Conventional wisdom tells us that hiring overqualified employees may not be such a good idea, since these too-good people may feel dissatisfied, less motivated and more likely to quit.
However, according to a study  conducted by Professor Kenneth Law of Department of Management at Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School and his PhD student Jun Zhang and Assistant Professor Bilian Lin at CUHK, Shenzhen, managers should try to retain overqualified employees and fully leverage their talents.
Overqualification has become one of the most common forms of underemployment in the labor markets. For example, a global survey by Ranstad, a global staffing and recruitment company, reveals 84 percent of Chinese employees have claimed that they were overqualified for their jobs to various extents. In developed regions such as the North America and Europe, overqualification has also become a salient issue after the economic turndown.
In the past, management researchers characterized overqualification as a negative phenomenon leading to a low job satisfaction, high turnover and more counterproductive behavior.
However, some recent studies have indicated that consequences of overqualification might vary across individuals depending on how people view their employment situations. Contrary to common belief, overqualification sometimes may lead to positive outcomes at workplace. For example, high-quality staff can have higher control over their work and thus bring positive outcomes to the organizations.
Nevertheless, little has been known about how employees’ different views of their overqualification would affect their performance. Compared with the research of negative effects, there are fewer studies on the positive aspects of overqualification.
Overqualification Can Be Good
In their study, Prof. Law’s research team aims to investigate into the bright side of overqualication. The researchers argue that employees who perceive that they have a surplus of qualifications are more likely to engage in a broader range of tasks and feel competent in carrying them out. In other words, when individuals perceive they are overqualified, they may appreciate their surplus qualifications and react to the discrepancy in a positive way.
“Employees who feel they are more than qualified are likely to have better mastery of performing tasks beyond their job requirements, and thus receive more recognition and encouragement from others. As a result, they are more likely to attribute such positive experiences to their competence,” says Prof. Law.
For example, overqualified workers are more likely to come up with new ideas for companies or help other coworkers in their job tasks.
“They are more willing to conduct some proactive behavior to improve the work environment,” he adds.
We can all relate to the fact that when looking for a job, apart from considering the salary and perks, we would also consider whether the job nature suits our personality.
More interestingly, the researchers further argue that the positive effects of overqualification may be stronger in those employees with stronger performance goal orientations and less in those with stronger learning goal orientations.
“Performance-oriented employees are more willing to become a big fish in a small pond, and they enjoy the superb feeling when they are among the average-performed coworkers. To them, overqualification brings a sense of confidence which makes them more active in the workplace.”
On the contrary, employees who are more concerned with their learning opportunities pay more attention to whether they can constantly learn and grow in organizations. So for these people, overqualification may be interpreted as fewer opportunities to perform challenging tasks and make improvements.
“For these learning-oriented employees, the effect of overqualification is not as positive,” he says.
Surveys and Findings
The researchers proved their arguments in two surveys. In one of them, 323 salespeople in an electronic products company in South China were asked to fill out a survey online to rate their perceived overqualification, role-breadth self-efficacy (RBSE) - an employee’s self-efficacy in conducting a broader range of work activities beyond job requirement - and demographic information during two weeks. At the same time, their immediate supervisors were invited to rate the proactive behavior of these sales representatives according to their performances in the previous month.
The researchers used different measurement scales for these respondents to measure the variables. For example, for perceived overqualification, a sample statement is: “My formal education overqualifies me for my present job”. For RBSE, it is: “I feel confident in designing new procedures for my work area” and for proactive behavior: “At work, this subordinate takes initiatives to suggest ideas for solutions for organization problems”.
As expected, the study finds that perceived overqualification does have a positive indirect effect on employees’ proactive behavior through conducting work tasks which go beyond the job requirements.
Based on the findings, the researchers believe that the study offers noteworthy insights to business practitioners.
For employees, the results indicate that overqualification does not necessarily imply relative deprivation or talent left to rust. So employees can actually leverage their surplus qualifications do broader tasks and actively make a difference at workplace.
“Doing so fuels them with a sense of worth in society and prompts better performance ratings and the respect of others,” says Prof. Law.
However, the results of overqualification may vary depending on whether the individuals prefer to be a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a small pond. Some may engage in more job search behavior when they perceive themselves as overqualified. Nevertheless, the study results suggest individuals should pay more attention to their surplus abilities rather than inadequate working conditions, and capture opportunities to accomplish more tasks proactively as “ultimately, the effort will pay off,” he says.
For recruiters and managers, on the other hand, the findings suggest they should differentiate among overqualified or underemployed individuals. In practice, recruiters often express hesitation in hiring apparently overqualified candidates worrying that they may leave the organization at any time. However, the study suggests that these employees might actually benefit the organization through their surplus talents in expanded roles.
“To retain and motivate these employees, supervisors need to consider ways to provide them with more challenging assignments and empower them with enlarged roles and increased involvement. A more supportive climate should be built for overqualified employees, so that they can be encouraged to take more initiatives,” he concludes.
 Zhang, M. J., Law, K. S., & Lin, B. (2016). You think you are big fish in a small pond? Perceived overqualification, goal orientations, and proactivity at work. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 37(1), 61-84.
Last updated on 28 Feb 2018 .