how can you tell if an overqualified applicant is right for the job?

A reader writes:

I’m a young professional working at a nonprofit. I manage our most entry-level position, a basic administrative position that has been categorized at times as both an administrative assistant or office manager. This position recently became vacant after an employee of one year, Fergus, decided to leave. We knew Fergus was highly overqualified for the position, but he said that he was looking or a role with less responsibility due to family issues, so we hired him. During his employment, he grew increasingly disgruntled with our CEO and how she managed the organization. He felt that his ideas were ignored and that he was not respected. There are many factors that contributed to this, but I can’t help but think that Fergus’s background with high-level leadership made it difficult for him to swallow things that he didn’t like.

So here we are, hiring for the position. We have one applicant who seems really great — very smart, capable, and driven by our mission. However, she has many years of team leadership and project management experience. The position we’re looking to fill is truly a basic receptionist position with little opportunity for expansion. I’m sure she’d be able to manage the duties of the position, but I feel very skeptical that she’d find it fulfilling for longer than a year (if that). I’m also concerned that she would struggle to adopt the supportive role and that we’d see the same issues that we had with Fergus. She wants this position because she wants to work for our organization. She’s given no indication that she’s looking for a job with less responsibility and less hours (this position is both). She’d be a good fit in our agency but I’m concerned she wouldn’t be a good fit in this position.

Am I letting our past employee influence my decision too much here? Are there questions that we can ask to figure out if she’ll be able to successfully shift to this lower level position?

So, the deal with overqualified applicants is that in general you don’t want to decide for them what they would and wouldn’t be happy with — or at least, not without talking to them and hearing what they have to say. After that you can use your own judgment, but you should at least hear them out before making any assumptions.

Of course, that assumes that you think the person would actually be good at the role! Sometimes “overqualified” means “could do this work in her sleep,” but sometimes it means “has lots of higher-level experience doing other things.” The latter doesn’t translate to “could do any lower-level job,” since different jobs require different skills and traits. That’s important, and people often miss it.

But assuming that you think she could potentially be great at this specific work, the next thing I’d look at is what she’s said about the job so far. If she just applied for it with zero explanation in her cover letter or elsewhere about why she’s applying for a job that appears to be vastly different from her previous work and a real step down, that’s a red flag to me. Generally you want to see that the candidate is being thoughtful about the potential step down and proactively explaining why she might be right for the role, and why she’d be interested in it. If she didn’t do that, it’s often a flag that she doesn’t fully realize what the job is or thinks she can expand it into something else.

But the best way to figure this out is to talk the person and ask about it directly. Say something like, “This position is one we generally consider entry-level, and it’s much less responsibility and challenge than you’ve had previously. What interests you about that kind of move?” Then listen to the response. You might hear a compelling answer that convinces you that this is in fact exactly what the applicant is looking for, and that she’s thought it through enough that she’s not likely to change her mind three months in. Or you might hear an answer that sounds like she’s hoping she can wow you and expand the position into something else, in a way you’re not seeking. But really listen — both to the substance of her answer and the way she talks about it. Does she sound like she’s willing to accept this job for now but hoping it’ll turn into more? Or does she compellingly explain why she wants something less all-consuming than her previous jobs, and talk about the specific things about this job that she thinks will fulfill her?

Make sure, too, that you’re being really transparent about the nature of the work, since people sometimes put on rose-colored glasses when they want a job. You could say something like, “This position is responsible for basic admin work, like ordering office supplies, answering phones, and covering reception, and I want to be up-front that because that work on its own fills up the job, there’s not much room for expanding the role. How does that line up with what you’re looking for?”

(Also, assuming it’s entry-level pay, that’s a good thing to flag early on too.)

Ultimately, though, you have to make the call about how well you think her skills and motivations line up with this particular job. It is a thing that overqualified candidates will sometimes say the job is exactly what they’re looking for, and then quickly get bored with it and push for more or just leave. You are allowed to have concerns about that, and if you’re not convinced from your conversation with the candidate that that’s not a risk here, you’re allowed to choose a different candidate instead. You probably have multiple good candidates, and it’s not unreasonable to choose someone who feels less risky.

At the same time, though, it’s worth factoring in what special skills or expertise she might bring to the position. In some cases, it might be worth it to get a very experienced, skilled person in the role even if she won’t be in it long-term — because she might make major enough strides in the time she is there to justify the time you’ll invest in training her and then hiring someone new when she leaves. In other cases, it won’t make sense; sometimes you really just need someone to deal with phones and reception 40 hours a week and you don’t have time to manage someone’s interest in expanding beyond that, and if that’s the reality of what you need, then that’s what you need. Just don’t get so rigid about how you’re thinking about the position that you miss other ways you could configure it that would be good for the organization, if they exist.

But if you end up thinking that her real interest is in your organization but not this particular job, it’s okay to say, “I don’t think the match for this role is as strong as what we’re looking for, but we’re often seeking people with Skills X and Y for other positions, and I think you could be a great fit for those when one opens up.”

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 235 comments… read them below }

  1. Yvette*

    I was once in the position of interviewing for a job I was overqualified for (receptionist job, I had a BS in business). When they asked me why I wanted it I was honest and said that I needed a job while I was finishing my course at a nearby technical school, I had 18 months to go. The hiring partner said, “Well we never really have anyone in this position for much more than a year anyway.”

    So my basic points/questions are:
    How long does someone typically last in this role anyway?
    Perhaps this person has other things in her life that makes this, for now, perfect for her.

    1. Turquoisecow*

      Yeah, some entry level jobs know that people aren’t going to stay in them for long, because most people (not all) will eventually want to move on, and this role or this company doesn’t have any way to naturally step into more responsibilities or promotions.

      OP, is it possible that’s what you have here – that you’ll never have a long-term employee in this role?

    2. Cobol*

      I was going to say the first thing about Fergus. He was probably always going to get frustrated and quit, but is a year bad?
      I think the current candidate is being honest. She doesn’t want the roll. She wants an in.
      But to Allison’s point, why not figure out a way to have her be an admin that is positioning herself for a big leap?

      1. TootsNYC*

        him getting frustrated, and expressing it, might be bad enough to wish you’d avoided him.

        It’s not just how long he’ll stay.

        It’s how his frustration will play out in the meanwhile.

        Like, will he neglect his boring low-level duties because he’s always trying to do stuff that’s more advanced? will he keep interjecting himself in discussion, etc., and get in the way? (this last one would be the part that I would probably fail on)
        Or will he complain too much and bring negativity into the office?

        1. Luna*

          That is true, though I think that says more about Fergus and his level of professionalism (or lack thereof) than about Fergus being overqualified. People feel frustrated in jobs for all sorts of reasons, but they usually are smart enough to not express it.

          The OP’s instincts to make sure the candidate really, truly understands this job is very important though. Most of the time the people I’ve seen expressing these types of frustrations were the ones who felt like the job or expectations/room for growth were not described to them accurately, so they therefore feel more justified in making their frustrations known.

          1. Cobol*

            @Luna (can’t tell where I am in the nesting) There wasn’t any indication that Fergus was unprofessional, just disgruntled. I’m assuming OP is a good manager, and welcomed an honest conversation. I’ve had great employees who were disgruntled, which they expressed appropriately in our one on ones. I’ve done the same. I think it’s smart too express appropriately.

        2. Cobol*

          All this is true. I didn’t mention because I agree with Allison. OP needs to make sure the expectations are laid out plainly, including the opportunities (or lack of them).
          We don’t really know if Fergus’ frustration was expressed properly or not, and I don’t think it will always be able to be sussed out in an interview. Fergus may have thought he’d be able to deal with it, and been surprised that he couldn’t.

    3. LAI*

      I think it’s very common for people to have short tenures in front-desk, administrative type roles like this but I’ve also seen people who are happy to do it as their career. Some people just want stability and to be able to stick to doing something they know they can do well.

      1. Cobol*

        I probably couldn’t take the financial hit, but the best ones I’ve known come from wealthy families (or spouses make good money) and they just want to keep busy. Not really something you can ask in an interview.

        1. Lil Fidget*

          I’ve seen successful people who are older and kind of in retirement (not from roles related to this type of work necessarily).

        2. Chinook*

          I am the third type of over-qualified candidate – I am a trailing spouse who is looking for a job in a new area. Higher level jobs are harder to come by and I have learned the best way in is from the bottom. I never start a position with the intention to move up or out, but I am also not going to turn down an opportunity when it is handed to me.

          I have taken to explaining in my 2nd paragraph of my cover letters that I am willing to take entry level because I don’t want to commute to the city and we plan on being in town for the long term. Trust me, I can do receptionist in my sleep and will be the best one to hire because I am looking for a local job and no amount of money or prestige will make me want to leave for a hour commute one way.

          1. Betsy*

            I’m always surprised at how short commutes are in the US . An hour commute one-way is completely normal in most cities I’ve lived in. I’m totally not saying you should all have longer commutes and just suffer– I just find the difference fascinating.

            1. somebody blonde*

              In the non-US cities I’ve lived in, commutes are much less likely to be driving, however. An hour on the train is an hour in which you can read or knit or anything else you can do portably. An hour driving yourself can’t really be anything else.

              1. Betsy*

                Yes, well I do catch a train or bus, although driving is still more common than public transport in most cities I’ve lived in. Unfortunately, I can’t really do those things due to motion sickness, so it’s pretty much empty time for me as well.

            2. anonstronaut*

              There really isn’t a commute “in the US” though. In D.C. or L.A., you could be driving for three hours; in NYC, on the train for 45 minutes – an hour; in middle America, more than 15-20 minutes might be considered long.

            3. Jennifer Thneed*

              An hour commute one-way is completely normal for me, too, and that’s with walking and public transit. If I have to drive, 30 minutes is my max but that’s a very quirky personal limit. Much longer is acceptable to many people.

              But please tell us where you live? Even just what country? As anonstronaut says, the US is really big and conditions vary wildly depending on where one is and how the transit infrastructure is. Remember that ALL of Europe is roughly the same area as the continental US. So it’s not really useful to compare commutes without a lot more detail.

            4. Cherries in the Snow*

              It’s funny you say that because my husband is European and is baffled by how *long* our commutes are. Maybe it’s because of the driving factor.

      2. Thor*

        If that’s the case though, the company needs to make sure they’re a place where employees can do that, especially putting them on a path to move upward financially. A lot of places who rely on entry level candidates aren’t willing to do that.

        1. Cobol*

          I’m a bit confused, but I agree. The type of admin OP describes (not an EA) almost never pay enough.
          A good admin who needs the money should have opportunities to move up in a company. I think places are getting smarter about it. I see a lot of former admins in HR and finance, and honestly I think companies should consider existing employees more for jobs that normally require a degree.

      3. KitKat*

        One of the difficulties I’ve seen for roles like this is that the people who see a receptionist/office secretary position as a career have a lot of experience with phones and filing and faxing but struggle with computers, which is required in a lot of admin jobs now. I mean theoretically you could have a computer savvy career receptionist, but often you do need to choose between someone using this as a stepping stone and someone who doesn’t have strong computer skills.

        (OP doesn’t mention what the other candidates look like but I wonder if this ended up being a deal breaker for some of the more appropriately qualified applicants)

    4. jo*

      This is what I came to say. OP, if the role really is strictly administrative with little room for growth, you are likely to have the same thing happen again even if you hire someone who isn’t overqualified. There are people who deliberately stay in mundane/admin jobs long-term, but there are far more people who want to do it for a year or two and then look for a bigger challenge. And there are overqualified people who genuinely want to scale back their responsibilities for a year or two, but will eventually be ready to take on greater challenges again.

      If the person in this job can’t move up within your organization, or grow within the role, most employees (overqualified or not) will move on within one to two years no matter where they came from.

      If you want to keep people longer, ask yourself: is there anything you can do to make this position into something more people will enjoy want long-term?

      If not, reconcile yourself to going through this hiring and training process every couple of years, and see what you can do to improve the process.

      1. Lil Fidget*

        Yeah and unless you pay unusually well, even someone who enjoys administration and wants to stay in it is going to try to move on after a year or so from a position in which there is no room for growth and little potential for salary gains. You probably have two choices, either standardize the role so that it can be done by a rotating cast of admins who each stay around a year or two, or figure out how the role could grow and develop with the right candidate.

        1. Blossom*

          I think that really depends on the job market and the person, though. Someone who wants a stable job in the local area that fits in around their other commitments, that person could happily stay for decades.
          Agree on standardising the role and accepting that people may leave.

          1. Murphy*

            Yeah, our last two receptionist/office managers were young and used it as stepping stones into other roles in my organization (which is great). Our somewhat recent hire is a bit older, and is a career admin. I think they wanted someone who would stick around because it takes a lot to get up to speed on all our different divisions.

        2. Ego Chamber*

          “Yeah and unless you pay unusually well,”

          The thing that kills me is that part time work is almost always low-paying, and even if I love the work I can’t justify doing it 10-30 hours a week at just above minimum wage–especially if the hours do fluctuate a lot from week to week because that means I can’t easily work another job to balance it out. :(

          OP might luck into find a lifer for this role, but expecting 1-2 years (maximum) from each new hire would go a long way towards helping OP not resent people who took the job in good faith and consider 1-2 years to be a more than reasonable tenure for an entry-level job with no path to advance in the organisation.

    5. Genny*

      This is a really good point. Someone who’s qualified will probably be at the start of their career, meaning they’ll be looking to move up or on within 1-3 years, especially since this position probably isn’t giving them a ton of marketable skills in their field.

      Do your due diligence of course, LW, but realize entry level jobs usually have high turnover rates.

    6. bonkerballs*

      That was my thought as well. Fergus and his overqualifications aside, most entry level admin positions I have either held or worked with it was assumed that you were at best going to have someone there for two years. That’s kind of the nature of entry level admin jobs.

    7. OP*

      The typical duration is 2-3 years. I could consider an employee of one year successful if he/she was able to contribute to the organization and position during this time. BUT, as we experienced with Fergus, someone can do a lot of damage during one year of employment if they’re dissatisfied and resentful. This is what I want to avoid.

  2. Thor*

    I’m curious, how long did previous job holders stay in that job? I’m sure it’s industry specific, but if you want an ambitious person and talented person in that role, a year is about what I’d expect in my industry.

  3. EA*

    I think AAM touched on this, but be careful especially with admin work.
    When people want to step down they often go to admin work, assuming if they are good at whatever they were doing before, they will be good at admin work because anyone can do it!
    I haven’t seen that to be true IMO, admin work is hard and a skill in its own way.

    1. Super B*

      I couldn’t agree more – career admins have skills that other higher level people often lack, and there is a reason they exist and are paid pretty well sometimes – EAs can make six digits in some parts of the US. To think that you can be an admin because it looks easy is not grasping what the position can really entail, and that it can take many years of experience as a career admin to get to a certain level and make the big bucks. As a career EA myself, I wouldn’t attempt to say I could be an HR generalist, or an AP specialist, for example, even though what they do may look easy to me, and I hope they feel the same way about my job…

      1. Morning Glory*

        While this is true, it sounds like the LW is genuinely talking about a very entry-level receptionist/admin position – and probably with a salary to match.

        1. OP*

          This position actually does have really great pay. It’s very well suited for a career admin, but most of our applicants were either without any office experience or people who were currently in high level positions (with no information in their cover letter about why they wanted to move to this position). I would really love to find a career admin if anyone has tips for recruitment.

          1. Sunshine on a Cloudy Day*

            Are you working with external recruiters? I’m sure this depends on geographic location and industry, but in my experience career admins always searched through recruiters and high quality roles always recruited through recruiters. Not to say that there weren’t exceptions or that high quality roles didn’t also recruit in-house in tandem, but generally it seemed to go through recruiters.

            1. Accidental HR*

              No, we don’t have a lot of resources to spare and are located in a rural area. I don’t know of any organizations within our network that use recruiters, except for high level leadership positions (and often not even then).

              1. Super B*

                I would recommend putting that in the job advertisement: we are looking for a career admin, someone who will embrace the role and wear multiple hats, and who thrives providing support in a fast-paced environment – you know, that kind of wording. If you are not putting the salary range in the ad yet, it may help to do that – you may attract more seasonal administrative assistants that are looking for a change but not the salary cut that can come with that.
                I also advise asking for between 2 – 5 years of administrative experience, no less … so you eliminate the very entry level people if that is something you are trying to avoid (though why not give them a chance, if they show real interest in a career in administration)

      2. Thor*

        I think the problem is that (just judging by this letter), I doubt that the company views the position that way, so they’re not going to attract people who want to make a career out of admin.

        1. Super B*

          It’s hard to tell… but the most successful ‘career admin’ I’ve ever met was my former boss at a non-profit – she had started her career out of college as an admin assistant/ program coordinator at a entry level position with another org, and hired me as the admin to her, the Chief Administration Officer, at a different nonprofit only seven years later. She was making as much or more the VPs at my current for-profit job make. I was at that job (with an ‘office manager’ title) for five years before I moved into the corporate world. Sometimes small nonprofits can be a great place to get admin experience, as you’re usually required to wear a million hats. Just my experience. But you’re right that the job the OP is talking about may not evolve into anything else – hard to tell.

        2. KitKat*

          It may also just be too small a place for there to be potential for upward mobility. My previous nonprofit only had one level of admin – not even the ED had an assistant.

          1. TardyTardis*

            There’s an ad in my local paper for someone to Do It All, from running the front desk to doing the AP, AR and payroll–for $12.30 an hour. They will probably get dozens of applications, but I suspect they won’t find as many good candidates as they are hoping for.

    2. Allison*


      They also sometimes assume an admin role is how you get your foot in the door, and gives you a chance to show everyone what you’re really good at so that once a position that’s more “you,” opens up, not only will you be the first to know about it but you’ll probably come to mind as an internal candidate.

      Unfortunately, that’s not exactly how things work anymore. Once they see you as an admin, it may be hard to get them to see you as anything else.

    3. Emmie*

      And this candidate may see this as an entry point to higher positions. So, it’s good to be upfront that there are no promotion opportunities.

    4. Drama Llama*

      Preach it! I recently had a temp who is smart, efficient, and capable. But her admin skills were terrible. She ended up taking several hours to do basic jobs that should be done within half an hour, just because she struggled so much with the admin side of the task. I wouldn’t hire her again for that reason, because her role required reasonable admin skills which she frankly does not possess.

    5. Amy S*

      Agree with this and I’ve really noticed this with people moving down roles AND moving from for-profit to non-profit. For some reason there is a myth that nonprofit work is easier…it is not.

  4. Glomarization, Esq.*

    Please, please give overqualified applicants a fair shake! The past 10 years have been very, very hard on mid-career professionals who lost work during the economic downturn. Our income and savings have taken a huge hit while we’ve been un- and under-employed. We apply for jobs we’re overqualified for, and the employers go with someone younger. Sometimes I feel like we’re a “lost generation” from 2008.

    1. Luna*

      Ugh yes, I can’t even remember how many interviews I’ve gone on where I’ve been told I’m “overqualified” or that they just know that I’ll be bored in that particular job.

      I’m like, okay but you’ll pay me right? That’s all that matters.

      1. GG Two shoes*

        When I was interviewing, we almost past on a candidate that was over qualified. We were looking for 2-3 years of experience and she had more than 10. I still suggested we bring her in, I really wanted to know WHY she was looking at this position. Turns out, her current role was reduced to part time and that wasn’t feasible for her.

        She has been an AMAZING asset. Totally took the position in a different direction and has more initiative and skills than most people in the company. I’m so glad we took a chance with her because I can’t imagine where our department would be without her. I try every year to get her the max raise because I so desperately dont want her to leave.

      2. Grace*

        YES! This is me right now, I’m deep in a job search and desperate because I’m unemployed. I’ve been berated and talked down to in phone screens b/c I’m “overqualified.” If the recruiter really thinks that I’m overqualified but I have a compelling enough reason to apply, why do they give me a hard time about it? It’s almost as if they want me to grovel for the job and god almighty it is so hard to not lose dignity while I try to muster up some satisfactory reply. It also shows a lack of empathy on their part because they clearly have never been (or have forgotten what it’s like to be) in a situation where you’ll gladly take a stable, paying job regardless of your background/past experiences.

      3. Jana*

        I’ve been to interviews where the first thing the interviewer says to me is, “You don’t want this job.” It’s incredibly frustrating for someone to make the decision for you.

        1. Ego Chamber*

          I’ve been to those too, and I’m always thinking Then why the eff did you call me in for an interview?! I’m pretty much over negging-in-business as a concept, so the interviews tend to go downhill from there.

        2. whingedrinking*

          I’m always tempted to reply, “I don’t want *any* job, but until money appears by magic in my bank account, I’d rather have one than not.”

      4. Murphy*

        Yup. I was underemployed for a while and at one phone interview I had, I was asked why I wasn’t working in [field] and was instead working at [irrelevant low paying job]. I was like WOMAN I HAVE TO EAT.

        I had been volunteering for the low paying place I ended up working at because I was going out of my mind sitting at home. They saw me doing the work and suggested I apply for an opening without even knowing what my background was. And I stayed there longer than a lot of other people did.

    2. Corky's wife Bonnie*

      That’s absolutely correct. My friend was an HR manager, and the company closed down and hasn’t been able to find anything in at least 3 years. There are a TON of companies in this area, and she still can’t find anything. She’s pretty much applying to anything at this point because she needs something full time with benefits.

    3. Nita*

      Yes! I have friends and family members who would have been so glad if someone took a chance hiring them for jobs they’re technically over-qualified for. The reasons they wanted those jobs were different – caretaker pressures that call for 9-5 hours with no overtime, a very toxic work environment, the realization that their current career is not right for them, long-term unemployment… And if, let’s say, you’ve reached mid-level management but you’re in a terrible dead-end job and all your mid-level manager interviews go nowhere, it seems like the logical next step to just leave the industry you’re in and start over with something else.

      For what it’s worth, I think most of these “overqualified” candidates would have been good at an admin position, and would have put in 200% effort for the company that took a chance on them.

      1. LAI*

        Well, but if you’re starting over with something else, you’re not overqualified. I have seen TONS of applications from people who have a PhD and years of work experience in an unrelated field. Yes, they are totally overqualified for a mid-level role in their field of experience, but they are NOT overqualified for an mid-level role in my field. We are almost always going to go with the person who has a little bit of directly relevant experience over the person who has a lot of only-barely-related experience.

        1. Nita*

          I could be wrong, but it sounds like your industry requires some kind of specialized experience? In that case, yes, someone trying to break in after years in another field could still be under-qualified. Something like an architect trying to become a house painter, maybe? I’m thinking of something more like an architect trying to become an entry-level admin or a cashier. Somehow that’s going to come across as over-qualified whether or not they’ve held similar jobs before, and cause a lot of raised eyebrows and tossing of resumes into the “reject” pile.

      2. OP*

        I agree- there are lots of reasons why someone might want to take a lower level position. That’s why we took a chance on Fergus- he indicated that he was in a point in his life where he wanted a position that would be less demanding. That seemed like a reasonable explanation. He brought great skills and lots of experience but his attitude over time became toxic because he could not let go of things he disagreed with. I would be happy having an “overqualified” person in this position, but it’s hard to tell if THEY would be happy in the position. I’m less inclined to just believe them at face value after being burned by Fergus.

    4. JB (not in Houston)*

      Yes, this. My mother was laid off from her corporate executive job in the recession. She was already burning out and by the time it happened, she was completely ready for a job show could work 8-5 and never have to think about in the evenings or weekends. She could not get interviews for administrative type jobs even though she would have been great at it (and her executive job involved skills that would have translated well to those jobs). People could not believe that she wasn’t just looking for something to kill time until she could get something better. I’m sure a lot of people were doing just that, but even when she explained what her job had been like and why she was so ready to get away from that kind of all-consuming stressful job, and what kind of work made her happy, they didn’t buy it. Considering she’d worked her way up and had experience with admin-type jobs, she knew what she was looking for, but nope.

      1. Rhoda*

        That is when you trot our a resume with only your prior to children job history and play the stay at home mom returning to the work force role. Especially if that experience is more relevant to the position than the jobs held during her corporate executive career.

        1. RUKiddingMe*

          This. A while back (years) I was looking for something to fill my time/make some extra money while I was working on my dissertation. I wanted anything not related to academia.

          Pizza Hut guy who regaled me for over an hour about his education. He almost finished his undergrad. I remember this because it struck me how insecure he must have been reading my education levels as he went on, and on, and on…and on.

          Like I care? Like I think some 20-something year old dude needs to prove something to me? Dude, just pay me to sell slices of pizza and not have to take the work home with me.

          He just couldn’t understand how I could possibly be content with mindless, repetitive work that I didn’t have to provide scholarly sources for or that it was possible that I wasn’t interested (at all) in taking his job managing the local shop. Seriously my ambitions lie elsewhere. But…”overqualified.”

      2. OP*

        These are the things I want to hear from this applicant! I’ve had multiple conversations with her, wanting to hear these kinds of reasons- toxic job, looking for more balance, wanting to play a support role where you can leave your work at work etc. But so far, she hasn’t given me any of these things to go on- she just wants to work for our organization. Which is valid, but doesn’t convince me that she’ll be happy in this position.

        1. CM*

          In this case, your person seems less like a “purposely looking for this type of job” applicant and more of a “want to get my foot in the door” applicant. And it sounds like the latter is not what you’re looking for, because this isn’t a job that offers advancement into other positions. So you could have this conversation more explicitly and say that getting her foot in the door won’t help if she’s looking for a different role. But, maybe this isn’t the right person for you regardless of her overqualification.

    5. Anon Accountant*

      Right and maybe their job involves taking work home with them and they want more time at home doing things they enjoy. But are afraid to write in cover letter “better work life balance” or such for fear a hiring manager would think they’d never work OT, etc.

      1. anon scientist*

        Yes! I could be the overqualified applicant that OP is writing about. The thing is, my current job has been stressful, lots of travel, lots of schmoozing with people, over-time, etc. etc. But I want to stay generally in this field, and I’m relocating. For the job I interviewed for and am “overqualified” for, I mentioned that I want to be in the field and relocating in my interview, and stressed that I liked the “mundane” parts of my job, and feeling of accomplishment when I can get tasks done, but I was hesitant to say that I’d welcome a “lower level” job because I was fearful that they would think that I think the job is “easy” when I know it has it’s own challenges. I didn’t want the hiring manager to think I wasn’t willing to put time in when necessary.

        Also, there are very, very, very few jobs in my field, and current politics are looking like it may get worse. If I want to stay in this field, I might end up working a job for which I’m overqualified for a long time. That’s just the reality. If I’m not willing to do that, I will likely have to find a new career.

    6. hbc*

      I agree they deserve a fair shake (I’m looking at taking that step myself), but to increase that chance of a fair shake, people who don’t look like the standard candidate for a position really should explain themselves up front. The OP shouldn’t have to guess whether this candidate actually read and understood the job description.

      And even someone who’s in “I’ll take anything with a paycheck” mode, that’s about as appealing to an employer as “I’ll take anyone with a pulse” is in the dating world.

      1. Glomarization, Esq.*

        No doubt, which is why I explain in my cover letters why I’m applying for these jobs rather than work that would be more expected with the alphabet soup after my name.

      2. Mary*

        Yes, I’ve been in the position of being simultaneously over- and under-qualified (PhD, but only one year of professional-level work), and whilst it seems obvious to you that you just need “a chance”, that’s not a reason why you deserve the chance more than the 23-year-old who might also be great in the role. It’s still up to you to make that compelling case why you will excel on the role.

      3. OP*

        THANK YOU. If you’re overqualified, it really helps to know why you’re interested in this position AND to hear that you recognize that it’s less responsibility than previous positions. I need to see some self-reflection here.

    7. TootsNYC*

      definitely! I’m scared to death sometimes about getting laid off, because I have tons of colleagues at my level who are facing far fewer openings in our field. And they’ve taken big salary cuts.

      There’s a certain narrowing that always happens even in a good economy, actually–and people with years of experience are competing with an ever-widening pool of applicants for a naturally narrowing role at the upper areas of the pyramid.

    8. Jana*

      Yes! It feels like many people (me included) are getting passed over because they were unlucky enough to be getting into the workforce at the wrong time. It’s frustrating to never seem to be the right level of “qualified”.

    9. Parenthetically*

      As the wife of someone who is only a couple months in on a job he’s very overqualified for after a long period of unemployment, I couldn’t agree more.

    10. LBK*

      I’m not really sure how I feel about this reasoning – give them a shot to go through the process like anyone else, sure, but it’s not like younger people aren’t facing huge financial hurdles either, with most people my age digging our way out of mountains of student loan debt. At least you have savings that exist to take a hit. I don’t find this an especially compelling reason to overlook the genuine concerns about hiring an overqualified person (the main one being that they’ll quit in short order and ultimately be a waste of time for your company).

      1. Luna*

        Savings? LOL.

        I do get your main point, but I don’t think anyone is saying to hire a person based only on age, just that there is no reason to NOT hire the preferred candidate because of unverified assumptions.

        1. LBK*

          No need to be rude, I’m quoting the comment I’m replying to:

          Our income and savings have taken a huge hit while we’ve been un- and under-employed.

          Save the indignation for the one who brought up savings in the first place.

          1. Luna*

            I’m not really sure why you’re reading my comment as indignant, that’s not how I meant it at all. Regardless, the point we are trying to make is that there are many reasons why someone who appears to be overqualified on paper could have a genuine interest in the position- no one is saying OP needs to feel obligated to hire this person because of their financial circumstances.

            1. LBK*

              Savings? LOL.

              I don’t know what you meant by that if not indignation at the idea of someone having savings.

    11. Catabodua*

      A former coworker found a position literally 5 minutes from her home – like same street even – and she was so excited. She wanted to slow down her work responsibilities (she was early 60s) and start to ease into retirement.

      It seemed ideal – it was a fixed 3 year position, was in our field, just low level.

      They interviewed her and the person who would supervise seemed really interested but she was told someone higher up just didn’t believe she wouldn’t leave within a year and they really needed the 3 year commitment. She was so pissed.

    12. Jennifer*

      I get angry at “overqualified” complaints. A lot of people just cannot get work at what they used to do any more and would be lucky and grateful to get an entry level admin job as opposed to McDonald’s or worse or ending up homeless.

  5. anyone out there but me*

    Please give the applicant a chance to explain why they applied. I went through something similar. Years of supervisory experience, management, CFO level work. But I was burned completely out and I just wanted something simple. Sort of “semi retirement.” I am sure there were plenty of interviews I didn’t get because the hiring companies saw my resume and thought “she’s WAY overqualified” but had they given me a chance, they would have learned where I was headed career-wise and it would make sense.

    1. Just a Thought*

      That happened with the admin assistant at my current job. It was a big pay-cut for her, but she said that she was basically looking for an easy job to have until she retired in 10 years.

      1. Irene Adler*

        They call this the Encore Career. Where someone steps down from the high profile, high stress job and takes a position that is lower in rank.

    2. 5 Leaf Clover*

      I’m also currently in a job that I’m overqualified for, and I love it and never want to leave. I had stressful, ambitious jobs for 10 years of my life; then, during a summer break while working on my masters, I took a temp job as an admin assistant and loved it! Since then I’ve discovered the joys of excelling at simple tasks and getting to leave work behind completely on weekends. Allison’s advice is great – do be clear with them – but I wanted to share my story as evidence that it can work!

    3. lisalee*

      This is how we got our office manager too. She had a long career in a couple of high-stress industries and decided she wasn’t ready to retire but didn’t want so much on her plate anymore either. I think this is very, very common for mid-level admin positions.

    4. Ego Chamber*

      “Please give the applicant a chance to explain why they applied.”

      I may be mistaken, but isn’t that the purpose of a cover letter?

      If someone’s qualifications are enough for the hiring manager to overlook a cover letter that didn’t do it for them, that’s one thing, but I’m side-eyeing a high level professional who appears to have not addressed this obvious concern in their first contact with a company they want to work for.

    5. OP*

      We have, actually. I don’t think I explained this well in the original post, but we’ve already interviewed her. The reasons for wanting the job were to work for our organization and be involved in our type of work. I think that’s a valid reason, but it’s not making me confident that she’d enjoy the core of this position. If she had said that she was looking for lower responsibility or wanted to a less stressful job, I would be sold. But she’s indicated that she loves her current position and it’s challenges and really didn’t explain how this job would fit with that. I’m working on some more direct questions to get at this issue, but so far I’m not feeling good about what I’ve heard.

      1. anon scientist*

        I commented above, but I could be your “overqualified” candidate. The reason I hesitated in saying the I would be fine with lower responsibility and less stress is that I was worried that my interviewer would think that I wasn’t going to take on responsibilities or handle stress or “go the extra mile” when needed. Maybe that is what
        your candidate is worried about?

        Now I’m freaking out that you are the hiring manager I’m waiting to hear from!

      2. Sunshine on a Cloudy Day*

        It sounds like she’s only answered “why do you want to work for this company”, but hasn’t really answered “why do you want this position”. It might sounds like semantics, but I think you can push her on this (kindly). If you speak to her again and she goes into a whole spiel about the organization and the work the org does you could follow up with something along the lines of “While I appreciate your enthusiasm for the organization in general, can you tell me a little bit about why you’re interested in this role specifically. For example what aspects of the role are you most drawn to?”

        If she can answer this well, then I think she could work. If she keeps evading or just keeps going back to the org has a whole, well I probably would not hire her. I’m all for hiring over-qualified candidates if they seem to understand what they’re in for, but evasive answers to these direct questions would make me think that she’s not.

  6. Wannabe Disney Princess*

    I agree with Alison. The easiest way to know is to ask! That said, you’ll be able to suss out far more information regarding on if she thinks she’ll find it fulfilling versus how she’ll react to management. And even with not overqualified candidates, there’s not a great way to find that out beforehand.

    1. Triple Anon*

      I think you could ask how she adapts to having less authority and in-put than she’s qualified for. Being in a job you’re over-qualified for can, at times, be like taking a class where you know more than the teacher. Like taking a foreign language class on your native language when it’s the teacher’s second language and they’re not completely fluent. Sometimes you speak up and the person in charge appreciates it, but you also have to adapt to your role in that situation and any signals from the person in charge that your in-put is not needed.

      And I think that’s a personality thing to some extent. Are you that person who corrects other people’s mistakes? Do you prefer taking a leadership role and sharing your knowledge? Or can you be content to step back and follow someone else’s lead even when your expertise causes you to disagree with them?

      I would ask questions that get at those kinds of things. I think it’s often a bigger issue than the nature of the work itself.

      1. Accidental HR*

        Do you have any suggestions for interview questions to suss this out without directly asking, “will you adapt to taking a step back?” It’s easy for an applicant to know the right way to answer- harder to tell if it’s accurate.

        1. knitcrazybooknut*

          “Tell me about a time when you disagreed with a decision that was made by a higher up and how you handled it.”

      2. RUKiddingMe*

        It took me a long time to be able to just let stuff go even though I knew that I knew more/better than the person in charge of the world. Eventually I adopted the “whelp the sun will engulf the Earth is another five billion years or so and ultimately none of this will matter” philosophy. Work and life in general became simpler.

        There are still times I will stand my ground because I know everything and if people (ahem Husband looking at you) would just keep that in their heads as a given…but those are normally personal not work related.

  7. Triple Anon*

    I’m curious about the statement that the job can’t be expanded. I wonder if it has to do with the org’s structure or rules? Or what they can pay the person? Is it set in stone?

    Here’s an example. Say this person can get the assigned work done faster than you’d expect and can also help with the company’s website, or take pictures and write content that you might be able to use in the blog or social media, or do art projects that you can use to decorate the front office, etc. Would there be room for that? Would it benefit the org? Or would it get into a gray area where you’d have someone who would be underpaid for what they’re doing and wouldn’t receive as much reognition as they would like (or something like that)?

    And why is there no potential to move into a different role? Is that a rule? Could the org expand? Could that change?

    I hope I don’t sound like I’m challenging the letter writer! I just want to understand all of this better. It sounds like some things are firm and unchangeable where, in some places that I’ve seen, there would be more flexibility.

    1. Morning Glory*

      I think this would be worth raising even beyond this one candidate. Like another commenter pointed out, it may be unrealistic to expect more than one year out of people if this position really is just a dead-end reception/admin gig. And, opportunity for advancement is a strong incentive for employees to really strive hard to excel instead of doing enough to just meet requirements.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Sometimes it’s that doing those things would take other people’s time too (to manage the work, give input, etc.) and if they’re busy and those things aren’t high priorities for the organization, it may not make sense.

    3. Just Employed Here*

      I think often these kinds of jobs are roles where you can’t really make the work get done significantly faster and more efficiently.

      What I mean is, the phone rings, you answer it, customers visit the premises, you welcome them, the phone rings again, and so on. Barring a communications overhaul where customers’ questions are answered by some AI robot (and such an overhaul is not going to be designed and implemented by the receptionist), these tasks still have to be done.

    4. Colette*

      Depending on the job, there could be no way to get it done faster – reception jobs in busy offices, for example. If a visitor arrives or the phone rings every 2 minutes, that’s pretty much your day. It doesn’t matter whether you’re exceptionally organized or really artistic – your job is to answer the door and the phone, and you won’t have enough downtime to take on significant projects.

      And if you are the receptionist/admin/office manager in a company of engineers, there’s not much room to grow.

    5. Allison*

      In my experience, it’s usually a budget issue. Ideally, the hiring manager wants someone with five years of experience, but the powers that be has said the position can only pay up to $X per year, so really they can only hope to recruit someone with around 1-3 years of relevant experience because realistically, that’s who’s gonna be okay with that salary. Companies that are growing fast, and hiring in every department, would love to make it rain on every awesome candidate but that’s just not possible, unless they’re a beloved former colleague of a high-ranking executive who can move mountains.

      That said, the role that can only reasonably pay someone with 3 years now does have room for the possibility of raises and promotions, but they probably can’t fast-track the role to help someone with 10 years of experience to grow into the title and salary they’re used to.

    6. OP*

      These are very thoughtful and interesting questions. Alison really got to the core of the issue- taking on extra things in this role require lots of additional input from higher level employees, and we simply don’t have the time for that right now. This was something that was frustrating for Fergus. He would try to create additional projects or pursue things that we just didn’t have the capacity for, or that didn’t fit within our priorities, and then be upset that no one was moving it forward.

      There are possibilities for this position to take on some more work and help with other things, but the core of the position won’t change AND the additional duties they’d take on are still admin in nature. This person needs to be happy in admin work and a supporting role.

      There isn’t much room to move into a different role. We’re a small organization. Everyone is pretty niche. We need this person’s niche to be awesome admin/office management.

      Perhaps that info helps. thanks for the thoughts!

  8. Smithy*

    I worked for an ngo that had a big problem with going through receptionists. As the organization’s name and mission were very appealing for those interested in international humanitarian work – there would be lots of very educated young people who’d apply for a job that was intended to be a more straight up admin/receptionist position. People hired would be very enthusiastic and capabale when starting – but then often there became a real clash between what the job was and what was desired.

    While I don’t disagree with Alison’s advice….if you know your ngo is particular attractive at the moment…I have a hard time not having my own Fergus flashbacks. I wasn’t part of that hiring process – but it just makes me wary. I also know of some colleagues who worked their way from ngo receptionist to a program team. So while it may never happen with your org, there are plenty of other stories out there.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think that’s a very real thing! I don’t mean that the OP should just 100% take what the applicant says at face value — she still needs to bring her own judgment to it, but it can be worth talking to the person to see (if the person does seem like she could be great at the job relative to your other candidates — if that’s not the case, then all of this is moot).

      1. Smithy*

        Completely understand.

        And to be fair, my advice to young people interested in nonprofit work is that during college as part time work or between undergrad and grad that nonprofit entry level admin jobs are great resume builders vs admin (or retail or food service) in another sector.

        That being said….all the best nonprofit admins I’ve worked with were hired because they were good admins, not entirely because they were primarily motivated by the mission.

    2. Ann O'Nemity*

      We dealt with that too. Candidates enthusiastically interview for an entry-level job to get in the door, and then end up disappointed when they weren’t quickly promoted to a program team.

      We added a question to our hiring process to try to weed these people out, or at least set realistic expectations for them. But it still happens on occasion.

        1. Ann O'Nemity*

          We were pretty transparent! We explained that a lot of people wanted to get in the door and then quickly to move to program teams. The questions was something like,

          “Would you still want this role if you knew internal transfers weren’t allowed for one year after the start date?

    3. Catabodua*

      I suppose there really isn’t a way to mask the name of the company either. Just eliminating the name that people are getting excited about might weed out folks so easily in this situation.

      1. Ego Chamber*

        If they hired a recruiter to find them applicants, the recruiter generally won’t name the company until someone expresses interest in the job and has confirmed their availability and salary range.

        I personally think it’s really sketchy for a company to be cagey about who they are (or where they’re located) if the company is doing the hiring themselves, but this may vary by industry.

        1. SarahTheEntwife*

          Yeah, if I want to give you a resume and cover letter that doesn’t sound like it was sent to 57 other businesses looking for receptionists, I need to know who you are. I also need to know your address to know if the commute is worth it.

    4. Counting the Beans*

      Yes. I currently am reviewing applicants for a receptionist/customer service/admin role at an arts organization, and we’ve gotten quite a few applicants with art backgrounds who are clearly interested in what we do, not the job. And it’s fine that they have enthusiasm for our mission, but we prefer someone who has enthusiasm for customer service and administrative skills, because realistically that’s what they’re going to be doing all day, every day.

      1. OP*

        Yes! This is exactly it. It’s great to be motivated by our mission, but they need to enjoy the job, too.

  9. Who the eff is Hank?*

    I feel like this letter could have been written by my boss when I applied for my current position. I am an officer manager/admin assistant/other projects catchall at a small nonprofit but in my past life was a project manager at much larger private companies. I applied to this job specifically because I wanted better work/life balance and to transition into the education sector. I took a pay cut for this job and I’ve never regretted it. It’s the only job I’ve ever had that I would feel sad about leaving.

    1. zora*

      Me Too!!
      Except kind of the reverse. I was in nonprofits, but was totally burned out and desperately in need of a real salary for once. Currently an Admin Assistant at a PR firm, and I know my boss was a little concerned I was overqualified but she decided to hire me anyway. And I’m soooo glad, I am bored sometimes, but I really needed a place to kind of recover, and I’m finally making a livable wage and that feels amazing. Plus, she’s an awesome boss, and everyone here is super nice and positive, so it’s a great place to be, even though I do feel overqualified. I will probably move on at some point, but I think my boss would say she’s still happy she hired me, because she’s had about 2 years of support where I can handle tons of stuff without bothering her at all and have taken a lot off of her plate during the time I’ve been here.

  10. BookCocoon*

    Echoing the sentiment not to dismiss people with assumptions. I went through a period of unemployment and interviewed for an admin position I was genuinely interested in, and at the end of it they said I was great but they thought I’d be bored so they’d offered it to someone else. I was so mad! I ended up getting a different admin position in the same organization, different department, and it was exactly what I was looking for at the time. I stayed in that position for over a year and a half, until someone else in the department quit and I was promoted into her position, where I’ve been for three years. The other department — the one that rejected me — had the gall to contact me after I’d been working at the organization a few months and essentially say, “OK, we have an opening that is worthy of you now!” which was a higher-level position doing work I was not at all interested in. By all means, ask the question about why they want the job and weigh their answer carefully, but don’t be so patronizing as to assume you know better than they do what they really want.

    1. BookCocoon*

      I will add that having a long-term, non-overqualified person isn’t necessary a great thing either. When I moved out of the admin role, we interviewed a woman and I told the director she was going to struggle in the position, but he liked that she was just coming back to the workforce and said she wasn’t looking to climb the ladder, that we’d have her for the next ten years, so he hired her. (I wanted to hire another candidate but he was afraid she was overqualified and would be moving on in six months.) Well, now this woman has been here three years and she still asks me six times a day to answer questions about stuff she’s forgotten. She’s just good enough at her job that the director won’t fire her and just expects me to pick up the slack. So keep that in mind!

    2. OP*

      Can I ask why you were interested in the admin position? I want to be careful NOT to assume I know better than this person knows themselves, but Fergus also proved to me that sometimes people think they’ll be ok with a lower level position and then they find themselves underchallenged and frustrated. In the interviews I’ve had with this applicant, she hasn’t done much to reassure me that she’s looking for admin work. I’m going to try to ask more pointed questions but I am skeptical.

      1. Purple Puma*

        Maybe you could ask this candidate (and any other overqualified candidates) something like “I understand that you are very interested in working for our organization and are passionate about our mission. Setting that aside for a moment, can you tell me why you are interested in this particular role?” It might net you a more direct answer, and pivot the conversation toward the role and away from the org.

        1. winter*

          Yes, I agree that’s a good question.

          I’ve sat in interviews on the hiring side where people were not able to tell my anything about the specific role, someone even said ‘I want to stay working in this city.’ and didn’t come up with anything else about, you know, the role. On the flip side, there were people who were able to go into specifics why this role gives them satisfaction and that is very convincing to hear.

      2. NaoNao*

        It’s possible, without straying into “not everyone can eat sandwiches!” territory, that she may have reasons that are more personal for wanting a more lower-level, less demanding, “leave it at the door” job. Maybe health issues, she’s about to start undergoing IVF or something, or she is trying to get a handle on some mental stuff.

        I’m sure most candidates wouldn’t say that, because it’s not appealing to the hiring manager, but it’s a compelling reason. “I’m burned out to the point of panic attacks and now I’m in major therapy and need a job I can leave at the door” isn’t…a great look for an interview, you know?

        1. Star Nursery*

          Yes, NaoNao has a valid point!

          Some of the reasons could be personal (and might be private). Someone might be looking for less stressful work…
          1. More work-life balance
          2. Caregiver for close family member
          3. Reduce stress to improve their physical health and/or mental health
          4. Could have wanted to leave a toxic job
          5. Got burned out
          6. Return to night school
          7. Lost a spouse, child or parent and wants to have a less demanding work schedule to spend more time with the rest of the family

          There are many possible reasons someone might want to make change for something they are over qualified for, but the hard part is how to figure out if they are just looking for a hopping stone to something “better”, have an idealized view of what they would do, just want an in with the organization… Some of the reasons that are tied to why people want to slow down or take a less stressful job might be tied with very personal life reasons.

      3. BookCocoon*

        My family had moved to the area within the past year and I landed a job that on paper was my “dream job.” It ended up being a toxic work environment where I became very depressed and eventually quit with nothing else lined up. I spent six months doing some soul-searching, going to counseling, and figuring out what was important to me. My husband is a residence hall director so we live on a college campus, and I really loved (and still do love) the college and saw that it was a great place to work. I figured out that my main priority at that time was really about spending more time with my family and not having a long commute anymore, so working at the college, in any capacity, was my goal. Because our housing and meals are paid for, salary wasn’t too big of a concern for us, and I missed working in higher ed. All of that meant that I was happy to go back to doing an admin job. For myself, I enjoyed the challenge of finding ways to improve existing processes, and I gained a lot of skills in talking down angry/upset parents and students — my previous work in higher ed had been working solely with faculty. I also have a lot of personal projects that I’m working on at any given time, so I’m content to entertain myself when I don’t have anything else going on and am just waiting for the phone to ring.

        I don’t think I explained all — or any — of that during the interview process. I probably focused on my love for the college and how I could bring a unique perspective as someone who lives on campus among the students. The first office didn’t believe that was enough, but the second did, and they’ve reaped the benefits of having me on staff for almost five years now.

      4. Been There, Done That*

        It could simply be a matter of individuals. For some people, being in a role that isn’t exactly what they want rankles. Others are fine with it till they get what they really want elsewhere, or decide they like the job and stay.

        I once temped as a replacement for an office manager whose education/background was in marketing. He wanted to do marketing and gave the office management side short shrift. There was a clean-up period of getting the office in shape and undoing mistakes he’d made. I would’ve happily stayed long term as office manager, it was a good situation in many ways, but I left after a couple of months for a full-time position with benefits.

  11. Just a Thought*

    I applied (and got) an administrative assistant role that I was over-qualified for at a local University. When they asked me why I wanted the job I was honest – I wanted to get my Masters degree and wanted a job at the University for the free tuition. Since it would take me about 3 years to do that part-time they decided to hire me. They actually said “oh great, our last admin got her Masters while working here”. So for them it was worth it to hire a candidate they knew would not stay in the role permanently because 3 years was a long enough tenure.

    1. Triple Anon*

      That’s interesting! I’ve been considering doing the same thing – applying for a job at a university, in part for the free tuition. I wasn’t sure how it would be received if I was upfront about that.

      1. Ama*

        At the last university I worked at they were pretty open about the fact that the free tuition was how they were able to compete against the private sector jobs for talented employees.

    2. Rhoda*

      The free tuition usually goes for immediate family as well. So that could be Plan B for your kid’s education. A friend of mine who went to BU got to talking with one of the housekeeping staff in her dorm. The women mentioned that yes, she could probably get a job that paid a lot better, but it would not pay enough to cover the tuition for her daughter.

  12. CM*

    You might also look into whether admin staff are respected at your organization. The fact that your previous office manager felt he was not respected and his ideas were ignored is concerning.

    1. RVA Cat*

      This. You may also want to look at gender dynamics to see if Fergus uncovered some things by being a man in a pink-collar role.

    2. LBK*

      I could see that, but I also think an office manager isn’t really a position in which you’re looked to for ideas. It sounds to me like he was overreaching into things that weren’t his purview – if he’s got thoughts on changing office supply vendors, go for it, but my gut sense is that he sounds like he was getting too big for his britches and making suggestions about things that weren’t his place to discuss.

    3. Jennifer*

      Yeah, I don’t think any of this sounded like “Fergus is bored as an admin.” It sounded like Fergus didn’t like being treated like crap.

      1. LBK*

        We’ve had multiple letters here involving people who complained that their ideas weren’t respected when in reality they were just bad ideas. You can’t necessarily take that criticism at face value. I think it’s completely plausible that Fergus was, indeed, accustomed to a certain level of pull in his former role and didn’t like being put back into a box where it wasn’t his place to be trying to make those kinds of suggestions. But either way it’s not really relevant to the question being asked here.

    4. Engineer Girl*

      During his employment, he grew increasingly disgruntled with our CEO and how she managed the organization. He felt that his ideas were ignored and that he was not respected. There are many factors that contributed to this, …

      I agree with you, based on the above statements.
      Fergus came from a high power background and was probably an A level player. I’m wondering if the CEO was a B or C level player. This would drive an A player crazy. On top of that, there may be some Dunning-Kruger on the part of the CEO if she were a B level player. She wouldn’t be able to recognize good suggestions from Fergus.
      This would cause anyone to get disgruntled fast.
      It’s also possible that the organization is strongly hierarchical. If that was the case then Fergus may have been told to stay in his lane even though he had a better grasp of things than others in the organization.

      If this is the case then the problems are with the organization, not the candidates. The candidates need a full disclosure on this type of environment so they can self select out.

      1. Bigger picture*

        Or maybe his suggestions aren’t good because he doesn’t get exposure in his role to all the background needed to make the right suggestions. Some ideas sound great in theory but then when you find out more it’s clear it won’t work, but it might not be a good use of resources and/or appropriate to explain that to the receptionist when it’s not actually info they need for their specific job.

        1. Engineer Girl*

          Fergus is intelligent enough to understand there may be background issues.
          Not explaining something because he is “only” a receptionist smacks of compartmentalization.
          If there are other factors that influence decision making you simply tell the person those factors.
          Simply put, you can listen to someone and respect them and not implement their ideas. Fergus felt disrespected for some reason (it appears to be many reasons). That is the key issue.

          1. Bigger picture*

            I have been in numerous situations where it has been inappropriate to explain the background to someone. Also how much time do you want to spend getting someone to focus on their actual job and not be distracted? We don’t have enough information to know how it played out for Fergus specifically, but it’s definitely not always the case that you need to listen to someone’s ideas and then spend time convincing them that they are wrong.

            1. Bigger picture*

              Actually OP’s response to you later in this thread is definitely in line with some of my experiences. Not all feedback/suggestions are good! Even if you are smart and have had good ideas before! If being in a job where having influence/input is important to you, don’t get into a job where you won’t get that, for your own sake if nothing else.

            2. winter*

              Also, if he’s only been there for a year, there might be the issue of ‘Not long enough in this organization to sufficiently understand the background/the whys of the processes to suggest changes’, which is a thing that can affect every role – even if in 2 years, it WOULD be one’s place to suggest these changes.

          2. LBK*

            It’s not demeaning to expect someone to do their job and not try to do someone else’s. Having to constantly explain to someone who doesn’t have all the information why their ideas aren’t viable is exhausting and, frankly, a huge waste of time. Just because I send the head of sales reports sometimes doesn’t give me the insight or the authority to tell him how to run his business – not because I’m not smart but because a) that’s not my job and b) I don’t have nearly enough pieces of the puzzle to make those kinds of calls. Conversely, he stays out of my lane when it comes to business intelligence decisions, not because he’s not smart but because that’s not his purview or his area of expertise.

            If Fergus wanted a role where he’d have access to the kinds of information he needed to make those higher level decisions, he shouldn’t have applied to be an admin. And it’s also pretty wild to suggest that Fergus must actually just be smarter than the boss and that she must feel threatened by it – feels kinda sexist to me, honestly.

      2. Elsajeni*

        There’s a lot in this comment that has no particular grounding in the letter — you’re spinning out a pretty specific scenario where Fergus was a uniquely outstanding talent AND the CEO was less competent than him AND in fact was so much less competent that she couldn’t understand the wisdom of his suggestions, etc. I agree that, if that was the specific situation, it reflects some organizational dysfunction that should be dealt with, but I don’t think there’s any evidence that it was and I don’t know how useful it is to advise the OP based on this much speculation.

      3. Sunshine on a Cloudy Day*

        Oh – so much this! I took a role that was a step back for me. I was completely prepared for the step down in responsibility (and ok with it). The org I moved to was extremely hierarchical, which I was not used to. I was not prepared, at all, for the step back in value/treatment. Instead of being treated as the most jr. member of the team, I was completely excluded from the team. Even though everyone was aware of my previous experience they still spoke to me as if I didn’t understand the work that the team did – I wasn’t expecting to do any of that work, but it was so patronizing and demeaning when people would dumb down their language when speaking to me. I took a step back – I don’t have amnesia…

        I would keep that in mind if considering an over-qualified candidate. The actual responsibilities might be the same, but you really need to treat and speak to them differently than you would a truly entry-level candidate.

    5. Sunshine on a Cloudy Day*

      This pinged for me as well. It’s totally possible that this guy’s ideas were not good or that he was over reaching! However, I would urge the OP to really take a hard look at how Fergus was treated and spoken to while in the role.

      I had two experiences within my career where I was overqualified for the role I was stepping into, and I had very different experiences with them.

      #1 embraced the level of maturity, judgement, background knowledge and proactivity that I brought to what was an entry-level role. It was a reception role, so there wasn’t a lot of room to expand the responsibilities. They did let me work with a level of autonomy that I know the previous receptionist did not get. They did also allow me to take on whatever responsibilities that I could as long as the reception duties were all being done properly. EX: I would book travel, but I became so familiar with our travel booking system, that I took over as administrator of the system. It did not interfere with my reception duties, it was one less thing that my boss had to do and it gave me a bit job fulfillment. Everyone won.

      #2 (these jobs were not consecutive) knew the previous level of responsibility that I had, but every single person in the department spoke to me like I did not have that experience. It was infuriating, demeaning and patronizing. I wasn’t expecting to do those things or have those responsibilities, but I still had the knowledge. EX: I’m sitting in a meeting where boss is talking about how Jane is going to make a “teapot error matrix”, then she turns to me and starts to explain what a tea pot error matrix is. At an appropriate break in her explanation (so I didn’t cut her off) I responded with “oh yeah, I’m familiar with teapot error matrices. I actually created one myself in my last role.”. Then boss continues on as if I hadn’t spoken and continues to break down what this is and how one is created. It drove me crazy – I didn’t think I should be responsible for creating matrix, but don’t speak to me like someone who has no knowledge of creating these matrices.

      Just make sure you’re not treating your overqualified candidates like #2 did. I understood the level of responsibility I would have in #2 and I was prepared for that for 2-3 years. I was not prepared to be treated like I was an idiot that didn’t have my previous experience.

      I’d also make sure that you (I mean that generically – not directly the OP) were not shooting down Ferguses ideas simply because of what his title was. If he has a truly good idea – use it! Thank him and use it. If he brought it up at an inappropriate time/in an inappropriate way/wouldn’t take no for an answer – then deal with those issues. If his ideas involved ways or things that expanded his responsibilities – again, I would make sure that there’s a legit reason for turning it down. If it interferes with his admin/reception duties or it would create more work for you/others – well those are legit reasons. But if the reason is “well admins/receptions don’t do that or couldn’t possibly be trusted or know how to do that” – that’s really short sighted.

    6. OP*

      It’s funny, one of the regular quotes from our admin employee who has been at our org longest is, “Admin people are respected here”. In my experience, this is true. What respect looks like though is different to different people, which is why I will be asking that as an interview question.

      1. OP*

        I managed Fergus very differently than I would have managed an employee with a different background. I valued his input, but found that he seemed to have a hard time accepting decisions if we didn’t follow his recommendations. There are often many reasons why something may or may not work, may not be a priority, etc. I appreciated his suggestions, especially because I have less experience and he was very knowledgeable, but you have to be able to take a backseat when someone hears your input and still decides to go a different direction.

        Fergus was certainly never told to “stay in your lane” or “just do your job” but he was told, “we just don’t have the resources to pursue that right now” or “this would require a significant buy-in from staff and I don’t think we’re there right now”. Ideas can be good ideas but still not feasible or within the immediate priorities for an organization.

        1. Been There, Done That*

          This reminds me of an experience when “Joe” and I were hired at the same time as trainees to do closed-captioning of TV shows. We had the same job on the same level working under the same supervisor, but Joe had previously had a much higher level position in a very different field. He spoke to me and others as if he were still a boss. It really seemed to bend him out of shape when I ignored his orders.

          1. winter*

            Oh, this is why my new colleague sounds like he’s giving a TED talk at all times. He has his own firm. Needless to say, it’s so annoying.

        2. Engineer Girl*

          Those are perfectly legitimate reasons. If Fergus is feeling disrespected because of that then Fergus is the issue.
          Although I would argue that the problem is a character issue Vs an overqualified issue.

  13. MRK*

    My mother’s current job considered her over-qualified and almost didn’t call her for an interview because they thought she’d be bored and leave quickly. Problem is, my mother was specifically looking for an easy, minimal stress job due to stress related health problems. She knows she’s overqualified, but what she is “qualified” for would be far to stressful these days. Luckily a current lower manager who knew my mom basically called upper management fools if they didn’t call her, and 5 years later she’s a favorite (and still mostly stress free) employee.

    Long story short, if you think she’s otherwise capable of doing this job, give her a chance to explain why she’s interested.

  14. phira*

    First off, I’m actually someone who is sort of stuck in the middle of what would be considered over or underqualified for a lot of positions. I’m currently overqualified for my current position, but the next step up? Way underqualified. It’s very frustrating, and if I couldn’t get hired for positions that I’m overqualified for, I’d be out of work in my field.

    And second, I can’t help but think that there may have been some gendered aspects at play with how Fergus behaved in his role. That’s not to say that “all men are like this” and/or “this new applicant won’t be an issue because she’s female.” More that I’ve found it more common for men to overstep in their positions, especially if they are overqualified for their role, but not only then. The fact that Fergus was very vocal about criticizing the (female) CEO’s decisions is a red flag for me that says more about Fergus himself than it does about his qualifications. Not to say, “Oh, the CEO is obviously perfect and he’s wrong to criticize her,” but what you’ve said about his behavior gives me the impression that he felt like he was entitled to more clout in the organization than he had. That’s something that I see more commonly with men than with women.

    This new applicant might be more of the same, and I think Alison’s points are spot on for determining if she’s a good fit or not, even with her qualifications. But I would try very hard not to let Fergus’ behavior color your impression of all overqualified applicants.

    1. Engineer Girl*

      It’s also possible the CEO is not as competent as she thinks. There isn’t enough info to assume gender issues. In fact, there is none pointing in that direction.
      I would prefer that people not label everything gendered unless there is at least some data to support it. Otherwise it’s crying wolf.

      1. Betsy*

        Phira’s ideas about gender are based on her interpretation of the story. As are your previous suggestions about the manager, the Dunning-Kruger effect, and Fergus’s intelligence. None of us are in a position to collect data on Fergus or the manager. All we have to go on is the story we’re presented with.

  15. Meg*

    I mean, this is why you need to write a good cover letter (if you’re the overqualified candidate). My boss is hiring right now, and she has a ton of applicants who are coming from totally unrelated fields. I think there’s probably (definitely) transferable skills, but most of them didn’t submit cover letters to make their case. If you know your skills/resume on paper aren’t going to look like a perfect match, use the cover letter to explain why! We also hired someone about a year ago who made used the cover letter to explain that she was making a career change.

  16. ambivalent*

    I hired somebody who seemed a bit overqualified for the role, on a long term contract. I was very clear with him about this, and he was happy to take the job as it was a bit of a career change, and he had been unemployed for a while. I described the job in detail to make sure he wouldn’t get bored. After a couple of years he was good at the job and seemed happy, but his contract could not be renewed for budget reasons. I was very supportive of his finding a new job (helped put him in touch with my contacts etc) but it seems the years working at a ‘lower level’ has pigeon-holed him a bit and is making it harder for him to get a job at ‘his level’. So I guess this is a real potential down-side in taking a job you are overqualified for.

  17. Blue Anne*

    Adding to what Alison is saying… I’m an overqualified applicant for office admin jobs, currently a staff accountant at a CPA firm. I’m applying for admin jobs because I enjoy it more, I have my own business and I want a less stressful day job but don’t want to give up having a day job. I’ve just had the experience of applying for two “office admin with some bookkeeping” jobs, getting interviews at both, and both of them saying “We’ll promote you to financial controller from here in 1-2 years” when they interviewed me.

    I don’t want to be the financial controller. I want to answer the phones and order the staples. Seriously. That’s why I applied for those jobs. It’s very frustrating to have the bait-and-switch. Hear out your candidates! A lot of us are genuinely trying to go for ‘lower’ roles!

    1. EA*

      That’s funny because back when I was an admin I was VERY clear in interviews I was looking for an admin job with growth.

      They all told me that they totally provide growth, and when I asked for it there were a million excuses. Which granted, maybe I sucked, but I felt it was a bait and switch.

      1. Morning Glory*

        We just hired an admin for the same position I am currently in and I was supposed to take part in the interviews. I wanted to be transparent that there is no opportunity for growth in this position. HR told me not to say that because it’s not technically impossible to get promoted (it just does not happen). Instead they wanted us to screen out people who seemed too ambitious.

        I have no doubt this admin will feel like the people who did end up interviewing pulled a bait and switch.

        1. GG Two shoes*

          Screen out people who seemed too ambitious? Yikes. Seems like a good way to screen out talent.

          1. Morning Glory*

            I wish they had screened me out for being too ambitious.

            Like EA, I was very clear about my career goals in my interviews 3 years ago, and was told about a lot of opportunities for upward growth.

          2. SarahTheEntwife*

            Some people really want to stay in one job for a long time that they can do well. An admin job doesn’t have to be a stepping stone to better things.

      2. Blue Anne*

        Yeah, I think both sides of this are evidence for how people get pegged into one role. It’s annoying on both sides.

    2. OP*

      See, you have great reasons for wanting to make this change! I’ve interviewed this applicant several times and she has not indicated that she’s looking for a lower level, lower stress position- in fact, she says she loves her current highly demanding job. She’s interested in this job because of her interest in our agency. If I heard the kinds of reasons that you listed, I would be thrilled about finding someone with incredible knowledge and competency who wants to bring that into our admin job.

      1. oranges & lemons*

        Yeah, this does sound suspiciously like someone who’s just trying to get her foot in the door, particularly if your organization has a lot of more glamorous roles. What does she say when you ask her about her interest/experience in the kind of work the position involves?

  18. NJ Anon*

    I’ve always said I had bad luck hiring folks who were overqualified. Either they were bored or “trying to get their foot in the door” or critical of the hire-ups. Ironically, I am now 6 months into an office manager position that I am overqualified for however, I was burnt out from 15 years as a finance director at a nonprofit and needed something closer to home. I am about 6 years away from retirement, this place has great bennies and I am happy as a clam!

  19. Nat*

    In the early nineties; a time when job outlooks were horrible, I left a mid-level public relations for a national client in New York City and moved to Norfolk, VA to join my then-husband who was in the Navy. I don’t exaggerate when I say that there was one job for every 100 people looking for one. Think responding to a waitressing job in the want ads and being one of hundreds of people showing up just to fill out an application. Whenever I would finally get an interview, I would be asked something along the lines of “why do you want to work as a file clerk for $4.25 an hour with a BA?” I never really knew how to answer. After all, I couldn’t really come out and say “Because there are not jobs out there and I’m desperate.”

    1. Decima Dewey*

      “Because I want to be able to continue paying rent on my apartment and eat regularly.”

  20. Melissa*

    I recently applied for a job, and will be interviewing in April, for a job I am probably WAY overqualified for. But it comes with the opportunity to live abroad with free housing, with the move paid for by the employer. It also gets me into the career I ultimately want to be in. Doing work I know how to do, while learning the subject matter first hand, in a location I want to be in, is well worth the paycut and potential boredom I may face a few years down the line.

    1. krysb*

      Totally off-topic, but I would be the same if such an international opportunity arised.

  21. Dealtwiththis*

    I was this applicant a few years ago! I was leaving a truly toxic environment and loved the mission of the organization that I was applying for. It was definitely a step down, in responsibilities and in pay. They almost didn’t hire me because they were worried that I would be bored, thank goodness I asked them in the interview if they had any concerns about me and they were honest and told me that they were worried I would be bored. I was able to address their concerns and convince them that I truly wanted this job, even with the cut in pay. They hired me and I would have stayed in that role forever because it was SUCH a relief to work in a sane work place after my previous job. I knew how bad it could be out there and so I truly would have stayed in my little role forever.

    I was incredibly lucky that they decided to promote me after a year to a new position that they created for me and then have moved up several times since then (I did not ask for the promotion, it came to me out of the blue). But I always think about how we never could have been mutually beneficial to each other if they had not given me a chance and I will forever be grateful that they did.

    1. OP*

      This is a really wonderful story! This is why I’m still considering the applicant, because of situations like this. Were you a team leader in your previous position before taking a step down? I’m particularly concerned that the jump from team leader to bottom of the totem pole (per say) will cause frustrations.

      1. Sunshine on a Cloudy Day*

        Hi OP – just wanted to mention that I’ve read some of your other comments and with the additional info you’ve provided it really sounds like you’re evaluating this candidate very fairly!

        I’m with everyone who says not to discount overqualified candidates right off the bat or assume their motives. However – it is totally ok to reject this candidate if you have given this candidate a fair shake (and allowed her the opportunity to explain her motivations) and ultimately you don’t believe that she’s the right fit. It sounds like you’re giving her every opportunity to explain herself, but in the end she just might not be the right fit and that’s ok too.

  22. MillyMollyMandy*

    We face this frequently in my organisation as we are a government agency in a rather niche area which attracts well-qualified candidates for lower-level admin positions, precisely because of the way in that they offer – our professional-level posts require significant experience in the field, so recent graduates or those with less experience tend to come forward for our admin roles. They are often wildly overqualified and have fantastic skills. We have overcome the potential issues by being really clear about the scope of the role in both our job postings and our job descriptions, and again at interview, and testing their ability to deal with admin work. All that said, we recognise that good people will often outgrow these roles, and our organisation is used to people moving around within relatively short periods of time. We also offer short term posts as secondment opportunities when the chance arises, and this enables staff to move around and move up within the organisation. If you are able to look beyond the inconvenience of recruiting to the same post every year or so, it can be a really good way to bring in, and bring on, future more senior staff members. But that always comes with the caveat that they must genuinely have the often specialised admin skills *and* the drive to complete mundane work necesssary to do a great job in your post. It’s been really satisfying to see some of the people I have recruited to entry level jobs over the years now in much more senior positions around the organisation.

    1. Betsy*

      Actually, this is something that I’ve found frustrating when I’ve applied to government roles in my country. They often prefer to hire at admin level, so everyone needs to know you need to get in, do your time and then move up to being a policy or program officer. However, you need a lot of previous admin experience to get the lower level roles. So, for example, if you have a lot of research experience and a Masters or PhD in a social sciences area, it’s basically impossible to end up in a research or policy position in the social welfare department, because they’d much rather hire someone with admin skills and no background and then train them up to become a policy officer.

      I also regularly hear that you can only get a government role with previous government experience, and even if the experience is completely irrelevant or at a low-level they still prefer that over people who have relevant experience in other sectors.

  23. TotesMaGoats*

    I tried to hire an overqualified person who withdrew her acceptance a week before she was to start. I had been very clear in the interview process with her about her expectations and what this role was and she said all the right things. She wanted this role, this flexibility to her schedule, this lack of managerial responsibility. All those things. I knew I’d be getting a fantastic person for the role. I took her at her word. Got burnt. All that to say I think Allison’s advice is correct.

    I would say it’s worth considering if when you get a person who is overqualified maybe you should listen to them and their ideas even if it’s outside the scope of their role. Consider it a cost savings to get a director level for the price of an admin. (That’s supposed to be a little bit of a joke.) But seriously, if you have someone with the credentials/experience to offer good suggestions for improvement and you ignore them because of their role that seems a bit short-sighted.

  24. krysb*

    Staying at an entry-level job for only a year is not uncommon, regardless of the applicant’s level of experience.

      1. OP*

        It’s not uncommon, but we’d still prefer someone to be in the position for 1-2 years. The bigger issue though is will they be happy during that one year in the position. I’m very wary of another Fergus situation because I’ve seen how negatively that impacts an entire team.

  25. cactus lady*

    I have been that person who applies for the lower level job at a company I liked, to give me some room to deal with family stuff that was impeding my work life, and I honestly didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I accepted it. The most difficult part for me was that people treated me like I didn’t know anything beyond the basic skills required of that position. Whether or not I could use those skills was one thing, but being treated like a moron when I chimed in with ideas about xyz was really demoralizing and part of the reason why I left. Personally after having that experience, I wouldn’t hire someone who is really overqualified for a role without having some plan of how to use the skill set they do have. I think it’s just human nature to want to use skills you have spent years developing, and it will be frustrating for everyone involved if that is not the case.

    1. Cajun2core*

      I couldn’t have put it better. However, if the person fully understands that they will not be using their skill-set and that their opinion would not matter, I would still consider the person.

    2. Chinook*

      That is a beef of mine too – being treated as uneducated because you are in an entry level position. The only time I wanted to display my university degree was after one of the accountants felt a need to explain to me, the simple receptionist, that a letter he was sending out needed to have the address written on the outside of the envelope. No kidding, Sherlock, since that was question #2 on the grade 9 provincial exams I was marking a few years earlier while you were still in high school.

    3. Been There, Done That*

      I’d suggest there’s a difference between being treated like a moron and being in a job that doesn’t utilize all you skills (esp. higher level skills).

      However, as a secretary (that was the title back then) I worked with 20+ years ago once said, everybody wants a smart secretary, but if you’re a secretary people assume you aren’t very smart. Looks like some things don’t change.

    4. Betsy*

      I have no doubt that people can treat admin staff condescendingly (and not everyone recognises that admin roles require a lot of skills that many people just don’t have).

      I’m sure the problem’s made worse when people move from a higher to a lower level job. However, it also depends on the organisation. I have just moved to a higher level job. Everyone here has a PhD and many have years of experience, but because it’s a hierarchical workplace, we’re still treated like our opinions really don’t matter. I was actually treated much more like people cared about my opinions in my lower level job. I was freer to speak up in meetings and offer suggestions, even if the suggestions wouldn’t necessarily be implemented, of course. So I think it can be a lot to do with workplace culture as well as seniority. It feels strange to have suddenly got the higher level job I wanted for years, and then to be treated like a child, though.

  26. Cajun2core*

    I could be Fergus. I am also the second kind of person Alison mentioned, “has lots of higher-level experience doing other things.” I got laid off and had to move to a position where I was basically a receptionist. It was a tough change for me. A large part of the problem was that my suggestions and comments were not listened to. I have excelled at my job but nothing more than that (except for short time filling in for a bookkeeper).

    Give the overqualified person a chance but as Alison says, make sure that she knows that it will be a very dull job. If you believe it to be true also let her know that her opinion may not make much of a difference. This was a big deal for me. I think I would enjoy this job much more if my opinion mattered.

  27. JeanB in NC*

    I’m considering a job hunt now for Accounts Payable or Payroll positions, and because I have been a full-charge bookkeeper/office manager before, people always seem to think I’m overqualified and I’d be bored. The reason I would be looking for AP jobs is because an AP position at a large company would actually be less boring than a full-charge bookkeeping position in a small company! I need to have lots and lots of work on a regular basis (I’m pretty darn efficient if I do say so myself) and small companies, once you’ve come in and cleaned all the old crap up, tend to not give me enough to do on a day-to-day basis. It’s been an ongoing problem throughout my career. I’ll just have to try and make that as clear as possible in my cover letter.

    1. OP*

      This is such a good point! People who like to have a big stack of things to do will probably not be satisfied in a slower position. Several applicants have said in interviews that they like to be really really busy, and they say it with this knowing wink and “I think this job would keep me very busy”, as if it’s a given that they’d never run out of things to do. It’s funny to me because this is actually one way I know they probably wouldn’t be happy in our position. Sometimes a job is slow, and that’s a challenge of it’s own!

  28. LBK*

    The fact that she just wants to work at your org is a red flag for me – definitely sounds like someone who thinks this will give her a foot in the door and then once she’s established herself she can use that reputation to move to the role she really wants.

    I’d still follow Alison’s advice and probe more to get a sense of her motivations, but I’m apprehensive on this one.

  29. Lily in NYC*

    We are inundated with overqualified candidates applying for admin positions in order to get a “foot in the door” because it’s difficult to get hired for a career path position. We sometimes hire them and without fail, they start pestering for a promotion after 6 months and then start getting resentful when it doesn’t happen. We now make it very clear that we are looking for career admins only and that these jobs are not a path to becoming a project manager (even though they can be, but we need someone who takes the admin role seriously instead of always pushing for project work). Honestly, the people who are overqualified always do much better at the job but they never last long and then we have to train someone all over again.

  30. Meißner Porcelain Teapot*

    I definitely agree with Alison here: if they seem like they could do the job, invite them for the interview and ask them directly.

    So far, the jobs that I’ve worked in the longest were both jobs I was over-qualified for:

    1) My first job out of college was in a callcenter. I have two Masters. The interviewer flat out said “Ms X., you are clearly overqualified – why did you apply?” And I was equally honest and told him: “I’m planning to do a year of work-and-travel in a year or two and I need to save up some money for that. What I studied usually requires freelance work, which means I would lose money at first, whereas this position has been advertised as requiring lots of night and weekend shifts, which pay extra.” It was a perfect match for both of us, because they had huge problems finding people who were willing to spend Saturday night sitting in front of a telephone, listening to customers rage at them, and I, being a very introverted person in general, found doing that for extra pay a lot more appealing than getting dragged to parties. It worked perfectly and by the time I left they were sad to see me go.

    2) My current job is an entry level position, which I have had for four years. My managers have suggested promotions to team lead multiple times and I have repeatedly turned them down, because the part of my work that I like the most would become maybe 1% of my task in a lead role and the rest would be team management and customer interactions which I am definitely NOT interested in. So far, no harm has come from my overqualification. As a matter of fact, there’ve been times when a team lead was so stressed out they asked me to take care of one or two things for a day and all worked out fine.

    So please, do talk to the overqualified candidates. Just be very, very direct and honest about what the work entails and how much they will be paid for it, and all should be well.

    1. OP*

      Thanks for this input. We’ve done a few interviews with this candidate in which the responses have not helped me make a decision, but I’m going to be very direct in the next one and hope that she replies in turn with equal honesty.

  31. Bea*

    I’ll always remember the lawyer who wouldn’t hire me to be a receptionist because I should “be in school”, that it wasn’t a job that was expected to last more than a couple years at most, fresh out of high school without any experience under my belt just trying to get myself going.

    It’s interesting how the view of entry level positions are different to every individual hiring. My whole goal was to work for 1-2 years and start school because my family had no money nor knowledge on how higher education worked, my mom refused to fill out a FASFA assuming it would wreck her credit and she’d be on the hook for a ton of money instead of understanding it was to apply for aid not her cosigning a loan. Sigh.

    You can’t know why anyone is truly interested in a job. You have to find the best fit with the knowledge you do hold. It’s rare to find anyone to stick around long term I’ve learned, reasons for leaving are always all over the map. I have had people gush over the job being perfect that they loved the stability and standard hours blah blah blah only to ghost on the first day. You just don’t know so early on and I agree it’s not your place to be a fortune teller either! She may be perfect it could fit her life well.

    I had to explain to my boss that I didn’t want anymore management roles at this point, please let me defer to him for anything outside a basic decision. I was burnt out on duty and I wasn’t like Fergus who said that and clearly changed his mind. I won’t run another office until I shake off my over indulgence which I see lasting at least 2-3 years and who’s to say I’ll ever want to leave for something more after being so close to my mental breaking point.

  32. Murphy*

    After getting my MS and dropping out of a PhD program, I was looking for work, any work. I applied for an office manager position at a company my friend worked at. I got an email back that same day that said “While your skills are certainly impressive, we’ve decided to pursue other candidates for this position.” Definitely got rejected for being “overqualified”. (I’m not discounting that someone with office manager experience would likely have been better suited for this position, but I also did have the skills they were looking for and it pissed me off that they decided for me that I was overqualified.)

    I understand why you’d be concerned given the experience you just had, but I definitely echo that if they look good otherwise, just ask them and then use your best judgement.

    1. LBK*

      After getting my MS and dropping out of a PhD program, I was looking for work, any work.

      You can’t see why that would be unappealing to an employer in comparison to candidates who are actually invested in doing that specific job?

      1. Murphy*

        I do, but obviously I didn’t put that in my cover letter! My point is that I would have been invested. I didn’t apply for any jobs I wasn’t willing to do and ready to do well. I got a worse paying, worse schedule, and just flat out worse job that I ended up staying at for two years because I needed to eat, and it was so hard to convince anyone to give me a chance even if I had all the necessary skills. The only reason this place did is because I was a volunteer first, so they knew I was willing to do the work.

        1. LBK*

          My point is just that when someone who’s way overqualified applies for a job, that’s the immediate reaction whether you say it or not – and, frankly, a lot of overqualified people convince themselves they’ll be happy to do any job that pays but when the time comes to follow through on it, they’re bored out of their minds and back to job hunting a month into it.

    2. Bea*

      Hmmm seeing how hard I’ve found it to replace myself in OM positions, I’m side eying at the idea of rejecting you so fast, they must have had a spectacular pool to draw from or perhaps were worried you were going to be out of their price range more than overqualified. I guess it also depends on what kind of position it was, full scope or the places like in the OP that considers a receptionist an office manager.

  33. Just Peachy*

    I think it’s important to keep in mind that not everyone wants to climb the ladder. A lot of smart, capable, qualified candidates just aren’t “career driven”, and that’s okay!

    I’m a 24 year old woman married woman who plans on having children soon. My husband is graduating to be a PA in a couple months, and I’d like to work part time in a flexible, low-stress job once he has a steady career. I have an Bachelor’s degree in finance, have a great track record at my current job (two promotions and a three raises in two years), but I want to scale things DOWN once I have children. My ideal job would honestly be a receptionist where I know I can easily excel and not have to think about work outside of work.

    Job fulfillment is at the bottom of my list in terms of important factors in a career. Flexibility, work life balance, and coworkers that I get along with are much more important than the work itself.

    1. Murphy*

      Yes, this. There is nothing wrong with finding a job you like (or like well enough) and just wanting to keep doing it!

      1. OP*

        YES. I think this is totally valid. These are the kinds of reasons I’d expect and want to hear from someone. However, this applicant hasn’t actually expressed an interest in stepping down the ladder. She’s interested in working for us, but it doesn’t sound like she’d look at lower level positions with other organizations. I want someone, like you, who wants to do this job and if they also happen to bring in top notch qualifications, well all the better.

  34. Kat*

    I took a part-time job that I was overqualified for and lasted…just about a year. My predecessor lasted about that long as well. And they hired another overqualified person to replace me so I’m interested to see how long she lasts. I think the organization just accepts that they aren’t going to find a long-term person in this role as long as it is structured the way it is – part-time, no benefits, not flexible with hours, very low paying. Its worked well for them to have a revolving door of very effective overqualified employees rather than a less-qualified long-term employee. And now there are so many former receptionists on their volunteer rolls, board and committees!

  35. Stellaaaaa*

    Fergus didn’t leave because he felt the work was beneath him. He didn’t leave in order to seek out new challenges. He left because he didn’t like your CEO and had reservations about how the organization was being run. Are you looking for an employee with an entry-level skill set, or are you looking for an employee with no opinions about your org?

    I will never understand why a hiring manager would deliberately pass over her best applicant. It could only be good for the business to have great minds and talent on board.

    1. Argh!*

      Less-experienced employees are more likely to tolerate managerial incompetence. So not “liking” could be really not respecting. As a more-experienced employee myself, I do find it frustrating to report to a manager who seems not to have taken Supervision 101.

  36. Been there*

    Maybe she’s more than happy to trade down. Maybe it’s a lesser commute and maybe she’s willing to trade away the stress that she may have experienced in other higher roles.

    Not everyone has a goal of moving up and she may have said whatever she thought they wanted to hear about her intentions.

  37. Drama Llama*

    I’m going to get flamed for this, but I’m going to say it anyway. I will not hire overqualified candidates.

    When I was less experienced in recruitment I wanted to give every applicant a fair chance. This included hiring overqualified applicants on several occasions. Every time they give a solid answer during interview. There is always a convincing reason for wanting this particular job. And a lot of the time, I’m sure, they are genuine in their answers.

    But when we have hired overqualified candidates, everyone – except one* – turned out to be a bad fit. In fact, they caused all sorts of problems before they left – so it would have been much better not to have hired them in the first place.

    When I reflect on my past bad hires, a common theme is that overqualified hires have been much more arrogant and less willing to learn. I can kind of see why (“I was a senior llama hugger in my last job, so I already know all about llama fur already – such a waste of time going through training again”). Another common denominator is that overqualified hires tend to complain more and struggle to adapt to the job/company. If someone is stressing out with unemployment they might widen their options and think they’ll be able to tolerate jobs for which they are overqualified. But once reality hits it appears overqualified hires struggle to come to terms with taking a step down in their career ladder.

    I know there will be exceptions. But I’ve been burned too many times with overqualified candidates that I no longer wish to take a risk. I now only hire people whose background, qualifications and experience are at a similar level for the job. Maybe I missed out on a few good candidates by automatically screening out the overqualified ones; but it’s also meant I’ve minimised the risk of a bad hire. And it’s worked out much better for me since.

    *The one exception was when we hired an entry level customer service person who used to work in a manager role. But our customer service job pays really well, plus there were stronger career prospects. So while the initial job duties were a move downwards, it was a huge step up for her in terms of pay, benefits, and future promotion potential. So she wasn’t an entirely overqualified candidate.

    1. OP*

      Thank you for this input. It’s incredible how diametrically opposed the opinions are on overqualified applicants. The behavioral patterns you described are things that I saw with our previous employee and others in these kinds of positions. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t, but it can cause a lot of damage on the way.

      1. Drama Llama*

        Yes, I agree. It’s demoralizing to the rest of the team to have one person who acts like they are too smart to learn, can’t be bothered putting in the effort for this lowly job, critical of company procedures because they think they know better, etc.

        Often it’s not that they are awful people with horrible work ethics. It’s human nature to feel frustrated when you step back to a significantly junior role, even by your own choice. It takes an exceptionally humble person to adapt in this situation.

  38. buttercup*

    When I graduated, I was having trouble finding jobs, so I sometimes would apply for receptionist type jobs at orgs I liked hoping it would somehow lead to a higher paying job at that organization. I now realize I was misguided because 1) I wanted to do research and 2) I would be horrible at any admin job no matter how many years of work experience I have as I have limited organizational skills.

    In the way of advice, I would just say to somehow screen candidates to make sure they genuinely like and would be good at doing admin work. I’m not sure how you could guarantee they last longer than a year. Recent grads are unlikely to be overqualified, but highly likely to job-hop while experienced admins would be overqualified..

  39. Chickaletta*

    I’m currently in a job that I’m overqualified for (entry-level staff support, I have a business degree and over 15 years work experience), so from an insider’s view, here’s why the job is working really well for me:

    -It’s a career change, so it’s giving me an opportunity to learn the field while doing easy admin-type work
    -It was meant to be a foot-in-the door type job. Both I and my managers recognize that. In fact, my managers started talking to me within my first month about what job titles I might look into next (this doesn’t mean I would move on right away, there’s a year “probation” where you’re exptected to stay in that role. The discussions with my managers were mostly a formality, but also a way for them to recognize I was overqualified while encouraging me to stay with the company)
    -I’m given extra projects to keep me busy and teach me new things that might be useful in other job positions
    -There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Nobody around me expects me to stay in my current role for long. That alone takes a lot of the tension off of being an employee who’s overqualified.

  40. Been There, Done That*

    What really jumped out at me was the statement that the job has been variously categorized as admin and as office manager, even though OP emphasizes that it’s an entry level job with no advancement. I’ve noticed lately that employers call basic administrative jobs “office manager” even though there’s no management to it. When I was an office manager I had 5 direct reports and managed a budget. I believe employers need to be honest about what the job is. Inflating titles makes lower-level jobs sound like more than they are and sets the stage for disappointment all around.

    1. Betsy*

      I don’t understand the office manager thing, either. Our office manager recently left, to be promoted to some higher level job, but she was like some sort of benevolent wizard who ran everything and made it function properly. She had three employees under her and was an older woman who was very experienced at managing the administrative side of the department.

  41. anon scientist*

    I’m a bit late to this post, so maybe no one will see this but — my take on it is that when we’re searching for jobs, I think there’s a feeling that we have to say “I’ll do it all! I love a challenge! Give me more work! I’ll work nights and weekends, whatever it takes!” So if you are overqualified and your reasons are that you want less stress, like to just do your tasks and get them done, and don’t really want to work nights and weekends, it feels risky to say that. My worry is that the hiring manager will think that I’m not willing to work hard. I am, I just don’t want my job to take over my life…

    So, hiring managers who are worried about overqualified candidates, I think you have to make it clear that it is safe for the candidate to say that they want a “lower level” job. You are not going to get honest answers if candidates think that will stop them from getting the job.

    Job searching sucks.

  42. Elizabeth*

    Hi I’m writing from the UK so the situation may be different but my question would be how old the applicant was. If you are much above 50 YOA you will not get appointed to a career post, unless you are very lucky, so it might be as simple as that.
    Many older folk needing to work are working in retail or flipping burgers because that is all they can get, now it is no longer possible to force a retirement.

  43. Argh!*

    For an entry-level admin position, you can assume the person won’t stay long, for whatever reason. Over-qualified people are in abundance in the new economy because middle management positions have been slashed in many organizations. I know someone who was laid off from a middle management job and has been unemployed for a few years because he refuses to take a job lower than his previous job. His colleagues who were laid off at the same time have taken a step downward and are still working at those lower-level jobs.

    Did the previous person make legitimate criticisms? You may want to hint at some of those things to an experienced applicant to give them a heads-up that the boss is [whatever the problem is].

    If you’ve been a manager for any length of time and then get stuck reporting to an incompetent manager, it can be crazy-making at any level. (not that I know this from experience or anything)

  44. only acting normal*

    Sounds like Fergus wanted to still have authority (still having a say in how a company is run), but not responsibility (not taking an executive level job). Doesn’t work like that.
    My line manager for a long time was convinced that I was under-utilised and should be going for promotion – I finally got him to back down when I told him I have chronic stress-activated depression and I didn’t want some of the responsibilities associated with the promotion, I was comfortable handling my current level of authority and responsibility.
    My decision comes at a price. Sure I can still have (+ give when asked) opinions about things above my pay-grade, but I don’t want the responsibility so I don’t get the authority to make the decisions, nor do I get to gripe excessively about the decisions that are made.
    If your over-qualified potential hire is clear they are relinquishing authority as well as responsibility then you might have better mileage.

  45. rockytop*

    I am about 4 years away from retirement. On a personal level, I have had LOT of life happening these past 6 to 8 months. On top of that, my company is downsizing like crazy! They have closed all our branches and are centralizing here at corporate. There has always been a degree of nepotism, but now it is a lot more concentrated because, of course, family members were not part of the layoff.

    For various reasons (way to many to get into here) I have decided to look for another job. Thankfully, I am in a position where I can take an entry level job and be just fine. I was concerned that it would be difficult to get a job at my age, but those fears are gone as I was actually offered job 24 hours after an interview. I declined as it was very easy to see that it would be a very toxic workplace. I am waiting to hear from another interview that I went on.

    Basically, I am totally burned out after 13 years at my current job and I am SO ready to take on less responsibility. Although I am overqualified for the job I really, really want to get, I would be happy to accept the position and the pay cut for the next 4 years of my life. Even if I leave after a year or two, I would still be better off than I am now.

    I realize that not everyone fits my mold, but I wanted to throw in my two cents to help you see that there are very valid reasons for people to downgrade their jobs

    1. Drama Llama*

      Unfortunately, though, it’s difficult to judge how genuine the applicant is. Some people really do want less responsibilities and do not care about the lower pay grade. Others simply have no option and will reluctantly accept a junior job while job searching for something that better fits their seniority.

      On both sides of the spectrum, applicants will offer genuine reasons for stepping down. So rather than accepting their word at face value I have to evaluate their situation and make reasonable guesses based on my past experience. My past experience strongly says overqualified applicants are much more likely to be unhappy and won’t last long. So based on that, I’m highly unlikely to hire overqualified applicants no matter how valid their reasons are for stepping down.

  46. Keener*

    I’ve before hired an extremely over qualified candidate for a position. We were advertising for an full-time (paid) 4-month summer position for a student. The person we ended up hiring had graduated from university with an applicable degree and 5-years somewhat related professional experience. He was in the country on a working holiday and due to having foreign qualifications was struggling to get professional work and was therefore working in retail. I was very clear that the pay and responsibilities would be student level and he enthusiastically replied that it was far superior to his retail job and he would happily take the position. We hired him and he was a great fit. He happily did all the low level, repetitive tasks, but then also contributed significantly more on some projects due to his previous work experience.

  47. Anonymous72*

    I hired in as a receptionist after burning out at a job where I managed an $80 million location and hundreds of its employees. I was desperate for a job and I was their best receptionist applicant. I planned to stay at the receptionist job for a year, if I didn’t see any way to move upward. I never, ever complained about it, but I hated the work, felt denigrated by the intern-level tasks, was spoken down to by people I could outwork in my sleep, hated the reception area, could barely live on the pay, and gritted my teeth every day as I smiled and pretended to be pleasant. I couldn’t wait to leave and was job searching within three months.

    I was promoted within four months, literally one day before one of my former colleagues tried to poach me to come work as an analyst at his awesome company. I was promoted again six months later. Six months after that, I was promoted to program director and am on the AVP-track. I’m very loyal to the company and especially to my boss, who was the first manager I ever had who rewarded my work and abilities. In an alternate reality, they lost me to my former colleague after four months. Just a data point.

  48. RJTinRVA*

    Regarding the brother-in-law situation, that’s an easy one – I would simply say I can’t recommend a family member.

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