Rejecting overqualified candidates

In some cases, it’s not appropriate to reject candidates seen as ‘overqualified’

Brian Kreissl

By Brian Kreissl

Being a blogger can sometimes be a bit frustrating.

For one thing, I'm limited to about 750 words per post (yes, even an editor has an editor). Therefore, I can't always explore all the angles of a subject, with the result people sometimes make arguments I did actually consider but didn't have the space to cover.

My previous post about candidates being asked to disclose their salary histories was one of those posts. And judging by the online and e-mail comments I received (as well as discussions on other online forums) it was probably my most controversial post yet.

That surprised me a bit, but perhaps I was wrong about employers being within their rights to ask candidates their salary histories. It could be best practices have changed from when I last worked as a recruiter nearly 10 years ago — or it could be that because I got my start as an agency recruiter I might be a little more “hardnosed” than other HR professionals.

Nevertheless, I knew that post would generate at least some controversy from non-HR professionals, and some people (especially jobseekers) would disagree. What I wasn't prepared for was the number of HR professionals who disagreed with me.

Anyway, we're all entitled to our opinions, and HR professionals are never going to agree on everything (it would be scary if we did). However, given the overwhelmingly negative response, I feel it’s necessary to make a few additional points to soften the blow of my earlier post.  
One of the themes I didn't get much of a chance to explore was the whole issue of overqualified candidates. While I still believe, in most cases, employers can and should try to avoid hiring people who are extremely overqualified, there are other sides to the argument.

Recent immigrants

There is a human rights element to consider. Recent immigrants in particular frequently fall into the trap of being considered overqualified for many jobs, yet are unable to find a job at the same level or in the same field they were qualified for in their home countries. I should know, since I've experienced that first-hand myself to a certain extent, as I explained in this previous post.

Employers need to understand they can’t screen out such immigrant candidates simply because they’re overqualified — or based on what they were earning in their home countries. It’s also totally unfair to pigeonhole a recent immigrant and consider her only for more junior roles based on what she was earning in her first job in Canada, since she could likely be capable of doing so much more.

Therefore, in such situations, salary history is pretty much meaningless. In general, I’d argue salary history doesn’t mean much in an international context anyway since different labour markets are structured differently, with the same jobs often paying very differently internationally.

Young people and recent graduates

Another situation where it doesn’t make sense to refuse to hire “overqualified” candidates is in the context of recent graduates. We all know the job market for graduates and young people in general is dismal. Added to that, credentialism has resulted in employers asking for bachelor’s degrees for jobs that required no more than a high school education in the past.

Therefore, we shouldn’t generally refuse to hire a graduate for a job just because he’s overqualified. And it doesn’t make much sense to limit a recent graduate’s opportunities because he had to take a low end job to make ends meet right after graduation. Again, that person’s salary history is virtually meaningless.

Career and industry changers

Career changers are also a special category because it’s almost impossible to make a career change without taking a salary cut. And sometimes even changing industries can have the same effect.

Take legal publishing, for example. While there are a lot of lawyers working here at Carswell — which is primarily a legal publisher — the reality is we can’t match the compensation paid to lawyers by large law firms. On the other hand, there are other real benefits to working here, including a great work environment and a genuine commitment to work-life balance not found in private practice.

Because of that, as a hiring manager, I don’t usually ask a candidate’s previous salary, since it would be meaningless anyway. Nevertheless, candidates’ salary expectations are relevant, and I’m probably not going to hire a senior partner into a product writer role either.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at [email protected]. For more information, visit 

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