Carnegie Mellon University
July 11, 2019

Study Shows Hiring Managers View Overqualified Job Seekers as Lacking Commitment

By Noelle Wiker

Noelle Wiker
  • Tepper School of Business

Job seekers who apply for positions in which they appear overly capable may be putting themselves at a disadvantage with hiring managers, according to new research from Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business — unless they are women, in which case being overqualified can be helpful. 

Managers tend to perceive that overqualified candidates lack commitment to the position and to the company as a whole, so they may bypass that candidate in favor of someone with less experience, said Oliver Hahl, assistant professor of organizational theory and strategy. Hahl co-authored the research, “Too Good to Hire? Capability and Inferences about Commitment in Labor Markets,” along with fellow Tepper colleague Jerry Guo, Roman Galperin of Johns Hopkins University, and Adina Sterling from Stanford University. The study was published in Administrative Science Quarterly.  

“Hiring managers tend to be pretty myopic about hiring for a particular job instead of hiring for the organization generally,” Hahl said. “They can’t really know what the applicant’s commitment might be. So they’re going to be right on some, and wrong on others.”

Turnover does increase somewhat among employees who feel overqualified, but other research shows that is often because the person becomes disenchanted with the job, Hahl pointed out. They still might add value to the organization at a higher level, but if they never get their foot in the door, the hiring manager ultimately could be turning away talent that benefits the company. 

He indicated that the demographics of the job seeker also influence the pattern. Women, particularly those in child-rearing years, might be seen as having commitment problems; in those cases, being overqualified can work in their favor, because it overcomes the hiring manager’s perception bias.

And a tech company is more likely to hire a young person than an older one, even one with C-level experience, because the older applicant may not be able write code or doesn’t fit the profile of the ideal applicant. But the company could be missing out on important strategic contributions from the older candidate, Hahl added.  

Applicants can help their cause somewhat by suppressing qualifications so they don’t hit the “capability ceiling,” but in hiring platforms such as LinkedIn, that strategy could backfire by filtering out higher-end jobs for which the person is qualified, Hahl said. 

He suggested applicants communicate their commitment levels more directly in cover letters and interviews. For example, if they have a personal motive for wanting to join a company, or they have a deep interest in the industry, service or product, they could tell a story about that connection.

Hahl said the stories can provide the hiring manager a reason to take someone who might otherwise feel like a flight risk. 

Turning to networks in the job search instead of platforms also helps overqualified applicants. 

 “Someone vouching for you that you’re interested in this job helps overcome that commitment concern as well,” he added.

Hahl said companies could help their cause by encouraging hiring managers to think more generally, and to tie the process to the strategic goals of the organization, as opposed to the specific goals of an individual business unit where there might be an opening.

In a follow-up paper, Hahl is working with Tepper colleague Elizabeth Campbell to examine how showing capability is a better strategy in the labor market for women than it is for men.