By Guillermo Ceballos Serra

An unfortunate story based on true events.

Recently I had dinner with 3 friends with whom I can look back at a friendship of 25+ years. As usual when friends meet, the conversation flowed through a variety of topics including family, health, politics, sports and, of course, work.

My three friends represent different areas of the work spectrum. One, we’ll call him Carlos, is a former multinational executive who now runs a new venture. Next there’s the 3rd generation General Manager of a large family-owned industrial company whom we will call Juan. The third is Pedro, the owner of an SME that his father started and that he managed to keep afloat throughout the last three decades of political and economical turbulence of our country.

A few days before, I had asked Juan (the General Manager) to do me the favor of interviewing an acquaintance of mine who had just lost his job. A similar position was currently vacant in Juan’s company, and in my opinion this acquaintance could satisfactorily fill it.

During dinner, I took the opportunity to ask how he had done in the interview. The answer sounded (at least to me) as a harsh rejection: “Clearly overqualified.

“And what is the problem with that?”, I asked. My friend answered: “He will get bored with us and he will jump at the first opportunity he gets”.

Clearly, the underlying belief in cases like this, is that a candidate like this, takes a job because he needs it but will get bored with a less challenging task. Boredom will turn into frustration which will result in him leaving the company when he gets the chance. I was startled with my friend’s sharp refusal. Especially as I knew my friend as someone who is always willing to put things into perspective.

I decided to share a story of fiction. “Let’s say that Lionel Messi, the undisputed best football player in the world, got tired of the pressures of playing in the world super-leagues. With his financial independence secured, he decides to leave Barcelona to return to Argentina where he wants to play in a provincial league, just for pure fun. Would the authorities of that club reject him as “overqualified”? And if so, how long would it take for the club to fire the coach? How long would fans take to ask for the resignation of the club leaders? How long would it take them to gather outside Messi’s home and urge him to come back? “

That was when my friend Pedro (the owner of the SME) intervened. “He would be a bad example for the team! It would create a standard for his peers that is just impossible to meet or train others for. All their efforts would be outshone by his, even without him being properly trained. It would lower the overall morale.”

“But surely they would learn from him and with him alone, their overall performance would be infinitely superior to other teams. That in the end will benefit all”; I insisted.

The reality is that my arguments were not convincing my friends. Most likely this was because of prior experience where, despite expectations, results were not satisfactory. We all know of cases where a promising new recruit’s arrival soon shows the first cracks. Their attitude shows lack of modesty and understanding of the team dynamics and they soon press for promotions to positions more in line with their past work history.

Despite these examples, there are many reasons why I feel it to be a mistake to dismiss an overqualified candidate outright. I want to focus on one only, as I feel it explains my overall stance in this.

The first error is assuming we know the motivation of the candidate. There are innumerable causes that inspire a person to get into active mode. Motivation is all about putting effort into moving, be it up or down. Frederick Taylor (salary incentives), Elton Mayo (human relations), Abraham Maslow (needs scale), Douglas McGregor (X / Y theory), Frederick Herzberg (task enrichment), David Mc Clelland (need for achievements); all have in the last hundred years highlighted different motivational factors people respond to. With so many factors in place, it is safe to say that each person is unique and is perceptive to different stimulus.

But how about our response to the same stimulus? For example, what comes to your mind when you read the word ‘Land’? Most likely, many of you will imagine soil or property, others think of a country and some might see a plane’s wheels touching the runway. So, we can go one step further in our conclusions and say that not only is each person unique, but they also respond differently to the same stimulus.

Knowing this, how can we, as recruiters, be certain of the underlying reasons of a candidate who applies to a position below their competencies or experiences? Maybe we will never be able to, But we should not assume before we find out. We assume, for example, that an unemployed person applies to a job out of necessity. However, their unemployment situation could be due to a well-weighed decision to leave because it was a toxic place. It could also be that the role compromised a healthy family/work balance, because of frequent travel or unregular hours.

It’s worth the while trying to surpass assumptions and ask about a candidate’s motivations. A more qualified executive who chooses stability over the supposed lure of travel, airports and hotels an international career offers, could be of great benefit for a smaller company or one with more geographically concentrated clients and operations. Recruiters (professionals and corporate alike) would be best advised to allowing for an open and honest interview about a candidate’s expectations and supposed overqualifications.

Back to the dinner where my friend Carlos decided to weigh in. “If the candidate is over 50 years old, multinationals will not hire them either. They have candidates lined up in a succession plan or fly in expats from other offices. It’s the age where they prefer to bring in new blood”. Not missing the irony, he added ‘It’s funny really, here you have this very qualified candidate, willing and motivated to work, yet for various reasons, nobody is willing to give him a chance”.

Disappointed to see that the discussion was going nowhere, I simply thought it would be important to review all our past assumptions considering the new realities. Then I told them. ‘do you want to go down in history as the person who rejected Messi?’


About the author

Guillermo Ceballos Serra is a lawyer and Master in Economics and Political Science who has held positions in Human Resources with national and international companies. He is a graduate and postgraduate professor at the Universidad Católica Argentina and ESEADE in Buenos Aires and is currently Executive Search Consultant and Talent Development Practice Leader at Talent Corporate Solutions / Kennedy Executive Search Latin America.