Too Old to Work? Can Employers Look Past Job Applicants for Being Too Qualified?


 

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You’re down on your luck after losing a job.  Maybe you’ve been out of the labor force and are looking to get back in.  You’re thinking to yourself, “I have bills to pay and mouths to feed.  Maybe my dream job or desired type of employment isn’t immediately obtainable, so I’ll just get an entry-level job to hold down the fort.” 

You send out job applications to lower-skilled positions, expecting to receive instant offers from employers who are thrilled to see somebody with your qualifications applying for their low-paying positions.  A few days go by.  No phone calls. Something seems wrong. 

You find out that the waiter position at the local restaurant was filled by a college student.  You’re infuriated.  How did some kid who doesn’t even have a resume get the job over you?  You were so overqualified.

You seek an attorney to file a lawsuit for age discrimination.  Do you have a case?

Well-Settled Employment Law Generally Says “No”

A recent Western District of Virginia decision is helpful in illustrating how such a case might play out.  In Buckner v. Lynchburg Redevelopment & Hous. Auth, 2017 BL 204389 (W.D. Va. June 15, 2017), the court granted summary judgment to a Virginia housing authority, denying a former mechanic’s claim that the housing authority had discriminated against him by hiring a younger mechanic.

Fifty-two-year-old Jeffrey Buckner, a mechanic with 20 years of experience applied for an entry-level mechanic position with the housing authority, where he had recently been laid off from a more senior mechanic position for budgetary reasons. 

The manager decided not to hire Buckner, thinking that Buckner would have been unhappy in the role because it was less-skilled and lower-paying than his previous positions.  The next month, the housing authority hired a 36-year-old man who was lacking in relevant experience but was ultimately determined to be qualified for the position. 

Buckner sued for age discrimination and lost. 

So How Can You Make A Case?

The court explained that, while there is nothing wrong per se with refusing to hire an overqualified job applicant, such non-hiring must be accompanied by an objective explanation as to why overqualification is viewed as a negative trait for the applicant.

These reasons could include the applicant’s high likelihood of job dissatisfaction, fear that the applicant will overanalyze issues and the possibility that an applicant will be quick to move on to a different job for which he or she is more qualified.  

In this particular instance, the housing authority’s proffered reasons for not hiring Buckner, that he’d be too expensive and likely would have been unhappy, were sufficient to shift the burden back to Buckner to prove that his non-hiring was pretextual, something that he was unable to show.

While Buckner is by no means a precedential, law-altering case, it shows that employers can pick from plenty of valid reasons to not select an overqualified applicant.  Age alone, however, cannot be one of them. 

In our constantly evolving labor force, we are bound to tackle this issue in different ways in the years to come. 

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