Pensive man in kitchen

Are you too smart to 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 useless 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
Peter Harris on Twitter


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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.

    • Pilgrim

      maybe those hired were qualified, u racist pig

    • Beata Wierzbicka

      I am sorry, but being an immigrant I got a totally different impression.

      • Kevin24

        The multi-national where i worked hired people from around the world, we had 32 languages. it was a wonderful environment with a lot of technical experience from around the globe in the knowledge pool. We hired the best qualified person, everyone got along fine, there was no predjudice in the building.
        My thoughts were a reflection on a company where a friend works, they were expanding and hired a newly immigrated HR manager who tended to hire only people from his homeland, many who were not qualified, while passing up other qualified candidates. It has gotten so desperate without good help being added that they are now losing contracts and the qualified personnel want to leave due to lack of qualified support.
        I am not predjudice but it can exist within some hiring practices was my only point

  • 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..

    • Beata Wierzbicka

      I am past 50 with two university degrees and can not find a job. I am at this point now that I do not believe that older people can find employment. The young and arrogant HR consider age as some contagious disease. They do not realize that they will also one day be old. Where are we going? Everywhere just slogans about equal treatment, about hiring the best but at the end it is all one big lie. What option do we have? Euthanasia?

  • 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 : )

      • Shane

        Certified resume strategist? How about Resume Reshaper?

  • 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.

  • Efrem

    “A gifted but useless friend…” As if this friend were just a thing, not a human being. And who defines whether a person is useless or not?

  • Mr. Skungeous

    “gifted, but useless friend.”

    I’d hate to hear how you talk about your enemies.

  • lordblazer

    Stupid people get to make money, keep a roof over their head and food in their stomach. smart people have to suffer. that’s Murica for ya.

  • Beata Wierzbicka

    Well, I am 56 and at the same situation. We are living in a society that is run by the young with very average IQ for the young with average IQ. They can not comprehend that one day they will also be 55.

  • Outtaworktoolong

    Same here. Once you have +20 years experience, nobody will touch you with a 10 ft pole. The reasons in the article are somewhat valid, I have encountered outright age discrimination, and I’m not even 50!

    I actually don’t like consulting, but its the only practical way for me to offer my skills and get paid what I am worth.

    I am worried about the future, retirement is a LONG way off.