Sunday, June 05, 2011

Can an applicant be TOO qualified? And...does it matter?

I've worked with people that seemed overqualified--you probably have too. They brought a bazooka when all that was needed was a squirt gun. Cognitively speaking.

They work amazingly fast, are incredibly innovative, but often seem bored or unhappy with their jobs. It's made me wonder what organizations can do with these folks to (1) get the most out of their skills, and (2) help them be satisfied with their work life.

Of course it's not just me who has ruminated about this issue. Recruiters and screeners are often faced with this question: do we take a chance on someone who seems to have much greater education, training, or competencies than the job calls for? Are they likely to simply turn around and leave? This issue takes on increased importance in this day and age with higher unemployment and more people simply looking for *A* job.

There have even been lawsuits about this issue. You may remember the Jordan v. New London case, where a law enforcement applicant sued the City for age discrimination after they failed to hire him because he scored too high (yes, you're reading that right) on a cognitive ability exam. (BTW, the City won)

But despite this case and recruiter perceptions, we're still left with a legitimate question: can an applicant be too qualified in ways that matter for an organization?

In the June 2011 issue of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Erdogan, et al. provide an overview of this issue and argue that this situation deserves more attention than the scant it has received so far--particularly in comparison to other I/O topics.

What the research does seem to indicate is this: individuals that are overqualified (either objectively through, for example, having "too much" education, or through subjective perceptions) have more negative job attitudes. Specifically, they have been shown to have:

- lower job satisfaction
- lower life and career satisfaction
- lower organizational commitment
- higher turnover intentions

This makes intuitive sense. If you believe your qualifications far out-strip those required for the job, you're likely to feel underutilized and under-challenged, which in turn is likely to make you feel unsatisfied and cause you to look elsewhere.

What about actual turnover? Are overqualified applicants actually more likely to leave? This is one of the primary research questions and there is some research that supports this. However, the authors point out several problems with this line of thinking, including its cross-occupational nature.

In addition, the authors argue (and I agree) that more important than turnover is job performance. I think we'd all take a chance on someone that would have a huge positive impact, even if their stay was short.

So what about the performance of the overqualified; what does the research say? To quote the authors:

"There is...a small, but growing literature suggesting that overqualified individuals perform their jobs better than their less-qualified coworkers...whether turnover is good or bad for the organization needs to be considered within the context of how well individuals are performing their jobs." [emphasis added]

The authors also point out several additional advantages to hiring overqualified workers:

- they may be prime candidate for future roles, including leadership positions

- even if their tenure is short, their impact may be significant

They also point out that this is the tip of the iceberg of this research: much remains to be done in terms of defining overqualification, in studying how recruiters make these determinations, situational factors, measurement, and other important issues.

So bottom line: yes, there may be downsides to hiring someone that appears to be overqualified--but how certain are you that this is the case? And even if it's true, would the benefits outweigh the risks?

If organizations choose to go with someone they perceive as overqualified, it becomes even more important to communicate openly and frequently with this applicant about job expectations, as well as possibilities. And management needs to realize that they may be getting more than their money's worth.

(Interestingly, the other focal article in this issue has to do with performance management, and how difficult it is to get right. One of the points the authors make loud and clear is it's important for supervisors to offer frequent, informal feedback. The common thread between the two articles: the importance of engaged, communicative supervisors who have an accurate view of their team's competencies.)


Anonymous said...

Thanks for showing us what "overqualified" literally looks like. Every once in a while I see someone zipping around 2 feet above ground with a red cape. To catch them we hire overqualified recruiters, but those recruiters often don't return. They dash off to a better job.

Recruiting & Talent Acquisition said...

I would take it a step further and say that there is not real statistical evidence that overqualified means poor performance. Just hire whomever WANTS to be there and is qualified the most. Done! :)

Micheal @ transport recruitment said...

Hiring overqualified canditates can have very big advantages especially for the impact they can make. As you mentioned:

"they may be prime candidate for future roles, including leadership positions"

even though there are downsides in some cases, overqualified employees can with work rate.

Rick said...

It is generally well worth the "risks" of hiring an overqualified candidate. The real potential downside is the effect on other team members if the situation is not managed properly. If a manager pays enough attention to the team dynamics, then it could be a win-win for everyone.

Reticuli said...

Saying someone is overqualified is usually a way of going about age discrimination.