Why Smart People Don’t Get Hired

For years I’ve marvelled at how many of my smartest friends and acquaintances have suffered prolonged periods of unemployment and underemployment. Despite having loads of relevant experience, lots of personality and even pedigree educations, many of them have often suffered exceptionally long periods between jobs: where even interviews were scarce.

One day, however, I happened upon an article about how “smart people” (i.e, people with higher cognitive abilities) tend to actually be subject to a greater (cognitive) “bias blindspots”. In other words, they are more prone to incorrectly trust their gut instincts (heuristics) when making decisions. As a result, they often make more mistakes of reasoning than the rest of us mortals. In particular, smart people tend to see bias more easily in others than in themselves.

When I reflected on how this finding might have some bearing on the plight of my very smart friends and their job seeking challenges, a lightbulb turned on. Could it be possible that my friends’ presentations of themselves to would-be employers reflected these bias blindspots? Could it be that their intelligence actually stood as a hurdle to their professional progress?

I took a closer look at their resumes, CVs and profiles and here is what I casually observed:

1. Many smart people don’t have profiles that “look like they are looking” (for a job). In my long years of corporate life I’ve realised that recruiters and HR managers like to put people into little boxes. If you have a CV or a LinkedIn title that says something standard, such as “CFO”, this is easy to understand, place, source and recruit. Even if you appear to be happy and settled in your current job, recruiters may approach you.

However, if you have some obscure title (that, ironically, better describes who you are and what you do), like “financial wizard”, you’re likely to get overlooked because it takes too much time for a recruiter to wade through your profile to match needed skills. You probably won’t come up in a keyword search anyway. As a result, many smart people that present themselves as these sorts of self-sufficient, entities may be greatly reducing their chances of getting noticed.

2. Smart people often have profiles that are too lengthy and detailed. One of the by-products of high intelligence is the ability to do more activities in shorter amounts of time than most other people. As a result, it’s not uncommon to see a smart person’s CV spanning 10 years look like that of an average person’s CV of 20 or even 30 years. The problem, however, is in the presentation.

If the smart person tries to go into detail and list every experience, nook and cranny of his or her life, the recruiter is likely to get information overload and overlook relevant experience. Furthermore, long or crowded CVs (with some regions of the world excepted) may look like a person is trying too hard. It would be better to get to the point, highlight the relevant experience, skills, tools and pedigree in a logical format.

3. Smart people often look too narrowly at their experiences–selling themselves short. Oftentimes, I’ve mentioned a job lead to one of my smart friends–having a pretty good idea that it’s a job I think he or she can excel in–only to have him or her say, “I am not an expert in that area.”

This compartmentalised, conservative way of thinking seems to come right of some belief that one must always remain in a certain comfort zone–moving from job to job with no growth, except what comes internally. That may seem natural, but it’s not professional. It will get a person no where if he or she hopes to advance and leave a person jobless if he or she rejects every opportunity that is not a perfect match to his or her experience.

The lesson seems to be that if one wants a job, one needs to be willing to leave the comfort zone of past experience, at least to the extent of seeing where one’s skills might be transferrable.

4. Smart people tend to prefer expressing themselves in terms of results.

Many of the smart people I know are over-achievers: They speak more loudly with their performance than with their mouths. Yet, while no one disputes that one of the most important elements in a hiring situation is that the person being hired can do the job, candidates need to first get to the interview stage before they can demonstrate those accomplishments.

To that end, many higher cognitives may need to learn how to express their accomplishments, talents and skills in succinct ways that speak directly to how they can help an employer. They cannot rest on the knowledge of having once done a great job somewhere else or on the expectation that, in relation to the previous point, someone will have wade through their lengthy resumes to marvel at what they did.

5. Smart people tend to be “too” humble.

Despite the caricature of many obnoxious, Wall Street types–toting top school degrees–as bores who talk, at-length, about themselves, most truly smart people don’t really see themselves as smart or exceptional. Rather, most of the high-IQ’d view the ways that they operate as “normal” and in accordance with how everyone else thinks and operates. Only over time do they discover that what they do is often “strange” by comparison–such as reading whole novels in ancient Greek during an evening at home.

The upshot (or downshot) of this is that many smart people don’t know what to emphasise in their skillsets or experience–that is, they don’t know how to articulate it. They also don’t know how to talk or write about their accomplishments in ways that hit all the buzzwords recruiters might be looking to hear (or that search engines might be prone to pickup).

This excessive humility may not stem from genuinely humble feelings by the person that he or she is not qualified (i.e., e.g., an insecurity) but from an ignorance of what the ‘rest of the world’ finds important in a suitable job candidate.

At the end of the day, smart people looking for a job need to get smarter about how to present themselves!


To follow Maurice on Twitter, you can find him @mauriceewing. For some of his other posts, see, his personal blog at www.maurice-ewing.com, his blog page at The Harvard Business Review or elsewhere on Pulse: