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Survive or thrive? Overqualified a matter of management

Human resource managers will often shy away from hiring overqualified employees, but research shows that they can be an asset. Shutterstock

Overqualified workers are often seen as the pariah of human resources but these employees can be a constructive or a destructive influence on your business, depending on the way they are managed.

In my research, I have found that while overqualified people may often engage in counterproductive work behaviours, they can also make valuable contributions to organisations because they have under-realised qualifications. And with 45% of Australians identifying as overqualified for their current jobs, employers may not be realising the full potential of this untapped human resource.

It’s a problem that extends beyond Australian borders, with other countries experiencing comparable and even higher overqualification rates. These range from 23% in the USA and 30% in the European Union to 84% in China.

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Human resource managers are frequently reluctant to hire overqualified applicants, a move that can seem counterintuitive: more credentials might allow the employee to work better and quicker because they have more human capital than is required to complete their tasks. However, managers often fear these employees will quit as soon as they find a more suitable job or that they will worsen workplace morale by voicing their workplace dissatisfaction.

And some of my research seems to support them. My colleagues and I surveyed 215 students who worked full-time in a variety of industries, such as healthcare, retail, fast food and management, with occupations including sales associate, legal assistant and veterinary technician. We found that people who felt they were overqualified were more likely to engage in counterproductive work behaviour, compared with those who did not report high levels of overqualification.

This behaviour included taking excessive coffee breaks, daydreaming instead of working, coming in late to work without permission, putting in little effort, and dragging out work in order to get overtime.

Reasons for such behaviour included burn-out from unchallenging work, as well as the perception that they did not fit their jobs or that the employer did not uphold an often implied psychological contract to provide work that suited their qualifications.

However, it turned out that the most important reason why overqualified employees put in little effort, came in late and took excessive coffee breaks was because they had grown cynical about their jobs. This was reflected in survey respondent attitudes that questioned the necessity of working hard on a job that did not challenge them and which wasted their skills, talents and qualifications. Why bother with such a job? These cynical attitudes were the strongest explanations for the positive link between overqualification and counterproductive work behaviours.

Gaining traction on their distraction

Does this mean that organisations should shy away from hiring overqualified people? On the contrary. In a paper presented at the 2013 International conference of Society of Industrial-Organisational Psychology, I demonstrate that overqualified workers can be a source of creative work behaviours if organisations use strategies to motivate these potentially excellent workers.

As part of this management strategy research, I surveyed 113 staff and their 19 supervisors in an American organisation that offers after-school activities to high-school students.

I found that overqualified employees were motivated to use their potential and increase creative work behaviour if employers offered them mentoring opportunities and the ability to negotiate flexibility and developmental deals, allowing employees to feel appreciated and supported.

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