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Is “Overqualified” A Code Word For “Over The Hill”?

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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employees ages 45 and older make up a disproportionate share of those unemployed for six months or longer. Plus, laid-off employees ages 45 and older were out of work an average of six weeks longer than younger workers in 2008. One reason older workers might be having trouble finding a job is because they're applying for lower-level positions and employers automatically take them out of the running for being "overqualified." While refusing to hire an older applicant because they're overqualified could be a legitimate justification, in some cases, it could be considered a form of age discrimination.


What Would You Do?

Consider the following hypothetical scenario. An employer takes one look at an applicant's résumé, which covers a 30-year work history, and puts it at the bottom of the pile. The opening is for a production coordinator, the type of job the applicant held closer to the beginning of their career. The employer figures the applicant is unemployed and desperate for any job, and will leave as soon as they find something at a higher level. Is this age discrimination?


Why Would You Do It?

Whether or not this is age discrimination boils down to whether you can articulate a legitimate business reason for rejecting the older applicant. If you can, a discrimination claim will likely fail. However, beware of basing your decision on one of the following assumptions.

  1. The applicant will be bored or dissatisfied in the position. The applicant may have genuine reasons for wanting to move down the career ladder, rather than up. Perhaps they prefer managing projects versus people, or they're looking for shorter hours, or they don't want the stress of the higher-level positions.

  2. The applicant will leave as soon as something better comes along. This can be true of any new hire; absent a contract, no new hire comes with a guarantee of employment.

  3. The applicant will want too much money. Offer the job at the normal starting salary for the position. It's acceptable to reject an applicant requesting $50,000 per year for a $25,000 per year job. However, if the applicant indicates a willingness to take a pay cut, the "overqualified" excuse might not cut it in court.

Concerns about a candidate taking a job until something better comes along can be somewhat alleviated during the interview by evaluating their answers to questions along these lines:

  • Why do you want this job?

  • What is your career goal? How does this job fit into your career path?

  • Where do you see yourself in five years?

Do not probe the future plans of older workers only. Be sure that these questions are asked of all candidates, regardless of their age.

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