Good news for the under-qualified: Beta candidates make better hires

Good news for less qualified job candidates: you might actually be a better bet for hiring managers than your more qualified competitors. So says a research paper from the Max Planck Institute of Economics.

Here’s the argument, in a nutshell: If you hire the less qualified candidate and let them know that you hired them even though they weren’t the most qualified, they’ll be so grateful they’ll try harder and will actually be worth way more to you than one of those snooty, entitled, more qualified candidates.

In an experiment, principals chose one agent out of two to perform a task for a fixed compensation. The authors wrote that “a significant share of principals select the mediocre agent.”

The “mediocre agent” then feels indebted to the principal, or employer, what the authors call, “induced reciprocity.”

That makes sense.

Study author Natalia Montinari tells me, “We showed that the second ranked worker reciprocates more.” But “This happens only when the employer can communicate that he is the second best and not the most deserving of the job.

“We found that the messages what were particularly effective were those in which the employer asked for an [extra] effort level.”

Montinari stresses that we’re looking at the less qualified of two candidates here, not the least qualified out of 20. “What we’re saying is the top one isn’t always the best. Maybe you can find a good one in the second or third.”

Cool. So, is there a way for candidates to use this theory idea to their advantage?

We’ve all applied for jobs for which we weren’t entirely qualified, for which we don’t have every requirement on the often ridiculous list (six years in an agency environment, five years managing a team, four coding languages, three spoken and written languages, two graduate degrees, one Nobel prize…). And while we know that there are probably better qualified applicants, we also know that if we were just given that chance we’d work so damn hard the hiring manager would never regret it.

Is there a way to convey this, either in a cover letter or interview, if you’re lucky enough to get one? Maybe. I polled a few hiring managers and these are the responses I got.

Andrew Schrage, co-owner of, Money Crashers Personal Finance, said, “Though it can be risky, being brutally honest during a job interview could potentially be very impressive in the eyes of a hiring manager.

“In lieu of years of experience, the interviewee must convincingly explain why he is still the best candidate. For example, he could say ‘I may not have years of experience or every needed skill, but I’m a quick learner and I’ll be the hardest working, most dedicated employee on your staff.’ Emphasizing the will and ability to learn quickly and to work exceptionally hard can be even more impressive than presenting a loaded resume. If a candidate feels his lack of skills will eventually be identified anyways, then there isn’t much to lose.”

Laura Davis, owner of College Nannies and Tutors, a staffing company placing nannies and tutors in four 4 states, says, “We welcome a proactive candidate. We would like to have him or her showcase to us their belief in their qualities. We would like this either in an email follow up after an interview, acknowledging the possible areas in which they are light, but giving concrete examples of how they would address this if given the opportunity. Or in a request for a phone follow up, again stating they realize their past experience may not be a perfect match, but how they can see other areas and accomplishments can support how they would work to gain the experience.”

Fred R. Cooper, managing partner at Compass HR Consulting, LLC, has a different opinion. He says, “There is probably no value in announcing to a resume/application reviewer, hiring authority or any other individual or group involved in the recruiting/hiring process that going in, you admit you are less qualified or otherwise don’t meet the ‘qualifications’ as the best.

“Companies and those involved in the recruiting/hiring process are looking at ways to narrow down to a reasonably manageable number from most likely hundreds of resumes and other submitted materials…why go out of your way to give them the ammunition to move your materials to the ‘no’ pile based on your own admissions?”

Fair enough. But if you’re not the most qualified candidate, the hiring manager probably knows it already. So, I think in the right situation, I still might chance it.


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