One of our Five O’Clock Club members, whom I will call Ted, recently e-mailed me with a question on how to handle the “overqualified” question he was sure to be asked on an upcoming interview. As one of our more savvy members who has a good grasp of our methodology, I was a bit puzzled that he would still be raising the question which I know he has faced in other interviews. Also, as someone with more than thirty years’ work experience at the executive level, he has become accustomed to being asked the proverbial “overqualified” question when interviewing for jobs at a more junior level. He knows that the question is often a subtle way for hiring managers, recruiters and others with hiring authority to express concern that one may simply be “too overpriced” for the job. Yet, the question still haunts Ted.
I should point out that Ted knows he is competing for jobs in the cable industry, which is undergoing rapid change as the world of television goes hi-tech, and that he is also competing with a younger, more technologically savvy group of executives. However, Ted is perfectly comfortable at this point in his career not to land a position at the executive level, but in a capacity where his many years’ experience in the industry can still add value. However, Ted’s initial inclination was to tackle the salary question “head on” by disproving any prejudices the interviewer may have regarding his former compensation level. All of which puts him immediately into a defensive mode.
My initial response to Ted was not to presume the interviewer would hold his salary against him. But he does need a strategy! I reminded him of our Four-Step Salary Negotiation Method where he needs to 1) negotiate the job; 2) eliminate his competition; 3) get the offer; and then 4) negotiate the salary. He also needs to know the market value of the positions for which he is interviewing, as well as his own market value, so if he is pressed into discussing salary prior to getting an offer, he can best strategize how to handle this question. For example, Ted is willing to “trade off” a higher salary for the satisfaction of bringing his many years of experience to a role that can still draw on his creative ideas, ability to lead a team, and to motivate people. I further reminded him of his Two-Minute Pitch in which he could state all these great qualities he would bring to the job without sounding defensive.
Another of our members, whom I will call Roy, has been actively interviewing for development (fund raising) positions in the not-for-profit sector, both within health care and higher education. Following his position as the head development officer of a major cultural not-for-profit, Roy made the conscious choice of pursuing a position in development or grant writing at a level or two below his previous one. In his words, “I would be very happy being the number two person at this stage in my career.” He also knows that his compensation level would not be the same. However, like Ted, Roy feels the constant urge to put the salary question to bed by addressing it head on with the hiring manager. This “urge” to address a potential objection also puzzles me given the numerous conversations Roy and I have had about the salary issue both in our small group sessions and privately. My advice to Roy is, as it was to Ted, not to presume an interviewer would hold his previous salary level against him. But again, he needs a strategy if the issue comes up!
So why this obsession with the “overqualified” question? Part of the answer may lie in the fact that salary (and in some instances age) can become the underlying reason some hiring managers and HR professionals hide behind the proverbial “overqualified” question when they believe a candidate’s salary level may mean they will not be committed to the job for which they are interviewing. In the hiring manager’s mind, they must wonder why would Ted and Roy take a position that could be filled by someone not only junior to them in experience but also at a lower salary than they were previously making, and they would be afraid that these senior people would make the leap to a higher paying job at the first opportunity. It is up to Ted and Roy to address the legitimate fears the hiring managers and HR might have. It is incumbent on our two job hunters to make the job itself the real focus, and the value they can bring to that job and to assure the hiring managers that they actually would be quite satisfied having a job at that level.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal may put some of Ted’s and Roy’s concerns into perspective. The article cited a Bureau of Labor Statistics study, which shows the number of workers age 55 and above grew by 3.5 million during the period of September, 2009 through September, 2012. It bodes well for our older workers the fact that more baby boomers are still seeking employment, and most importantly, employers are recognizing the skills and experience these workers can bring to their companies. So, the real issue facing Ted and Roy is not their age but being able to demonstrate their value and true desire when going after positions junior to those they previously held.
To sum up, when Ted asked his small group members how he should he tackle the anticipated “overqualified” question up front with the hiring manager, he heard a resounding “no!” When pressed by the group as to why he would even think that, Ted, turning slightly red in the face, replied passionately “because I know I would be great in that job.” At which point the group chimed in “Then that’s how you handle the ‘overqualified’ question. Now just demonstrate that you would be great in that job and that you want that job.”