Should Employers Hire Overqualified Employees?

Due to a Concept Called Task Crafting, Underemployment May Work Out

When you hire an overqualified employee, because of a concept called task crafting, the hire may work out for you and for the employee.
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Underemployment is rampant in the world—17 percent to 66 percent—depending on where and how you measure it. Globally, 47 percent of people feel overqualified for their jobs. These numbers are huge. If you feel that your job is at your level, take a look to your right or left. Chances are that one or both of those people feel underemployed. And, they may be miserable because of it.

Managers often don't want to hire people who are overqualified for the job precisely because of the perceived misery that will bring in turnover and employee dissatisfaction.

The general consensus in business is to not hire overqualified employees. However, a new study flips this accepted belief on its head. 

Hiring Overqualified Employees May Have a Plus Side

Bilian Lin (Chinese University of Hong Kong at Shen Zhen), Kenneth Law (Chinese University of Hong Kong), and Jing Zhou (Rice University) looked at underemployed people and found that people in these positions were more creative than their fully employed counterparts, because of an innovative approach called Task Crafting.

Overqualified Employees Frequently Participate in Task Crafting

Task Crafting involves taking work and altering it so that the job becomes better. For example, you've hired an employee to prepare monthly reports from a database. The former employee doing this job put the information together by hand each month.

An overqualified task crafter might say, “Hey, I could write some code and Excel would take the data and create the reports for me.” Who benefits?

The business.

Why do employees do this task crafting? Because they need to "maintain their positive self-image.” However, it's not that simple. Now that the reports are automated, has the report writer just worked herself out of a job? It's possible.

It's also possible that an old-school boss will object and say, “But we've always done it by hand.” (Yes, this happens, unfortunately.)

Should You Hire People Who Are Overqualified

Of course, the answer to this question depends on your business needs. If you can find a person who is qualified, hiring them is your best bet. But, you shouldn't reject an overqualified person if the person has the following characteristics:

  • Willing to go above and beyond
  • Is comfortable with the salary 
  • Has the skills you need that can help your business

And, it's not just important that the employee has these characteristics. The manager must also expect to take the following actions with an employee who is overqualified for the job.

  • Listen to ideas from the employee. When you hire a person who is overqualified, you should listen to their ideas. The employee may have experience that you don't have. She may also see problems and opportunities in a different light than how you have traditionally looked at them.
  • Prepare for the employee to change the job. Task crafting means that the job, the interactions, and the output are going to change. Can you accept change within your department? If you're a micro-managing boss who rules with an iron fist, an overqualified person probably isn't your best choice.
  • Can provide room for growth. A manager who works well with an overqualified person needs to offer, not just promotional opportunities, but higher level, challenging work with new experiences when appropriate. Otherwise, your overqualified person will move on. Naturally, you don't have to do this at every turn (the job at hand needs to be done), but if she has improved work  processes, don't reward them with more tedious work.

    How Much Underemployment Is Too Much

    Lin, et.al. found that perceived underemployment played a huge role. If you hire a former CEO as a cashier in your store, the job will probably not go well. The employee will be “too demotivated to craft.”

    However, if you hire a former grocery store front end coordinator as a cashier you may have created the perfect situation to encourage task crafting. People with “low to moderate levels of underemployment” are those who are best suited to bring a benefit to the business with their task crafting.

    Knowledge Is Key

    For task crafting to take place, the professors found that the employee needs to know that she is overqualified for the position. It's important that the employee and the manager both recognize that the employee has a surplus of ability for the job.

    They found that “employees who choose to work at a charity because of the pro-social values that the charity represents may not perceive themselves as being underemployed, even if that is the objective reality.”

    So, the benefit you gain from hiring an individual who is overqualified to work for your non-profit is limited unless you work with the person to ensure that she knows she's overqualified. Organizations with small budgets can benefit the most from this task crafting, but the person has to know that she's capable of doing more.

    Additionally, trying to keep an employee down so that she doesn't feel as if she can move on will only undermine your efforts at having a successful task crafter.

    So, to answer the initial question, should you hire a person who is overqualified for the job? Maybe. Take a look at your organization and the candidate and make your decision. The hire may turn out great for you—and for them.