Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Overqualified? That’s for the candidate to judge

By Simon HalsteadFounder of Halstead Incubation Partners and a regular NDA columnist

As I approach a year of no longer working for a corporate company, and continue on my own journey with consulting and working on a fractional basis – I want to talk about an issue I frequently hear feedback about in industry groups, and amongst friends. 

Am I applying for roles? Occasionally, selectively, where I think my experience and understanding can provide a good fit.  

Have I been rejected for being overqualified or too senior? Absolutely. And that can be ok too, and there are often good reasons.

But this is a consistent piece of feedback that people are receiving.  And it’s something I have a significant issue for a few reasons…

It’s based on an assumption that careers are purely linear, or that having some employees with significant experience in a senior position occupy a role at a level or two down will create friction.  

In my time at Microsoft  – we often spoke about the career path as climbing a mountain – with a myriad of routes of progress, and the ability to transition from a management to an IC path or to step laterally.  It feels to me that we have lost that recognition.  It’s also important to remember that whilst we sometimes want to scale a mountain to the top, sometimes we simply only want to reach the point that offers the views we like best, and often we will want to pause on the way down the hill to enjoy the environment.

It’s also really important to remember that sometimes people decide they don’t like climbing mountains, and simply want to have a nice hike in the foothills.

Qualifications should be the bar to be met, to have the capacity to complete a role.  Once you have met that bar, it’s a challenging concept that you can have too many skills, or experiences to deliver that will stop you being as effective. 

The challenge of managing someone with experience may show gaps in management expertise, but actually, this can be a great opportunity to learn.  It can also be the case that a more experienced role holder may be able to provide support and even mentoring to a manager.  This is a challenge that can be overcome purely via good communication. So let’s talk about some of the fears that exist with employing people to a role a level or two down. 

The Fears 

  • That person is only in a role until something better comes along
    • People got to eat !!  – someone working will deliver in the role and will produce a high standard of delivery
    • Solid delivery for a while is still worthwhile and valuable
  • An experienced person will dial it in – or get in the manager’s way
    • People may find the balance at the level of the role, or be happy to be consistent deliverer – with less expectation of promotion/advancement 
    • This can even empower teams, raising the bar for all in terms of delivery, and guiding those who are still climbing hills

Some people may have found that they didn’t enjoy operating at the higher level, or that their life requires some different focus and attention.   

In my case, I travelled extensively for 15 years in my career, particularly in the last 10 and I’m enjoying travelling less.  I didn’t apply for 3 great roles, because they had 50% travel+ expectations. 

I was lucky enough to listen to Josh Krichefski speak at the IAB UK Leadership team about his career and the events he has overcome with family, and it really drove home the biggest truism.   


People may then be exploring the need to strike a very different work-life balance, due to family or personal circumstances.   People may have commitments that mean working at a level is more preferable to not working and waiting for a role, or even that type of role may no longer exist due to consolidation, and structure changes. 

Sometimes, overqualification is a cost issue.  Either the risk of paying a team member more than a manager, or not having the budget for experience.  This is also another argument for looking at and exploring fractal work, and hiring experience on a partial basis.  I’d happily work fewer days a week but be able to leverage my experience rather than be priced out of a role.  I’m lucky that I’ve been able to negotiate this in some projects I’ve delivered.

There are some ways we can overcome some of these challenges.  


  • Firstly – publish basic and OTE figures on the role when posting
  • it enables applicants to make the decision about whether the range meets their needs and cuts out applications, and wasted time where people apply but salaries can’t match. 
  • Review rejected CVs from automatic screens – I’ve helped a few people find roles, that were being rejected because of filtering on experience, even though the role fitted
  • Be explicit where it isn’t overqualification, but a specific skills gap 


  • Write a good cover letter, and be candid about your priorities for a role
  • Be prepared to answer why you are considering the role
  • Commit to the role and the best delivery you can within the bounds of the role 
  • Being a proactive support to the manager, and being sensitive to any complexity

Ultimately, this is a sensitive subject and is always a difficult balance for employers and potential employees but it’s important to allow candidates to make decisions at the level they choose to operate and to look for the benefit of bringing very qualified candidates into a role.   Similarly, we can minimise the frustration for candidates by clear expectation setting, and allowing people to decide their own paths and willingness to work at level.