To Hire or Not to Hire the Overqualified: That Is the Question

    Jan 24, 2019

    By Bruce L. Katcher, Ph.D.

    Sam F., a 55-year-old senior human resource professional for a midsized financial services organization, was laid off from his job in early 2009. He was unemployed for 18 months and then reluctantly accepted a midlevel human resource position for a biotechnology company. Sam was hesitant to accept the position but was anxious to be employed again and desperately needed the steady paycheck and benefits.

    In his new job he had far less responsibility and was earning about 25% less than in his previous job. He reported to the Vice President of Human Resources, the position he used to hold. His new employer knew that Sam was overqualified, but liked Sam and believed he would succeed and eventually be happy.

    Less than a year later, Sam submitted his resignation. He had had enough. He confided, “I am doing things now, like disciplining employees, that I haven't done since I was new to the field, 20 years ago.” He left, even though he had not found a new full-time position. He planned to do some consulting work while he relaunched his job search.

    The Problem
    Google the words “overqualified” and you will find hundreds of articles on how to convince an employer to hire you even though you have more experience and education than the position requires.

    Traditionally, recruiters have been hesitant to hire overqualified employees for fear that they will be unhappy and leave just as Sam did. However, during the recent challenging economic times, many employers have taken the risk and snatched up overqualified applicants who assured them that they would be perfectly satisfied in their job.

    Now that the economy is beginning to turn around, some of these employees are leaving.

    According to a review by Maynard and Hakel in The Journal of Organizational Behavior (2006), "the majority of the research results show that overqualified employees report high levels of job dissatisfaction.” They add, “there is also evidence that over qualification is positively associated with career dissatisfaction, poor attitudes in general...low levels of commitment to their organization…and feelings of being stifled in their professional growth.” However, they also report that the relationship of over-qualification to the quality of job performance is less conclusive. Therefore, the research indicates that if you hire overqualified applicants there is a good chance they will be unhappy, but they may perform well.

    Here are some of the arguments in favor and against hiring overqualified job applicants:
    Hire the best
    Hire overqualified applicants:
    It is important to hire the best person for the position. He or she will perform better at the job than someone who is less qualified. If we are smart, we can use the person's additional skills to our advantage.
    Do NOT hire overqualified applicants: We don't necessarily need the best person for the position; we just need someone to perform the job.

    Pay
    Hire overqualified applicants:
    We can offer them a little more money or promise them increases as we provide them with more responsibilities.
    Do NOT hire overqualified applicants: We simply can't pay them as much as they were making before. They will be disappointed and unhappy with the salary we are able to offer them.

    Motivation
    Hire overqualified applicants:
    We will eventually be able to expand their job to better use their skills as we see that they are capable of handling additional responsibilities.

    Do NOT hire overqualified applicants: They will merely use the job as a stepping stone to a job in a different organization. They will leave as soon as a better opportunity arises

    Retention
    Hire overqualified applicants:
    If we hire this person, he may stay because he really wants to shift industries, move to our location, or achieve better work/life balance. Also, once he joins us, he will find it too difficult to look for another job and, therefore, will stay with us.

    Do NOT hire overqualified applicants: He will merely use the job as a stepping stone to a job in a different organization. He will leave as soon as a better opportunity arises.

    What to Do
    1. Provide realistic expectations.
    A great deal of research shows that when applicants are not provided with a totally honest picture of the responsibilities of a job, they are more apt to leave.

    2. Provide a clear psychological contract. For example, tell the applicant that at the start of employment, the tasks will be relatively basic, but assuming good performance over the first three months, they will be granted greater responsibility, more authority, more interesting projects, possibly more pay, and so forth.

    3. Be flexible with pay. Don't be pennywise and pound-foolish. If paying someone another 10 to 15% will make them much happier and more likely to stay, consider doing it. Be very cautious, however, if they are looking for significantly more.

    4. Onboard them carefully. New employees are more likely to stay if they are slowly integrated into the organization. Provide them with the opportunity to really get to know the organization, its major players, customers, and the work.

    5. Bring them into the inner circle. I consistently find that the glue that keeps even unhappy employees in their organization is “the people.” There are three types of boundaries in an organization: hierarchical (i.e., the levels from top to bottom), functional (i.e., between different departments), and, most importantly, inclusionary (the psychological boundary of feeling like an outsider). Help new employees to pass through the inclusionary boundary by inviting them to important meetings, introducing them to the key players, and involving them in social activities. Make certain they have the opportunity to meet frequently with colleagues and associates.

    6. Capitalize on their additional capabilities. There is a strong relationship between employee satisfaction and how much they are able to use their valued skills and abilities. Identify these additional skills that they bring to the table and develop plans with them for integrating them into their job.

    7. Monitor them closely. Don't just bring them aboard and keep your fingers crossed that they will be happy and stay. Meet with them often to discuss their performance and how they can use their skills to increase their value to the organization.

    Conclusion
    To hire or not to hire the overqualified, that is still the question. The answer? It depends: on how well you are able to integrate them into the organization, how flexible you can be with their salary, how well you provide them with the opportunity to use their skills, and how carefully you nurture them along the way.

    About the Author(s)

    Bruce L. Katcher, Ph.D. is an industrial/organizational psychologist and founder and president of Discovery Surveys, Inc. (http://www.discoverysurveys.com/) and the Center for Independent Consulting (www.centerforindependentconsulting.com). He is the author of 30 Reasons Employees Hate their Managers (AMACOM) and, most recently, An Insider's Guide to Building a Successful Consulting Practice (AMACOM, 2010).