her credentials is presented is generally presumed to be nil.

    Reply
    • 6. Michael Spiro  |  September 20, 2010 at 3:03 pm

      Rob: Good points – salary expectations and presumed tenure are certainly two issues that are a part of the mindset of a hiring authority who believes a candidate may be “overqualified.” That is why I offered specific strategies on how to be proactive and try to overcome those particular objections in the last part of the article. At the same time, candidates who fit that profile are usually also older. It’s not always possible to separate those practical objections from the age factor.

      Reply
  • 7. Daniel Kao  |  September 20, 2010 at 3:02 pm

    Hi Mike, you have very good practical lines for the overqualified candidates whom I work with all the time as I work with new immigrants many of whom are very qualified but they are targeting to looking to get their foot in the industry by starting at a lower level than what they used to work at. Thanks for your sharing.
    Daniel

    Reply
  • 8. Julie Anderson  |  September 20, 2010 at 4:05 pm

    When I was a job recruiter, and at several speaking presentations, I have advised many to stand out…in a good way. Dye the gray; update the hairstyle, wardrobe and resume. Be honest and genuine at interviews, let the interviewer see the best you. Tell them of how, assets that you have fine tuned throughout your wise years, can help them fill their position. And lastly, smile a lot.

    Reply
  • 9. John Phillips  |  September 22, 2010 at 1:04 pm

    Here’s a post I just did for my employment law blog about what appears to be rampant age discrimination sweeping the country.

    http://www.wordonemploymentlaw.com/2010/09/age-discrimination-law-old-news-and-apparently-ineffective/

    Reply
  • 10. Cheryl Howard  |  December 3, 2010 at 12:17 am

    Your columns have been some of the most helpful I’ve read in two years of job searching. Where have you been hiding? Anyway, I have encountered several hiring managers who are half my age. One asked if I had done “anything” with the internet. I was in line when the Mac was introduced but that, again, would date me (smile), so I mention that I’m an enthusiastic gamer and designer. The gaming surprises them because gamers still have a stereotype of young geeks.

    But it is disconcerting to be interviewed by people who are so young and seem oblivious to their own stereotypes. I’ve been asked, “Would you be uncomfortable working with a team far younger than yourself?” I said, “No, I thrive on the energy!” I found that forthrightneses refreshing.

    Reply
  • 11. Stuart Fried  |  December 6, 2013 at 9:37 pm

    Unfortunately, while all of your suggestions are excellent and make logical sense (and by the way, are similar to what I’ve coached my clients), the business world lives in a box with models that are broken and yet don’t get fixed. Companies don’t care about turnover, so they hire the same type of people who often under-perform, and then hire the same type of people again! I counsel my clients to network extensively and look for companies who want someone with their level of experience. I also encourage them to ask, as you do, what are the concerns so they do not assume. It is often about money, or perceived flight risk – where are they going to fly to??? Thanks for the excellent article. However, I don’t know if there really is a good way to overcome the rigid perceptions so many have today in the business world.

    Reply

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Michael Spiro

About the Author:

Michael Spiro has been a 3rd-Party Recruiter and Account Executive for over 15 years. He is currently the Director of Recruiting / NE Ohio Region for Experis Finance, a dedicated business unit of ManpowerGroup. Other recent positions include President of Midas Recruiting, a boutique head-hunting firm, Director of Talent at Patina Solutions, and Executive Recruiting positions with two of the largest search firms in North America. Before his career in the staffing industry, Michael was a manager in a large non-profit social-services organization. And in a former life, Michael was active in the entertainment industry, with extensive road-warrior experience as a touring performer (singer-songwriter / guitarist / comedian) and as a recording artist, producer and booking agent.  [More...]

Index (by Topic):

Résumés & Cover Letters:
 The "T" Cover Letter - The
         Only Type Worth Sending

 The Brutal Truth on How
         Résumés Get Eliminated

 Explaining Short Job Stints
         and Employment Gaps

 The Résumé Test &
         Checklist: Does Yours
         Pass?

 Beating the Résumé-
         Elimination Game: Where
         Do Recruiters' Eyes Go?

 The Truth About Lying on
         Résumés

Networking:
 How to Network: A
         Step-by-Step Guide for
         Job Searching

 Looking for Networking in
         All the Wrong Places

 Targeted Networking: How
         to Effectively Reach Out

 The Art of Giving: the Key to
         Effective Networking

Interviewing:
 Face-to-Face Interviews:
         Secrets, Tricks and Tips

 Phone Interviews: Secrets,
         Tricks and Tips

 Skype Interview Tips ...
         Welcome to the Future!

 Nuggets: A Secret
         Interviewing Technique

 Answering the Dreaded
         Salary Question

 20 Surefire Ways to Blow
         an Interview

 "So, Do You Have Any
         Questions?" Nailing the
         Interview Closer

 Cool InfoGraphic: "What
         You Wish You'd Known
         Before Your Job
         Interview"

Age Discrimination:
 Age Discrimination: Secret
         Conversations Revealed

 Age Discrimination:
         Exposing Inconvenient
         Truths

 Are You "Overqualified?"
         Handling the Age Issue

 Baby Boomers to the
         Rescue! An Idea Whose
         Time Has Come ...

 Overcoming Job-Search
         Obstacles and
         Redefining Your Career
         After 50

 Advice for Recent Grads
         and Career-Changers

Switching Jobs:
 The Proper Way to
         Quit a Job

 Counteroffers: Just Say No!

General Job-Seeking Info:
 The Real Truth About
         Working with Recruiters

 Contract/Consulting Jobs
         Explained ... Available in
         3 Different Flavors

►  What Recruiters Say
         vs. What Job-Seekers
         Hear

►  The Dirty Truth About
         Misleading Unemployment
         Statistics

►  Let the Jobs Find You:
         Making Yourself More
         "Searchable"

 "Help ... I Need a Job!" A
         9-Step Guide for Newly
         Minted Job-Seekers

 Avoiding the "Black Hole
         of HR"

 Is Your Elevator Pitch
         Taking You UP
         or DOWN?

 Time Management: Recipe          for a Well-Balanced Job          Search
 Getting Un-Stuck from your
         Rut!

 The Double-Whammy of
         Rejection and Isolation

 "Unemployed Need Not
         Apply" - Working Around
         This Scary Message

 Using Social Media to
         Enhance Job-Searching

 Warning: That Rant You
         Posted Just Went Viral!

 The Golden Rule for
         Business: Never Burn
         Bridges

 The Power of a Positive
         Attitude

 Why Job Hunting is a
         Consultative Sales
         Position

 Top 10 Most Helpful Things
         for Job Seekers

 Top 10 Most Annoying
         Things for Job Seekers

 New Year's Resolutions for
         Unemployed Job-
         Seekers

Job-Seeking Humor:
 Comic Relief: Volume 1
 Comic Relief: Volume 2
 Comic Relief: Volume 3
 Comic Relief: Volume 4
 Comic Relief: Volume 5
 Comic Relief: Volume 6
 "In Transition" and Other
         Awkward Euphemisms

 Candidates Gone Wild:
         Recruiter Horror Stories

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