Can smart workers be damaging?

If you are overqualified for your role, are you causing more trouble for your firm than you are worth?

Workers who are overqualified for their jobs can hurt firms, not help them

When Amanda Hiebert, a communications director based in Calgary, Canada, took a position at a vitamin supplements firm several years ago, she knew she was overqualified for the job.

The high salary and the opportunity of working for a big company attracted her.

But once she was hired, she found the role was not demanding enough to keep her occupied. “It was boring, it wasn’t challenging, and I wasn’t doing any meaningful work,” she says. She left after just two years. And her experience is one that is all too common.

Around one in six workers in Britain are thought to be overeducated for the jobs they are doing and 58% of graduates are in roles that do not require university degrees. In the US, an estimated one in four employees with a bachelor’s degree are overqualified for their current position.

Many employers now use degrees as a standard entry requirement for roles that were traditionally done by non-graduates, leading to a kind of job inflation where workers are taking jobs that they don’t find challenging.

And while this trend may seem to be working in employers’ favour – they get to bring in a large number of smart, highly-skilled graduates – the reality is it may backfire. Research suggests companies may be harming themselves by hiring employees who are overqualified for the roles they are doing.

Resentment ripples

Having a highly-skilled overachiever on staff should, on the face of things at least, be a boon. But overqualified workers can develop negative attitudes, such as a sense of entitlement about their skills or resentment through boredom, that can ripple out to every cubicle in an office, warns Berrin Erdogan, a professor of management at Portland State University.

“That sense of entitlement brings everyone down, especially for those who work in teams,” she says. Her research suggests that being overly-skilled for a position can lead employees to feel different from their colleagues, which can fester leading to isolation and loneliness.

Also, if someone is overqualified they might not be fully engaged in the tasks they are given to do, which they may judge ‘beneath them’, according to Bruce Tulgan, an expert in leadership training and author of The 27 Challenges Managers Face.

“They’ll get bored as a result of low morale and they might not even do the work required in that job,” he says.

The perception of overqualification that can lead to these problems seems to be particularly prevalent among younger employees, according to Tulgan. Millennials, Tulgan says, “have higher expectations for themselves, and their employers, compared to other generations.”

A study conducted earlier this year by researchers at the Florida Atlantic University showed that younger workers tended to be those who believe they are more talented than the position they have and often felt frustrated and disillusioned at work.

These employees are also more likely to engage in more rebellious behaviour such as coming in late, leaving early, theft or even bullying co-workers, says Michael Harari, an assistant professor at the university’s department of management programmes.

Popularity stakes

But this isn’t always the case. A recent study by Erdogan and Hong Deng, an associate professor at Durham University’s Business School, identified certain personality traits among overqualified workers that are crucial to help them fit cohesively into any workplace.

“Employees who are overqualified but equipped with good interpersonal influence skills are able to display appropriate social behaviors in interactions with co-workers and be seen as competent and likeable,” says Deng. “Those employees are popular and well accepted and therefore feel motivated to engage in positive work behaviours.”

Put simply, interpersonal influence means adapting to your surroundings, adopting a friendly attitude and refraining from disparaging your job or boss. Workers taking on that approach will be more effective performers in the office, adds Deng.

And this is the point where strong leadership can really make a difference. To keep overqualified staff engaged, leaders should give them more creative assignments, long-term projects or have them collaborate with other teams within the company, says Elisabeth Kelan, a professor of leadership at the Cranfield School of Management.

Although if taking this route “leaders should be mindful of the fact that this might create even more resentment towards the perceived overqualified individuals,” she warns. “It is therefore important to discuss with the team why one person has been chosen for those special tasks.”

Another way for leaders to combat negative feelings among overqualified employees is being frank about climbing the corporate ladder. Erdogan says she once spoke to a hiring manger who hired someone clearly overqualified for the position and they had an open conversation about being patient.

“He said to the employee that if you stay in this position for a year, you’ll move higher up in the organisation,” she explains. “That overqualified employee responded with a sentiment of ‘That’s great! I won’t be in this role forever and I’ll get a better job down the road.’”

So what if this applies to you? The same candidness can also help people who feel they are overqualified for their role. Many job seekers will find themselves in the same situation as Hiebert, having to apply for roles that perhaps do not warrant the level of experience and expertise they have.

For those that do, Tulgan advises explaining why you want the job and emphasising how you can fit into the company.

“Don’t dumb down your CV or downplay your achievements,” he says. “Be candid and authentic.”

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