"Female-graduate-silhouette"/Karen Arnold CC0 Public Domain
Source: "Female-graduate-silhouette"/Karen Arnold CC0 Public Domain

If you are working in a job you feel overqualified for you are not alone. According to one study nearly half of all college graduates in America work in jobs that don’t require a degree. Other researchers have found the rate goes up when you look at immigrants.   

A newly released study published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior by Michael Harari, PhD of Florida Atlantic University and Archana Manapragada and Chockalingam Viswesvaran, PhD of Florida International University examined 25 years of research on the impact of overqualification. I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Harari to get his take on the impact of what is becoming a growing concern in the American workforce.        

Michael Woodward: What is an overqualified employee and how prevalent are they in the American workplace?

Michael Harari: An overqualified employee is someone who possesses knowledge, skills, abilities, education, and/or experience in excess of what the job requires. Although estimates vary, it is clear that overqualification is pervasive in the U.S. For example, some estimates suggest that nearly half of all college graduates in the U.S. are overqualified for their jobs. Research out of Canada suggests that this figure could be even higher among immigrants.

MW: What is the difference between someone who believes they are overqualified versus someone who is objectively or technically overqualified?

MH: There is a strong overlap between the two, but they are not completely redundant. Objective overqualification involves surplus qualifications (e.g., education, experience) when compared to job requirements. However, it is perception rather than reality that influences psychological reactions. Factors such as narcissism and a general tendency to experience negative moods, in addition to objective overqualification, could lead employees to believe that they are overqualified, and these perceptions come with negative implications.

MW: Why should managers worry about overqualified employees? 

MH: First, poor job attitudes; overqualified employees are likely to be unsatisfied with their jobs and uncommitted to their organizations. Our findings indicated that this could lead to turnover intentions. Second, overqualified employees are more likely to engage in behaviors at work that can impair organizational functioning, such as coming to work late and leaving early, although other forms of deviant behaviors are possible.

MW: What are the dangers in hiring a candidate who is clearly overqualified for the job?

MH: Under the wrong circumstances, hiring overqualified employees could have negative effects. For instance, greater turnover, absenteeism, and less helping behaviors are all possible. However, negative implications can be addressed through job design interventions, for example. My recommendation would be to consider how to manage overqualified employees rather than avoid hiring them.

MW: Do overqualified employees outperform their “qualified” counterparts?

MH: We expected that they might, but this was not the case. Overqualified employees did not perform any better or worse than their co-workers on their formal job tasks. In fact, when factoring in other forms of job performance, such as voluntary helping behaviors and counterproductive or deviant behaviors (the “dark side” of job performance), they sometimes performed worse than their appropriately qualified co-workers.

MW: Can the presence of an employee who believes they are overqualified hurt the morale of their team?

MH: Overqualified employees are less likely to voluntarily help co-workers and are more frequently late or absent, which could breed resentment. However, team composition matters. Teams with overqualified members perform better when there are several overqualified members versus only one. Working with other overqualified workers normalizes the experience. Further, it provides greater fit with the group, which can improve the job attitudes of all team members and help the team perform better.

MW: How does feeling overqualified for a job impact that employee’s stress and wellbeing?    

MH: Unfortunately, we do find that overqualified employees experience psychological strains, such as depression, anxiety, and job burnout (even when statistically controlling for general negative affective tendencies). Overqualified employees are also less likely to experience positive psychological wellbeing. For example, they report lower levels of life satisfaction. Research tells us that social support, both inside and outside of the workplace, can go a long way in buffering these negative effects.

MW: As a manager how do you spot an overqualified employee and what should you do to intervene?

MH: Objective overqualification is the best predictor of overqualification perceptions. Good human resource information systems can track employee qualifications in relation to job requirements. If an employee is overqualified, managers can consider:

  • Allowing greater autonomy in how they carry out their work.
  • Helping them to see how their work benefits others.
  • Using career paths to show future opportunities and plausible timetables for advancement.
  • Having them work on a team with other overqualified employees.

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