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Avoid This Landmine: Hiring Overqualified Candidates

MSPs want the very best talent they can afford. But when an applicant seems too good to be true, it's time to do some digging.

In my work as CEO of a staffing firm that focuses on helping MSPs find the right talent, I often see overqualified candidates applying for positions. At first glance, you might feel you’re getting a deal. And you might be right — the applicant could have burnished his resume because he's looking to get out of a toxic environment and end up being a great fit.

However, beware: If you hire a truly overqualified candidate, you're likely to face problems — quickly.

First things first. Overqualified employees become bored fairly quickly and will ask your hiring manager about career-advancement opportunities at least twice a quarter. Over the course of my 10-year career as a recruiter for the channel, I’ve heard about this happening to CSPs and MSPs over and over again — and this type of behavior makes sense when you take a step back to think about it. 

Let’s use the following scenario as an example: You hire an overqualified network engineer with all the hot skills. For the first few months, you watch this employee excel at every assigned project. Not only does this employee understand the basics, including maximizing network performance, building out and upgrading networks, and maintaining secure and compliant infrastructures, she also goes out of her way to keep clients pleased, your team organized and projects on time. You’re more than satisfied with your employee’s work, and your new network engineer seems gratified as well.

Eventually, though, this employee masters your systems and fixes existing problems. That's when boredom sets in. She begins recognizing the shortcomings of fellow colleagues, starts becoming frustrated with the situation and demands a clear path to a higher position from your hiring manager. Unfortunately, there isn’t room or budget for another senior network engineer, so you do your best to accommodate this employee — maybe with a few bucks, but more likely by offering verbal encouragement, thanks and praise, perhaps some training toward a new certification or sending her to a trade show. This subdues your overqualified employee’s urge to do something more challenging — at least for a while. But eventually this employee will resume knocking on your hiring manager’s door. That leads to one of two outcomes: A senior position opens up or one of your suppliers or competitors (maybe a local CSP or MSP that is also angling for your customers) snatches up the candidate you once hired as a network administrator instead of a senior network administrator.

Researchers have conducted studies on overqualified employees in the workforce, and one that was done in 2008 still rings true. Titled “Too smart for their own good? A study of perceived cognitive overqualification in the workforce,” this study, published in the The International Journal of Human Resource Management, says hiring managers should continue to reject overqualified job applicants because these candidates will more than likely develop negative job attitudes. A more recent survey, Spiceworks' 2018 IT Career Outlook report, found that one-third of IT pros plan on job-hopping. Many cite being underpaid, but in my experience, employees more often than not leave organizations when they no longer understand how their futures align with management’s vision.

Avoid hiring an overqualified person in the first place, and you’ll save time and money and sidestep the hassle of reentering the hiring process, either internally or (hopefully) with a firm like mine. 

OK, so I’ve sold you on the idea of not hiring overqualified candidates. You’re probably now curious about red flags you should look for. Simply put, understanding motivation is the first step to spotting overqualified candidates. 

When you sit down with an applicant, have in hand well-thought-out questions to uncover the interviewee’s motivations for wanting the job you’re offering. Is he simply looking to make a lateral move? If so, why? Try to uncover the real reasons for leaving a previous job. Don’t stop at the interviewee’s initial answer. Delve a bit deeper. Did this particular candidate leave voluntarily and on good terms? Some answers may make you nervous, but keep on digging.

For example, let’s say the candidate you’re interviewing is technically a T3 technician, but while you’re discussing salary, this individual asks for a price point more aligned with what a T1 technician would make at your company. You’d immediately assume the worst, right? More often than not, there’s more to the story. What if this candidate’s previous employer had created a toxic work environment for its employees and he's desperate to get out? That is a plausible scenario, and if that’s the answer provided to you, then ask the candidate to define “toxic work environment.” For many women and minorities in tech, for example, "we have a diverse workforce" is just a phrase in their employer's HR brochure. Always do your best to get to the real story behind the rehearsed responses.

Digging up the roots of a candidate’s answer now will help you later on. What do I mean by that? Well, you might decide to hire someone who’d given you a questionable initial answer during the hiring process. After doing your due diligence, you realized there was more to the story, and in the process, you learned about the candidate’s pain points for leaving. You now know how to avoid putting your employee in a similar situation.

Oh, and once your well-qualified candidate becomes a valued employee, you’re not done. Yes, you’ve filled your field tech position with someone who’s worked with MSPs for more than five years, brings experience with both ConnectWise and Kaseya, and agreed to your target salary. What you haven’t accomplished is ensuring your well-qualified candidate doesn’t eventually become an overqualified, bored and on-the-market employee — because that can happen, too. There are plenty of opportunities, and salaries are rising, say job market watchers.

To prevent future pain, take the time to gauge a candidate’s long-term goals during the hiring process; for example, if you’re interviewing for a field tech role, would the candidate in front of you like to eventually become a service manager? If so, provide an abstract game plan. Agree to sit down every six months or so over the next three years to discuss progress. If the candidate responds positively to your offer, then the odds of this particular individual leaving your company prematurely are lowered.

While it might be tempting, hiring overqualified candidates will put you and your business in a tough spot down the road. Overqualified candidates become bored and dissatisfied fairly quickly, and then, instead of focusing on your customers and the job at hand, they’ll be preoccupied with negotiating raises and promotions. Remember, it's all about motivation.

John Davenjay is the CEO of Bowman Williams. John founded the company in 2009 after running operations and sales for a managed service and VoIP provider based in Washington, D.C. His firsthand experience of sourcing and hiring MSP employees led to the creation of a staffing firm exclusively focused on helping the MSP industry eliminate the common bottleneck of hiring MSP talent. Forbes ranked Bowman Williams #137 in the Best Recruiting Firms in America in 2018 and the firm is a staffing partner for over 300 MSPs around the country.  

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