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Do Employers Have a Real Reason to Shun 'Overqualified' Employees?

After months on the unemployment rolls, job seekers have been dumbing down their resumes in order to snare lower-level positions. This often results in tense job interviews as wary employers try to snuff out overqualified candidates. They don't want someone taking a junior position, then bolting for greener pastures when the economy improves.

Now comes a study from the University of Houston that suggests overqualified employees are actually less productive than novice workers, and frequently engage in nonproductive habits. It's a conclusion that runs counter to the value extended by experienced candidates, and makes it even more difficult for senior professionals to find new jobs.

"We've found that overqualified professionals engage in counterproductive work behaviors," said Christiane Spitzmueller, assistant professor of psychology. "They might be absent frequently or not focused on their work. They also might take things from the office that they're not supposed to, play video games at their desks and generally, do things other than their assigned tasks."

Spitzmueller and Alexandra Luksyte, a doctoral candidate in UH's industrial organizational psychology graduate program, surveyed 215 pairs of employees and supervisors across a host of industries. Employees responded to questions focused on how their previous work experiences and educational backgrounds complement their day-to-day tasks. Supervisors provided details on counterproductive work behaviors observed in the workplace.

A chief reason overqualified employees tend to focus more on counterproductive behaviors rather than their work assignments is burnout. "They just can't get engaged in their work," Spitzmueller said.

Additionally, Spitzmueller's and Luksyte's study says overqualified workers often adopt a cynical view toward their duties and find little meaning in their current careers. It also indicates that women are more likely than men to stay in a position in which they are overqualified.

The study concludes that underemployed workers need to be challenged, which means bored workers can be about ineffective managers rather than bad hiring decisions. After all, it's up to managers to get the maximum output from their employees, regardless of their experience levels.

Does your boss make sure you're challenged? Are overqualified workers less productive than novice workers? Share your thoughts.

AUTHORLeslie Stevens-Huffman Insider Comment
  • C.
    9 April 2010

    I never played video games or any other kind of time wasting activity when I was a younger executive. Now with 20 yrs under my belt and a former world business traveller, I find my self being interviewed by a twenty something that can't even find the right questions to ask me. More ackward becomes the situation when I'm interviewed by the very person who is my boss to be if I get the position. When he/she goes through my resume, very quickly he/she assumes that I'm not the right fit for the position because they need someone that grows with the company. How long is going to be with the company this young executive in order to grow with it. One year? Two years? All I'm looking for is a steady place, a decent salary and a positive ambiance. I can produce as much as any young person and can give steadiness in an office populated by the "new gadgets" generation.
    I won't miss a day because of a hangover or overslept tbecause I was watchingo the late night show or the last hockey, football or baseball game. This study sucks.

  • Jo
    Joe G
    8 April 2010

    The main reason overqualified employees are shunned is simply a matter of money. I have personally taken a company public and filed their SEC registration statement as well as their 10K and 10Q reports. This takes special skills and a strong conscientious and dedicated effort with special attention paid to details.Once things were flowing smoothly with the company, and they received their money from the IPO, they hired a younger person at a lower salary to take over my job. To make a blanket statement that overqualified employees are non-productive is absurd. Each circumstance is unique.

  • Ra
    Ralph Dahm
    7 April 2010

    As a recruiter with over 30 years of experience I have found the term "overqualified" to be another way of practicing "age discrimination", which is more prevalent now than ever before. One candidate was rejected for a CPA position because he had "15 years of experience and we are looking for 7-10 years". Translation: he is too old.

    Also the generalist conclusions promoted by the author of the study reflect someone with limited life experience. Perhaps the author should spend some time in the real world to understand the dynamics of todays workplace.

  • PB
    7 April 2010

    I've seen this several times in my job search. Overqualified will leave first chance they get. How does anyone know this? Are there stats to back this up? Any employee will consider leaving a position for greener pastures regardless of experience. It's human nature. If I were hiring I would welcome the chance to employ someone I otherwise would never get a shot at. In this economy there are so many people willing to take positions they probably would not have looked at in the past when times were better. Doesn't mean they wouldn't stick around and be productive. They may actually like the new job. There are no guarantees when it comes to hiring that anyone will stick around and as a result I think hiring managers should fill positions with best candidate.

  • de
    7 April 2010

    I don't think that 215 people is a sufficient sampling to support any conclusion. I know I have been passed over because I was more qualified than the person interviewing me. I guess I am more of a team player, because I would want someone on my team that could raise the level of competence through example if not actually coaching fellow employees. I would want to take advantage of that experience and as a result make the position more challenging and rewarding for the over-qualified employee.

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