There’s A Very Good Reason To Hire Overqualified Workers

Just make sure they aren't too overqualified.

For a job seeker, few things are more discouraging than hearing you’re overqualified.

Employers have sound reasons for turning away candidates with more experience or training than the openings require. Candidates might soon ask for a higher salary, they could lose interest in work that isn’t sufficiently challenging, or they might be quick to leave if a more appropriate position appears.

But there are good reasons for hiring overqualified candidates, too, a new study suggests. Employees who perform their assigned tasks easily have more time to contribute to the company, according to a team of management professors from Rice University, in Houston, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. When overqualified employees are motivated and interested in the outcome of their company, they can benefit the business by thinking creatively about their jobs and devising new ways to do things. But if they’re too overqualified, they’ll lose interest.

The researchers asked 327 teachers in six Chinese high schools to rank their sense of over qualification on a scale from 1 (barely overqualified) to 7 (highly overqualified). Then the teachers’ supervisors were asked to rank how much the teachers contributed beyond their normal job functions, such as organizing birthdays or introducing new techniques. Teachers who ranked themselves at 5 on the scale contributed the most, doing more than colleagues who were both more and less qualified.

A different experiment was performed using Chinese factory workers, with similar results. Those who were moderately overqualified outperformed the workers on either side of the scale.

In the US, an increasing number of workers aren’t able to find jobs matching their qualifications. In the aftermath of the most recent recession, as many as 50% of recent college graduates were underemployed—as defined as working in jobs that didn’t require a college degree—reaching levels not seen since the early 1990s. The problem can also be acute for older workers laid off and looking for new roles. “Even in the best of economic times, about one-third of all college graduates work in a non-college job,” according to a report from the New York Federal Reserve.

Once it’s clear overqualified employees have mastered their roles, they should be given freedom to engage in “job crafting,” a term used by the study’s authors to describe how workers customize their jobs. “A manager should not try to push someone into job crafting–it’s the employee’s choice to do it or not–but if they want to do it, they should have that freedom, with supervisors monitoring, coaching, and advising as needed,” the authors write.