How Hiring Overqualified Workers Can Benefit Innovation

Despite fears that overqualified workers will bolt for better opportunities, there are great benefits to hiring them.
Overqualified workers

Nearly half of workers worldwide feel they’re overqualified for their jobs. This might be a good thing.

About 47 percent of workers globally feel they’re underemployed, according to a study published in Academy of Management Journal this year. While some previous research said these workers would be likely to leave organizations quickly for better opportunities, and therefore companies should refrain from hiring them, new studies suggest that overqualified employees have a lot to contribute.

“Our result actually shows that if you manage and use them appropriately, they actually could contribute to the organization in very meaningful ways by demonstrating creativity,” said Jing Zhou, professor of management and psychology at Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University in Houston, who is also a co-author on the aforementioned study.

From Overqualified to Innovative

Because these workers hold skills and education greater than the role requires, they have the capacity to do more on a job. “When you have lots of creative ideas generated by your employees, that should contribute to organizational innovation,” Zhou said. They can also help train colleagues or act as mentors.

However, it’s not enough to simply hire an overqualified worker. They must feel motivated and have a connection with the company before they’re likely to share ideas to improve the organization, Zhou said.

To get the most out of overqualified workers, Zhou said managers should encourage the employees to try new ways of performing tasks, which can lead to new efficiencies. If and when workers make a mistake in their tinkering, help analyze the mistakes instead of attributing blame, Zhou said.

Engagement and motivation are important aspects of the success of overqualified workers, according to Anthony Nyberg, professor and academic director for the master’s of human resources program at the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business in Columbia, South Carolina. “The more engaged they’ll be, the more likely they’ll be able to stay there longer and be productive,” he said.

Other benefits he listed are that customers are likely to receive better service from overqualified workers. They should also have more time to help out their peers. Employers should revel in opportunities to have overqualified employees and give them more responsibility and autonomy, Nyberg said, as it will make the workers and organizations more productive.

“We should eagerly want someone who’s overqualified, presuming that their motivation is still there,” Nyberg said.

Managing Expectations at Work

Naturally, these results aren’t true for all overqualified workers. When one completes a degree, they form an expectation that they will be working in a job that uses those skills, said Michael Harari, assistant professor in the department of management at the Florida Atlantic University College of Business in Boca Raton, Florida. When they get a job that does not use those skills, there’s a discrepancy between the expectation and reality.

“When that discrepancy exists, relative deprivation theory tells us that we feel deprived of an expected outcome,” resulting in anger and frustration, leading to negative outcomes, Harari said.

Harari co-authored a report in the Journal of Vocational Behavior that found employees who feel overqualified are more likely to engage in deviant behaviors, ranging from fewer hours in the office to theft or bullying. Those who are young, overeducated and narcissistic reported higher levels of this perceived overqualification, the study found. They’re also less likely to engage in voluntary helping behaviors.

“That is a bit of a pitfall for employers,” Harari said.

Additional pitfalls for the employee can include anxiety, depression and job burnout, Harari said. These workers are less satisfied with their lives than other workers well-matched to their positions.

Despite these findings, Harari said there are ways to manage outcomes from overqualified workers, many of which Zhou also listed. Additional advice Harari shared are to give employees autonomy in their work and to provide social support. When workers have a good relationship with their supervisors and co-workers, they’re less likely to believe they’re overqualified. And if they do still feel overqualified, they’re less likely to manifest that into negative outcomes, he said.

Lauren Dixon is an associate editor at Talent Economy. To comment, email