Delve podcast: Why Employers Think Overqualified Job Applicants Lack Commitment, with Roman Galperin (Read Transcript)

Delve podcast, May 11, 2023: Why Employers Think Overqualified Job Applicants Lack Commitment, with Roman Galperin
Roman Galperin: Given my experience, given my age, given the field I’m in, are my qualifications within the expected range or are they severely below or am I overqualified? Are my qualifications much higher than what is expected? And if so, I may have trouble convincing an employer that I’m a good candidate for the job.
Robyn Fadden – host: Why is being overqualified for a sought-after job at a desirable workplace seen as a drawback? When job hunting, people give all kinds of obvious and not-so-obvious signals about their capabilities and their “fit” for an organization. In their resumes and in job interviews, they’ll highlight work experience, education, skills, and in general try to prove their worth in that particular corner of the labour market. What happens when even the most qualified job applicants do everything right but end up seeming overqualified anyway?
Robyn Fadden – host: Despite having prestigious educations and impressive work credentials, these candidates get turned down by hiring managers, often before they even get an interview. Are they to blame for striving too much? Or are prospective employers biased against over-achievers? Turns out, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
Robyn Fadden – host: Professor Roman Galperin at the McGill Desautels Faculty of Management and his co-researchers ran experimental studies to figure out what hiring managers really thought about these exceptionally qualified job candidates. They found that all those signals that candidates give about their capability for a job are linked to hiring managers’ perceptions of commitment—namely, the concern that overqualified applicants are a flight risk. Delve talked to Roman Galperin about why that is, what people can do about it when navigating the labour market, and why prospective employers should think again about these overqualified, highly knowledgeable job seekers—especially in a time when AI technologies are increasingly applied in the workplace.
Robyn Fadden – host: Welcome to the Delve podcast Professor Galperin. The labour market has clearly changed over the past few years since the COVID pandemic began, but we’re still facing changes to how people look for jobs, how they do their jobs, and how often and why they change jobs. We’ve all heard about people being overqualified for a job—that’s also something that’s been going on for many years—but your research shows that that means different things to different employers. At the same time, some job applicants don’t feel they’re overqualified, even if a potential employer perceives them that way during an interview or on their resume. Why was it important for you to investigate this phenomenon within the labour market and to look deeper into its impact on both potential employers and employees?
Roman Galperin: I think the idea for this project emerged when my co-author on this paper, Oliver Hahl, and I were in a graduate program at MIT. We were close to graduation, and we were facing the prospect of looking for a job and not knowing whether we were going to get it or not. One of the well-known factoids in academia is that if you graduate from what is considered an elite program (I’m going to use it in quotes), from a very prestigious program, then your prospects on the job market are different from those who graduated from a solid university but not necessarily an elite university. And the prospects are you have either all or nothing, so you either get a job at a top university in a prestigious department, or you get no job at all.
Robyn Fadden – host: It really doesn’t seem to make sense. If someone graduates from a good program and has achieved a Masters degree or PhD, shouldn’t they be in demand in the relevant job market, shouldn’t they be first pick?
Roman Galperin: We were talking about this and trying to figure out why would this be the case. And around that time, there were several articles on the labor market for lawyers—there seems to have been a crisis in lawyers finding jobs in the US specifically, and they seemed to have a very similar pattern. Graduates from top law schools, some of them would find jobs in big law firms, and then a lot of them would end up with no job at all. Newspapers would portray these graduates with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, who are contractors, they work in legal sweatshops essentially, they’re freelancing and doing some work that is well below their capability, below their skills. Again, a similar pattern. You invest in something that increases your skills, and then it’s really hard to find a job. It seems to be related to this idea that some people seem to be just too good for whatever job they’re applying to. So we started thinking about this and developed this into this idea that over-qualification is something that most of us have heard about but we really don’t quite know how it works and what it is.
Robyn Fadden – host: As more people have gone on to higher education in the past couple of decades, and more are getting Masters degrees and PhDs, we’ve come to understand as a society that the definition of overqualified means both a higher level of experience and a high level of education as well. How did you figure out that employers were equating job candidate’s over-capability with their likelihood to be less committed to the job and to the workplace?
Roman Galperin: For this project, we talked to a lot of people, we reached out through the network. There are four authors on this paper, and among the four of us, we had someone we would know personally or a friend of a friend who would have experienced this overqualification problem—and some of us have experienced it from the perspective of the applicant, of the job applicant, so you’re applying and you’re too good for the job, you don’t hear back. But what was more informative, more important for us, is to hear from some of the hiring managers—so why would they not hire someone who’s highly qualified for the job?
Robyn Fadden – host: So, as with all research, you first had to figure out the right research question to ask in order for your findings to make sense. Then you talked to people about their experiences of overqualification. What discoveries emerged from those conversations?
Roman Galperin: What emerged were these two themes, and one was that—well, first of all, the finding that, anecdotal at that point, that it’s not that hiring managers don’t look at highly qualified applicants. If you stand out, the application definitely gets attention, but then there is no action on this. So the hiring manager doesn’t reach out to this applicant. The two themes that emerged—and why they wouldn’t do this? One is the concern that the person is not going to stay for a long, so they’re a flight risk, because the job is so much below their perceived level of skills and qualifications. And another risk is that even if they stay, if the job is too small for them, so to speak, then they will be not as motivated, they may be difficult to manage and direct. And generally speaking they will not contribute to the mission of the organization as much as someone who would have enough qualifications but not too much. That really formed the underlying explanation that we then set out to test in experiments in this paper.
Robyn Fadden – host: Being enough but not too much is a fine line to tread when job hunting. What did you find out about the signals that a person gives, whether in their resume or in the job interview, that make them seem overqualified?
Roman Galperin: They in practice may mean different things to different people. We approach this a little bit more formally and just thought about what would be the typical credentials, the typical work experience that is expected for someone in a position? Usually those things are listed in an ad for the job. It’s one thing to check those boxes and be within the ranges that are requested, so the same or slightly more years of experience that they asked for, educational degree of the level that’s being asked. It’s another thing to be well above those qualifications, those requirements—that is really where it becomes problematic. So if a job asks for an undergraduate degree and you have a PhD, or if a job asks for five years of experience, and you have 20, that’s really where it becomes problematic.
Robyn Fadden – host: Galperin also points out that while education and experience levels might raise an eyebrow, job titles on resumes matter too. Even with the same level of education and qualifications, if someone has moved up the title ladder into management or the executive level, but are now applying to positions below that, then potential employees will likely wonder why they appear to be taking a step down in their career. These types of signals in the hiring process are questions marks or even doubts in the mind of the hiring manager. They can be strong enough to stop the manager not only from hiring someone but from even giving them an interview. But that doesn’t mean applicants shouldn’t try to offer explanations for their overqualifications in a cover letter or even in the resume itself—especially since a lot of screening today is done through automation.
Roman Galperin: We have increasingly smart algorithms that may analyze text. And so even if the manager doesn’t read your cover letter, it makes sense to [provide] whatever explanations you may have, to put in the cover letter because maybe they will be captured by someone on the screening side of this process.
Robyn Fadden – host: Whether AI or a real-life manager reads your cover letter, it will possibly help to include that in your application. In an era when people seem to change jobs more often in the past, commitment to the job remains important. For one, companies know that it costs them to hire someone only to lose them quickly. Why are expectations of job commitment so important to organizations, including during the hiring process?
Roman Galperin: I want to say that this is a perennial problem, and the reason that we haven’t talked about it as much among researchers of labour markets, is not because it hasn’t been happening, it’s just we haven’t noticed it, we haven’t paid enough attention to this. So it’s always been the case that the people who hire others to do work for them, they’re concerned with both: with their qualifications and with how committed they’re going to be to performing the job. But for whatever reason, labor economists, labor sociologists have focused on the qualifications part of this and so talked a lot about credentials, researched a lot about human capital, how getting a degree helps or hurts in getting a certain job or performing a certain job.
Roman Galperin: This in part may be related to the fundamental feature of commitment—that it’s very difficult to measure. It’s really hard to know how much someone is committed to something. It’s really easy to say that you’re committed, or you will be committed, to promise, but it’s been really difficult to check to what extent is this true. So because of that, researchers have not thought about that as much. What we’re doing in this project is to bring this question back. This is an important question because it affects how people actually hire others and help people find jobs. Signals of commitment are important here.
Robyn Fadden – host: What can people who are looking for a job and what can employers for that matter learn from this link between overqualification and commitment? Should prospective employees who are overqualified present themselves differently? Is there something more strategic that they should do? Or is this a larger contextual, systemic problem with the labour market in general?
Roman Galperin: I think this applies to both employees and employers. And we’re going to talk about employers a little bit later, but from a job applicant perspective, if I’m looking for a job, what’s important for me to know is: How well do my qualifications correspond to someone who is expected to be in this point of my career? So given my experience, given my age, given the field I’m in, are my qualifications within the expected range or are they severely below or am I overqualified? Are my qualifications much higher than what is expected? And if so, I may have trouble convincing an employer that I’m a good candidate for the job.
Roman Galperin: Maybe the simplest way to think about this is to question when considering getting another degree or considering getting a credential, maybe some license or some certification, it’s important to consider that more is not always better in this regard. And that if there is concordance between where you are in your career and what kind of qualifications you have, you’re in good shape. But if not, if you’re considering getting an MBA right after an undergraduate degree, this may not be a good idea—because when you’re applying for an entry level job, it’s more of a liability. You will need to explain why is it that you’re applying with an MBA to an entry level job? Similarly, if there’s a field where most people have master’s degree, and you decide to go all the way for a doctorate degree—this may seem like a good thing you will stand above, be a stand out—but maybe you will stand out not in a good way in that you will have to explain yourself, why is it that you were you diverted some time toward this, getting the degree rather than accumulating work experience, for example.
Robyn Fadden – host: With that in mind, we see a lot of people having to get creative about explaining their time spent in graduate programs or law school and other advanced training. They need to show directly how those skills match a job arena that perhaps differs from the one thought they would be in after they completed that schooling. From the employer perspective, they’re thinking about these skills and qualifications, but are they also thinking about the impact of monetary compensation? Not only on how much they’ll have to pay someone with an advanced degree, but how much a higher paycheque could affect someone’s commitment to the job?
Roman Galperin: It’s hard to say. Compensation is one way of meant to motivate people. It’s one way to keep them from leaving. For example, if you are concerned that someone is a flight risk, because they’re overqualified for the job, maybe if you pay them enough, they will stay that’s one way to think about it. Another way we thought about this is that this is a way for candidates to signal their commitment is to show that they’re giving up money for the organizational mission for example. If someone is switching from a for-profit sector to a nonprofit sector, and they are doing this with a loss of income—so they’re getting paid less than the new job. If this is consistent with the message that they’re sending to the employer that they really care about the organizational mission, that may also help with the interpretation of commitment—it’s okay to be overqualified if you’re doing this because you’re switching to a job, that’s more of your calling on maybe something that that is consistent with your worldview. And you’re from a job that maybe we you weren’t very happy in that job, or maybe you weren’t finding it as meaningful as the new job. These are some of the ways in which applicants can help with this problem.
Robyn Fadden – host: That’s interesting because there’s a rather persistent expectation that the more education you have the more money you should be able to make, but we know that not to be the case for everyone. Looking for a meaningful position is just one thing that throws a wrench in that logic around job commitment. To go back to the employer perspective again, how do your findings about hiring managers’ bias, perception and stereotyping fit in with research on biases around race, gender, and other diversity markers?
Roman Galperin: Similarly qualified applicants, you know, women will experience different expectations for them, which will be different by hiring managers, and they will be essentially penalized—but because of these stereotypes, they will, on average, be perceived as less committed to their careers. Now, when they’re overqualified, this compensates for this penalty for this perception. Because if you went out of your way to get an extra degree or invested in a particular difficult to get certification or professional license, then it signals that you’re probably committed to your career. And so that that eliminates this penalty. So, in relative terms, women who are overqualified don’t experience as much of a backlash in hiring process as men do. This is an interesting, somewhat counterintuitive finding. But it speaks to this idea that stereotypes related to social group memberships—to gender to race and ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, all of these categories that we care about—those stereotypes apply in the context of over qualification because they enter into this calculation of how well someone’s qualifications and commitment will fit with the requirements and the goals of the organization that’s hiring a person.
Robyn Fadden – host: Overqualification becomes a kind of calculation or logic puzzle that hiring managers are doing spur of the moment, weighing education and experience, everything on a person’s resume, as well as their social and cultural background. How could the impacts of your findings affect the way hiring managers do their job—could they help hiring managers be more objective?
Roman Galperin: I think the findings may benefit the hiring managers in a simple way. The simple advice would be to give those applications that seem to be overqualified, give them a second look and try to find out why is this person applying? The concerns may well apply. Maybe this person is a flight risk, maybe they apply just because it’s easy to apply, maybe they didn’t even see the job description, or didn’t read it carefully. It’s possible. But it’s also possible that you have an opportunity of hiring someone who is exceptionally highly qualified at a fraction of the cost that otherwise you would incur as an organization.
Roman Galperin: This is especially beneficial for those organizations that are constrained in terms of how much they can pay. So startups are in good position to try to benefit from this problem and fix it along the way in some way. Because the people who experience overqualification, they need a job. Nonprofit organizations, mission-driven organizations often are constrained in terms of how much they can pay. And so for them, the lesson again is: give that overqualified application a second look and try to find out why this person wants to work here.
Robyn Fadden – host: We talked a bit about algorithms earlier. How do these research findings apply to future directions for the hiring process, such as refining algorithms and AI tools that are used in hiring and other areas of human resources?
Roman Galperin: I want to say maybe two trends are apparent, and they’re linked. One is that a lot of hiring is done by algorithms nowadays, or at least a lot of screening, not necessarily hiring but screening of the applications—and because algorithms tend to mimic the logic of human decision making, some of the errors and some of the biases, as we well know, may make their way into the algorithm. But they’re also different. They’re also not humans. And so there is opportunity in that difference, in setting the rules for the algorithm in a more open, maybe a little bit stricter, less biased way. There’s opportunity to benefit from these inefficiencies in hiring that are related to overqualification or perception of overqualification.
Roman Galperin: A second related point is that we are, I think, in the midst of experiencing a true AI revolution, we’ve talked about this for several years now. But now, it is apparent that AI can be a useful tool, especially in knowledge-intensive jobs. And so if we imagine the evolution of knowledge-intensive jobs into those that are AI-assisted jobs, it’s possible that someone who seemed overqualified for the job yesterday, today will be just the right fit. I think handling different combination of tasks, handling the different nature of the job that is related to the use of AI in many jobs—this extra understanding is going to require skills that are difficult to find. And so people who are overqualified may actually be just the right fit.
Robyn Fadden – host: While the conundrum of overqualification for a job has been around for many years, the advances in AI technology have complicated it even further. This really speaks to how AI is affecting work in general, how people do their jobs, how people think about their occupational identity, how the labor market is changing. Technology has always had a major impact on the labor market and on entire industries for that matter, but it’s kind of heartening to hear that somebody with a PhD, who may have been considered overqualified before, may now be in demand for the AI applications of their knowledge-based skills.
Roman Galperin: I mean, there are two ways to slice it. One would be that it solves the problem of overqualification. Another one is we’re experiencing another cycle of inflation in degrees. So, credential inflation has been evident throughout the 20th century when some of the entry level jobs… it’s okay to have a high school diploma to do those jobs. And then toward the end of the century of the last century, most of those jobs required a bachelor’s degree. Now it’s moving on to graduate degrees slowly. And it’s possible that the education cycle is getting longer because the jobs are getting more complex. That could be a good thing for those who have embarked on the education. But it could also be something that we should be careful with in terms of its impact on people who are unable or do not want to pursue a longer educational.
Robyn Fadden – host: Another aspect of that is one of the long-standing visions for AI, that these tools would allow people to work less or not at all. Right now, as you’ve pointed out, AI is changing and will continue to change how we work, and that deeply affects the role of work in our lives, the labour market, and society in general.
Roman Galperin: I think a positive way to see it is that if we look back at the industrial revolution, the sentiment that was voiced around that time, around the turn of the previous century, was very similar to what we hear about AI, that automation is going to replace everyone, and all the jobs are going away. And what happened instead is that the jobs have changed. There were new jobs that didn’t exist before some of the jobs, some of the old jobs went away, it’s true, but a lot more new jobs have been created in what those jobs required it is higher level of knowledge and higher level of education.
Roman Galperin: In some sense, we can make a direct link between change in the technologies during the industrialization in the massive growth in higher education. This trend may just continue. With the changing nature of jobs that is related to the introduction of tools like AI, it is possible that the education sector will develop as well. What is considered exceptional now will be normal very soon, in terms of the level of degrees that we expect people to have. If automation makes our lives easier, and AI makes our lives easier and great. It maybe allows us to focus on other tasks.
Robyn Fadden – host: That is a hopeful sentiment. It’s also a hopeful sentiment that nothing is constant but change. We can think about the industrial revolution, more access to education, the advent of the personal computer and home internet, and we can also think about the invention of the dishwasher and washing machine, which arguably increased women’s participation in the workforce by reducing the domestic tasks expected of them and gave them time for other activities like work. These technological changes changed the labour market. This is an optimistic view, of course.
Roman Galperin: Maybe there is no other choice for us but to embrace the most optimistic views that we have. But the optimistic view is that something similar may happen with AI, and we will have more participation in the labor market. And that will, again, push the qualifications expected for the job upward. And so, getting back to the same idea, people who seem overqualified now will not be overqualified tomorrow with the same level of qualifications.
Robyn Fadden – host: And they’ll then be able to show their commitment in one way or another, in different ways once again. That’s a positive note to end on. Thank you for talking with Delve about your research, Professor Galperin.
Robyn Fadden – host: Our guest today on the Delve podcast was McGill Desautels Faculty of Management professor Roman Galperin (Romaaan Gal-pear-in), discussing his recent research on the links between overqualification and commitment in an ever-changing labour market. You can find out more about Professor Gal-pear-in’s research on
Robyn Fadden – host: Thank you for listening to the Delve podcast, produced by Delve, the thought leadership platform of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University. You can follow DelveMcGill on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram. And subscribe to the DelveMcGill podcast on your favourite podcasting app.