Carnegie Mellon University


May 23, 2019

Research: When Job Seekers Appear Overqualified, Companies View Them as Undercommitted

Noelle WIker

New study from the Tepper School of Business suggests hiring managers have a ‘capability ceiling’ for applicants that can thwart job searches; but women must remain overqualified to compete.

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 the 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, says Oliver Hahl, Assistant Professor of Organizational Theory and Strategy. Hahl coauthored the research, “Too Good to Hire? Capability and Inferences about Commitment in Labor Markets,” along with fellow Tepper colleague Jerry Guo, Roman Galperin from Johns Hopkins, and Adina Sterling from Stanford. It 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 says. “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’s often because the person becomes disenchanted with the job, Hahl points 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 could ultimately be turning away talent that benefits the company because of these initial assumptions.

He indicated that the demographics of the job seeker matters also influence the pattern. Women, particularly those in child-rearing years, might be seen as having commitment problems; in those cases, being overqualified can actually 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 can’t 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 adds. 

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 actually qualified, Hahl says. 

He suggests that applicants try to 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.

“Those kinds of stories definitely help,” says Hahl, by giving 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 the overqualified applicant, he notes: “Someone vouching for you that you’re interested in this job helps overcome that commitment concern as well.”

Hahl also believes companies could help their own 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.

He currently is researching a follow-up paper with Tepper colleague Elizabeth Campbell examining how showing capability is a better strategy in the labor market for women than it is for men.