O-V-E-R-Q-U-A-L-I-F-I-E-D can spell ‘lawsuit’

Issue: With the job market flooded with experienced and skilled people, the temptation rises for hiring managers to use "overqualified" as a weeding-out method.

Risk: Courts could view your use of the term "overqualified" as a code word for "too old," sparking an age-discrimination lawsuit.

Action: Advise hiring managers to avoid using that term, either in front of job candidates or in any written description of them.

Your hiring managers are probably wary of hiring people with more expertise or experience than the open job calls for: Once boredom sets in and the job market improves, those overqualified hirees will beat a path to more rewarding jobs elsewhere.

But that doesn't mean they can use the term "overqualified" to weed out applicants. Why? Because it can carry some serious legal undertones and set up your company for a lawsuit.

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The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act makes it illegal to discriminate against anyone age 40 and older in hiring, firing, promotions or pay. A court could view the use of "overqualified" as a way of saying the applicant is too old for the job.

That's what happened in a New York lawsuit a few years ago. A 49-year-old accountant sought an entry-level auditor's job in the New York City Audit Bureau. A manager refused to hire him, saying he was overqualified.

The accountant sued for age bias and the court let the case proceed, saying "overqualified" could be considered "a code word for too old." (Hamm v. New York City Office of Comptroller, No. 2345, S.D., N.Y., 1998)

Advice: Avoid the term, but don't encourage your managers to hire candidates who don't fit your job requirements. Just make sure they document those job requirements.