The “O” Word

As the workforce ages – graphically shown with excellent commentary in the blog post When the Silver Tsunami Hits the Silver Ceiling – people will more often become confronted with one of the most horrible words any older worker can hear in an interview: Overqualified.

I have read numerous articles on what to do when hit with this word.  Some advise soft-pedaling the answer, or attempting to dance around it with varied evasions.  Some advise direct confrontation.  I fall into the latter camp.  This word is a red flag warning that they’re about to rule you out of the running.  Any objection this serious needs to be met and squelched – because at this point I contend you have nothing left to lose.

Before I begin, let me caveat this article’s advice.  I am not a job search coach.  I’m just another guy with an opinion – and hopefully you’ll agree with the logic that leads up to that opinion.  If you are a job seeker you will need to decide for yourself what to do if, in an interview, this comes up.

Again, multiple articles available on the internet attempt to “get inside the interviewer’s head” and examine why it is they are saying this.  I’ve found that it boils down to three possibilities, which I concede are not mutually exclusive.  So what do I do when I get this comment?  I say something like:

“I think we’ve had a very productive conversation thus far, and I appreciate the chance to come in to interview.  ‘Overqualified’ is such a broad word, and I’d like to understand what the core of your concern really is.

Reason One: You will be too expensive.

Let’s face it.  Overqualified goes hand-in-hand with ageism.  If you are an experienced person faced with this, you are definitely someone older.  You don’t get “overqualified” flung at you fresh out of college, you get it having been in your career and chosen profession for years, even decades.  And if you’ve been working that long, almost axiomatically, your salary will be high.

At this point you need to have done your homework – just how much higher than what they’re willing to pay are you?  If it’s a few thousand dollars, possibly even up to $10K, I think this can be overcome.  The key is to show your value.

For example, if you are an engineer like me, you can point to specific examples of cost savings totaling hundreds of thousands a year, or how your experience lead to a speedier launch of a product – there are lots of dollars in every week you can pull a project ahead.  Consider your own career history and your profession; how do people in your profession show value and to what unique examples can you point from your accomplishments?

What are you willing to concede?  What are you willing to trade?  Perhaps less money is worth starting out with more vacation time.  Is there specific, relevant-and-useful training you’d like to get but that isn’t necessary for this job specifically?  Don’t give away the store, but preemptively state your being open to compromise if the position and company are, otherwise, of interest.

Reason Two: You’ll become bored and leave.

This depends, of course, on what your career goals are vs. your life goals.  Things in your life like your family, your friends, social circles, house, hobbies, etc., all get disrupted by switching jobs, and by the time that gets invested in a job search above-and-beyond the time required to maintain one.  

Odds are you’re probably searching beyond your own industry.  My focus is medical devices, in which I’ve only worked less than a year and which has many, many regulatory twists and turns to learn, and defense.  Again, this too has many of its own unique things to learn.  One can be challenged by more than larger, more intricate projects.  One can be challenged by the learning curve of a new industry.

Again, you need to craft your own answer.

Reason Three: You’ll gun for the boss’ chair.

A few months ago I had a phone screen interview with a hiring manager at a company where I’d like to work.  Good location, solid reputation, and in one of my target industries (medical devices).  The phone screener was the hiring manager, a new manager promoted up from engineering literally a few weeks prior.

He was clearly scared, unsteady on his feet in his new position with vastly different and expanded responsibilities.  I had looked him up on LinkedIn before the interview and I knew I was older and more experienced in Engineering.  So he had to be wondering how secure his position might be, given my experience and Masters of Manufacturing Management degree.

In my case, I am most definitely not aiming at the boss’ chair.  I like Engineering, and want to grow as a technical person (the reasons for this career decision will be covered at some point)… now, if at some point I were offered, I’d consider it.  But moving into management is not my goal, and I make sure to say so – especially if I sense that someone is nervous about their position being supplanted.

And on this topic: Survey Reveals What Employees Really Think About Their Bosses, has an interesting paragraph:

Survey results indicate that the youngest employees in today’s workplace are ambitious and are looking to get ahead — and they’ll go to great lengths to do it. 42% of Millennials think they’re smarter than their boss and nearly half (45%) aspire to have their boss’s job.

If you’re older and more interested in stability than rocketing up the food chain, this could be a good thing to use as a compare-and-contrast thought woven into your discussion.

Preemptively Strike

So if you’re getting the O-word, you need to take stock of how you present yourself.  And anticipate these three objections in how you answer.  Head ‘em off at the pass, answer these concerns before they’re even asked, and you will have a much smoother time having preemptively answered and soothed these concerns.

© 2013, David Hunt, PE


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