Friday, 10 June 2011

Are we wrong to treat overqualified employees as 'too much of a good thing'?

Rises in unemployment have led many to become less picky, applying for positions that do not require the skills, knowledge or experience they have acquired. They meet with a problem: the stigma of overqualification, which can make recruiters reluctant to take on such applicants, an attitude reported by 80% of a sample canvassed in an earlier study. Yet our understanding of overqualification is gappy: is it really such a problem? A new review in Industrial and Organizational Psychology seeks to lay out what we know and identify the missing pieces.

Bergin Erdogan's team lay out the folk wisdom on the matter: overqualified people are easily bored, restless and tend to leave jobs quickly. Some evidence supports this: objective measures - such as a discrepancy between a role-holder's educational levels and the national average in the role - have been used to demonstrate lower job satisfaction and higher turnover for the overqualified. This is in line with the general findings in the person-job fit literature that good fit leads to better outcomes.

However, these past findings favour objective measures over psychological perceptions of overqualification, which may be very different. Attributions of overqualification by recruiters my be made when the applicant seems threateningly capable; they may be influenced by the applicant's age. On the other side of the coin, applicants may be technically overqualified but not think that way about the job at all. The authors argue that this is the ground research needs to cover more comprehensively.

Moreover, overqualification could bring benefits. This is theoretically grounded in equity theory, which argues that an imbalance between what you bring to a situation and what it yields can impel you to action. This predicts the higher turnover observed, but is also consistent with evidence that the overqualified make extra contributions beyond their role, putting their surplus skills to work. And contrary to the image of these individuals disrupting tasks and acting out because they are “better than this”, the overqualified may also excel at what they are hired for; a range of studies suggest that peers and managers rated overqualified role-holders as higher performers.

Other advantages the overqualified can bring include motivation or a good base for work-life balance, when they target the role deliberately as a shift from a career path that didn't suit them. Finally, these individuals constitute talent to feed into more challenging positions within the organisation.

The authors recommend that employers and employees go into situations “with their eyes open”, establishing a clear psychological contract, and that organisations provide opportunities to make use of surplus skills. They conclude “although overqualification can clearly have serious, negative outcomes, we believe that there are times and circumstances when overqualified employees may provide a valuable resource to organizations”.

ResearchBlogging.orgERDOGAN, B., BAUER, T., PEIRÓ, J., & TRUXILLO, D. (2011). Overqualified Employees: Making the Best of a Potentially Bad Situation for Individuals and Organizations Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 4 (2), 215-232 DOI: 10.1111/j.1754-9434.2011.01330.x


  1. i just wish that recruiters read this article, it has a lot of valid points!I have been struggling to find work mainly because I am overqualified; I thought being a mature student with diverse work experience and a first class in psychology would be a great advantage when looking for work. Well it seems to be more of a hindrance which is quite frustrating. Not everybody with a first class wants to continue in academia to do a Phd but somehow, a lot employers don't understand it.I have a lot of skills to offer gained through years of working and my degree, yet I get the usual 'overqualified'.Sometimes I think that I shouldn't even mention that I have a degree, so I could get a job as a sales assistant for example.
    I don't mind to work and I am not picky when it comes to work.Rant over!:-)

  2. I feel your pain depechebambina... I too was a mature student who gained a 1st class degree in Psychology but then went on to do a PhD. However, now I am near the end of this I am too qualified for the jobs that are currently available. I only did the PhD for my own personal reasons and it wasn't linked to a future career, why can't employers just think that litttle bit extra sometimes. We are all individuals, with indidivudal stories behind those qualifications that seem to scare you some much!! ........another rant over!!

  3. I'm glad that the article resonated with both of you. I can also relate to some of the points made here, as I faced these issues myself when I moved out of an area of high specialisation (psychology researcher with PhD).

    Luckily I made that transition with success but it certainly feels that qualifications can be an impediment. I hope that this article continues to stimulate research on the topic and shifts perceptions in hiring managers in the future.