Concerned yet intelligent man contemplating his future

Three reasons why smart people don’t get hired

Peter Harris|

Here’s the thing with being very, very smart: the brightest people are not always the most successful. Sometimes having too much intelligence can actually be a drawback in the eyes of others, and it can lead to bright candidates being their own worst enemies on the job market.

Here are three problems really smart people encounter when looking for work:

    You may be over-qualified for many positions. In a tight job market, higher-level positions can be harder to come by. Employers can be reluctant to hire overqualified candidates for the jobs that are available, because they fear the candidate will get bored with the job and move on as soon as they can land another gig. This can lead to longer than average periods of unemployment.

    You can appear unaffordable. Candidates are sometime passed over just because of the level of education or experience they list on their resume. If your work profile looks too impressive, employers might assume that they can’t afford you – even before you’ve had a chance to consider the job or negotiate.

    You could be considered a threat to your bosses. Some hiring managers shy away from people who they think will outshine them on the job. They may fear being leapfrogged up the chain of command by their newly hired shining star, or they may simply think that managing someone smarter than them could be challenging and call their leadership into question.

On the other hand, there’s another key reason why intelligence and success don’t always go hand in hand. People who are very smart in some areas often turn out to have blind spots in others that may come more easily to the rest of us.

Some ways that people can be too smart for their own good when it comes to getting a job:

    Refusing to participate. Smart people sometimes hold back from applying for jobs that are available because they think the work will be beneath them, or they’ll be selling out on their higher ideals by lending their gifts to the crass world of making a profit.

    I’ve had this argument with a gifted, but chronically under-employed friend. You don’t know where your skills and abilities will take you without contributing. There is fascinating and worthwhile work being done in all sectors, private, public, and not-for-profit. This is what makes our society and economy work – people using the best of their abilities to create goods and services of real value to others. Standing on the sidelines looking down on it isn’t as smart as it seems.

    Too much information. Intelligent people can be justifiably proud of their accomplishments and education, and this can lead to a tendency to overload a resume with too many details that aren’t actually relevant to employers. It’s not dishonesty to leave things off your resume: it’s editing, it’s marketing. Remember to focus on the challenges and needs of the job and organization you’re applying to, and list your relevant skills and accomplishments to show how you can be an asset.

    Acting bored or cocky. The smartest person in the room can find it trying to have to listen to others explain things that they already know or aren’t interested in. However, in the business setting, and especially at job interviews, good manners and sociability are essential. So acting disinterested in what others have to say or appearing arrogant about your superior intellect will get you shunned quickly.

    Not being dependable. Sure the mundane details like showing up on time or getting work done on a schedule can be boring when you’re busy coming up with innovative and ground-breaking new solutions, but they still matter. If you do great work, you will be allowed more leeway, but at the end of the day, your boss needs to know that they can count on you. Being too unreliable on the job will trump having a big brain.

    Lacking in social skills. Smart people sometimes think that the most important thing is to be right all the time – because it is on that level that they are most comfortable competing. However, constantly pointing out others’ errors, or arguing every point to the inevitable conclusion that you know best will only make people reluctant to work with you. Critical thinking and healthy debate are not the same as simply being critical and negative. Use your intelligence to be a leader, share your perspective, but don’t try to force people to always agree with you.

Smart people can mitigate the risks to their careers by using their big brains to work on their emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills as well as their subject matter expertise.

Modify your resume to meet and even exceed the level of education and experience required for the job you want, but there’s no need to wow (or intimidate) the employer with everything you’ve got right away.

And by all means, participate. The world of work is changing fast as career paths and industries are forming and fading rapidly. We need the best that the brightest among us can offer to help make the most of it. Making an effort to fit in doesn’t mean selling out.

Is your intellect standing in the way of your success?

See also:

Can you be too attractive to get hired?
The trouble with introverts (and why it’s time for them to take over)
The 25 worst excuses for not finding a job


Peter Harris
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Category: Career Dilemmas, Latest News & Advice
  • jeffrey

    Vey good article. I thought businesses wanted the best and brightest. They keep advertising how they need the best and the brightest. Now your article states that the best and brightest are feared by bosses because of over qualification, unaffordable, and being a threat to the boss or administrators. There seem to be a serious psychological problem with bosses or hiring managers and administrators if that is the case.

  • Zevzek

    “Smart people can mitigate the risks to their careers by using their big brains to work on their emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills as well as their subject matter expertise”
    The other side, holding the power of position or numbers, won’t adjust!

  • Kevin24

    I definitely missed a few jobs for being overqualified. the manager interviewing me was totally incompetent. I know who they hired in the end and it kept the chain of command in check, he was dumb too. As Forrest Gump says “stupid is as stupid does” Oh well, I just got picked up by some smart guys where I fit better, I have worked for incompetent bosses in the past and they were a pain trying to micro manage and did not understand the work plus offered zero assistance to technical issues.
    Another hiring trend I noticed lately was hiring personnel who recently immigrated tend to lean towards people people from their home land and there is not much you can do about the hidden predjudice. It’s sad because the company misses a lot of good talent based on race.

  • Tammi Carson

    No matter how educated smart and intelligent you are, you can sometimes be the most insecure person this side of the Moon. I remember reading in Cosmo about how a Woman didn’t get her Dream Job but it was probably due to a lot of factors. She went to a Top College, The Person who interviewed her attended a lesser known College not that there’s anything wrong with that. Or they bring their Petty Jealousies to the Table. You remind them of the person who “Stole” their Spot. IE Winning First Prize in The Science Fair, Getting A Scholarship, The Girl who took their Prom Date on Prom Night refusing to admit that the Guy she wanted to go with wasn’t interested in her at all. Or the person who threw a Big Bad Party that they weren’t invited to although they weren’t Friends at all. All I can say is Get Over It.

  • Rob lover

    I would have to ask the employer “what are you looking for?” before giving any information as it pays to keep people on a need-to-know basis. Also research the company first before making attempts to work there.

  • Eleanor Dorst

    I have “the triple whammy”, three university degrees, over 60, and a disability ( not physical). I have literally applied to over a thousand online jobs in the past few years and I can’t even get cleaning lady or dishwasher. There is reverse discrimination, ageism galore, and mental illness stigma. So how do we change people’s narrow minds to hire us? I await your words of wisdom to get me out of poverty.

    • Sharon McGuigan-Baki

      You are so correct! People over 50 even are passed over , end up working for young egotistical narcissists who do not respect experience and maturity. I am sick of this circus and am considering going back to school to get into another line of work..

  • TheKurgan

    I hope your “useless” friend kicks you to the curb. He or she is too good for you. You were right on one score, though. Stupid people in higher positions are afraid of smarter people in lower positions and won’t hire them. Well, unless the smarter person blows the stupid person.

  • Rob lover

    I was once told by a university graduate to never put a university degree on a resume unless the job requires a university degree. I applied for a job that required very little skills or education and remember a job interview I had with a clothing store manager. When she saw my resume had skills, she discouraged me by telling me the job offered only four hours in a week, that it was only for people who had no responsibilities. What did she mean by “no responsibilities” I wonder? Everyone has responsibilities. I suspect she wanted a teenager or someone who is retired. Even teenagers and retirees have the responsibilities of paying bills, paying for their own food, supporting themselves and/or families. Everyone needs money for those things. Plus my limited work experience didn’t help me either. I wish I had my time back and would have told her, “I realize that’s not a lot to offer, but I needed the experience.” Job history carries more weight on a resume that someone with lots of education/training and limited work experience.

  • Rob lover

    One reason why smart people find getting work to be challenging is because most employers have the fear of getting sued by the smart worker as they want to avoid any legal issues that could be costly.

  • Shane

    I am a problem solver. Period. I happen to be trained as a network engineer. I am also past usual retirement age but don’t feel it. The biggest obstacle I have is that most hiring managers are half my age. I don’t care who employs me as long as they have problems for me to solve. How do I put that into a resume?

    • JumpStartJobSearch

      As a Certified Resume Strategist my advice is to leave any experience prior to 2000 off your resume but still include crucial job duties : )

  • drakkenfyre

    Smart people also know the OHS regulations and industry best practices to keep from being killed on the job. That’s why no one wants them. It’s best to have someone cuts corners and is expendable, since the fines for killing someone are laughable.

    It’s easier to hire a 15-year-old who won’t ask for much money and won’t bother you with pesky questions about how to run something like a gravel crusher than it is to hire someone with experience and intelligence. And so what if we lose one or two children? It just happened here in Alberta this week, and most of us have forgotten about it already.

  • Claudine

    Very good article. Thank you!

    • Lee Miller

      Claudine, if you think this is a very good article, may I humbly suggest you get out of the house more often, and read the business pages more often than you appear to have been doing so far?

      • Franbou

        Lee, you sound like a smart person!

  • Gregory Ticker

    Stupid advice. If you have 20 or more years of experience, you can not fake your resume to look not so threatening to your boss, or not being considered overqualified for relatively mundane positions the Canadian job market can offer you.

    • David

      I’ve been applying for jobs for more than three years, jobs for which I studied, trained and have even lots of experience. Out of 37 CVs, I got to meet two people only. The others didn’t even dignify my applications with a response. Sure, many of the jobs are already spoken for, and they already have someone chosen. However, I’m convinced that my action-packed 1-page CV that covers everything they want has deterred some employers from meeting with me…sad reality in which we live in today’s job market.

    • Leonardo Brasil

      I really think you didn’t get the point.

      • Gregory Ticker

        I got the point pretty well. So called “recruiting specialists” are trying to sell you platitudes as a great wisdom. Canadian market if we are speaking about industry is dead on the water, most segments are shrinking after every recession, and never return back, for reasons it’s not the place to discuss here. In my field I know all the people because you can now count on both hands remaining companies which are not branches of the US and European corporations, and in the latter case any R&D is going at home headquarters not at the canadian branch plants. In Quebec you are not considered at all because you don’t speak and write French fluently, even if you are a perfect fit. Of course people wouldn’t be apply for a position they are obviously overqualified for, had they choice, but because they are desperate and ready to get something they are trying time and again. Than this idiots who one day advise you to work for free to get “foot in”, the other day explain obvious, why the boss doesn’t like to hire the ones whom he considers overqualified.

        • aribadabar

          Spot on all counts, Gregory!

        • Lee Miller

          Sad but true on all points.

  • Jim Pagiamtzis

    Really bad article! Really not very good advice.

    • Katie Ban

      It was an OK article, since most of us know about the dumbing down heirarchy of management. It all begins as a mistake that was made historically (decades ago )when a less than educated person gets promoted as middle management. Since that time, he makes sure he only promotes people less qualified than him to save his job in perpetuity. The best advice to be made is to research into upper management of the company you are applying to , using networking and sites like linkedin. You will get to know the company better by the level of its brainpower, and then you can decide if you want to throw your hat in the ring.

  • Alexander Yan

    If they are doing all these things without realizing them, they are not that smart

  • Lee Miller

    Nowhere in there is there mention of disinterest, incompetence, or sheer dishonesty on the part of the interviewee/employer (all scenarios found myself caught in)…I wonder why?

  • Victoria Gauthier

    When did intelligence and a lack of dependability and punctuality become synonymous? Being on-time is not mundane. Punctuality and dependability are traits in their own right and have nothing to do with intelligence.

  • Efrem

    “Smart” means “having quick-witted intelligence”, note well the words “quick” and “wit.” A witty person will understand how to behave on an interview to get the job. The author should understand that “intelligent” and “smart” are quite different from each other.

  • pao

    It is a good article. All of us have been young before and coming out fresh from college has a high probability of doing some of those above. Maturity and experience teaches us how to adapt with people and the workplace.

  • Kelly Mercer

    Let the dumbing down continue…
    Good article on some points.
    If you were truly smart…why waste your time working for some else that will never ever be comfortable with your talents.
    Start your own business and forget about your resume…

    • Valery Goltsman

      Very good attitude! As they say: If you are so smart, why are you not rich?

      • Kelly Mercer

        I always found that a curious statement.
        Plenty of intelligent people that made the greatest contributions to humanity were not rich…
        They had singular purposes in many cases but wealth was not one of them.
        Perhaps wealth is all that matters to many, as for me, spending time with my family and helping others is a far better way to use what little intelligence I have.
        Enriching those lives around you will go a lot further than making a dollar.
        Yes, I am in business to make money but that is only part of what I do with my life.
        Enriching others is always a priority…

        • Valery Goltsman

          The point is philosophical. I would say, it goes well beyond someone’s “being too smart for a job”. I do like business philosophy of getting rewarded for serving the community, – and it’s not just about having profit on one’s mind, but also about getting personal fulfillment from the positive feedback, – I only wish that all businesses, from small to large, had the same attitude.

  • atuline

    If this is the case, I’m wondering why so many employers are complaining about not being able to find qualified people. I’m thinking it’s a case of employers are only offering wages that would attract cheap labour as opposed to smart/qualified labour.

  • Valery Goltsman

    I guess, many smart people had good feelings about themselves while reading the article. Kind of: Yeah, that’s why we cannot get a job – because we are too smart! The employers DO like smart people, but they do NOT like smart a….s, see what I mean? :-)

  • Mori Rahimi

    IQ and wisdom are the things most people think they have a lot. this is especially true if they don’t have them at all. 😉