HR Mistake Of The Week: Ignoring The Overqualified

It’s a hiring truism that overqualified applicants are likely to bolt the company as they get a better offer somewhere else. After all, why would a job applicant who has been an executive in the past settle for being a middle manager? Would a surgeon settle for being a fry cook? But here’s another way of thinking about it: Wouldn’t a surgeon make the best fry cook in the history of fast food?

John Hollon of the smart HR blog TLNT wrote this week about how fear of the overqualified is a significant way that managers miss the boat when it comes to employee engagement. He refers to a Wall Street Journal article about how the former employees of a collapsed financial firm are struggling to find work. Lower-level employees are doing fine, but senior-level execs are having trouble, despite being willing to take jobs that are “below” them. They’re confronted with that age-old problem: Employers think they’ll quit as soon as the job market improves.

Nonsense, Hollon writes. “If you really want to foster employee engagement, why would you not take a chance on a person like that? Isn’t that the type of  candidate who is likely to be the MOST engaged worker in your office?”

Overqualified candidates are clearly desperate, but there’s no reason to think they won’t be loyal. Some of the laid-off execs quoted in the article specifically say they’ll be loyal to anyone who offered them a good position. What more could HR ask for?

Fear of the overqualified is based on two faulty assumptions. First, that the job market is improving so quickly that employees will be out the door within months. The recovery seems real, but it’s also going slowly. Anyway, if the market improves drastically, the hiring landscape will be different across the board: All employees will be looking around, not just the overqualified ones.

The second faulty premise, Hollon writes, is that the “those people you took a chance on when times were less-than-good will be so ungrateful that they won’t remember that down the road.” That doesn’t give highly qualified people enough moral credit.

The fact is, every hire is a risk. Any employee could be unengaged, resentful, or quick to quit. Why rule out a person who’s already proven their ability to work at an even higher level than the job description? If a surgeon wants to work at McDonald’s, the fast-food joint would be lucky to have her.

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