Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 315
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Overqualified: In or Out?

Research demonstrates new solutions to an old problem.

"I'm sorry, we found someone else who more closely met our requirements for the position.”

And with those words, once again, it ends . . . the ongoing debate we have about overqualified applicants. The “more-closely-met” phrase is well-worn and carefully designed to close a conversation, and so it does. But the topic will come up again, and again, and again.

Overqualified applicants regularly present themselves to us for consideration. They may be recently laid off or recently graduated from college or trade school. A few may have advanced college degrees, but they are not what we imagined when we wrote our position descriptions and requirements, and the arguments to screen them out are persuasive.

Overqualified employees won’t take direction without an argument. They have bad attitudes. They won’t feel committed and will “jump ship” at their earliest opportunity, and they don’t work very hard. Never hire someone with more education that you have. Screen them out and select someone with fewer skills and poorer qualifications . . . someone who will follow direction without argument. Someone who’ll stay.

O.K. Let’s review . . . fewer skills, poorer qualifications, someone who’ll stick around for a long time. Someone needing closer supervision with diminished long-term prospects for development. You see the problem.

Berrin Erdogan, from Portland State University, is interested in the challenges overqualified applicants present to us, and she reminds us that we already have a great many overqualified people on the payroll. One estimate puts it at 20% - 25% of the entire workforce. Someone’s been hiring them. Perhaps we’re wrong to screen them out. Erdogan conducted a study to find out.

The first question Erdogan investigated was performance. She examined objective performance data of 244 young employees (average age 22). She combined their performance with their perceptions of being overqualified, and she found a significant relationship. Young people who believed they were overqualified performed at a much higher level than those who did not. That’s pretty clear. Overqualified employees contribute at a level that we want in our entry-level employees.

Next, Erdogan investigated attitudes, intensions to leave, and actual turnover. She expected to find problems among overqualified young employees, and she did, but she carried her study further and looked for ways to correct these problems: to improve their attitudes and to keep them on the job longer. She was successful, and she found that supervisors played a key role.

Overqualified employees with good attitudes who stayed on the job reported a sense of engagement with their jobs. That is, they felt attracted to and stimulated by the work they did. Erdogan found that supervisors created conditions of work that fostered this sense of engagement. Specifically, she found supervisors stimulating four factors of the work experience for their overqualified employees.

The first factor Erdogan named personal meaning. Personal meaning is the result of a judgment employees make that compares the work goals of a job with an individual’s own ideals and standards. When there is agreement, an employee’s work role has personal meaning. Supervisors influence this factor by speaking about the work, explaining why it is important and why it needs to be done well, for example, why customer service and customer satisfaction is so important.

The second factor is competence, and it is strong when employees feel capable, able to perform work tasks with skill. Supervisors influence a sense of competence by congratulating an employee’s skillful behavior and explaining how it enabled effective performance, for example, managing a difficult customer.

The third factor is choice. Choice is the practice of initiating and regulating one’s own actions. Supervisors influence choice by allowing overqualified employees to make decisions about work methods, pace, and the amount of effort they expend.

The final factor is impact. Impact is the degree to which an overqualified employee can influence outcomes at work. Supervisors influence an employee’s sense of impact by pointing out connections between activities and outcomes, for example, skillful work and good effort that leads to exceeding an important standard, or good judgment leading to successful completion.

Overqualified applicants offer opportunities to retail business owners for improved practice that shouldn’t be missed, and supervision that addresses these needs makes it possible to capture this performance.

Reference: Erdogan, Berrin, and Talya Bauer (2009) Perceived Overqualification and Its Outcomes: The Moderating Role of Empowerment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(2), 557-565.

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