Fallout from the Recession: When ‘Overqualified’ Leads to Underperformance–or Worse

HR & Safety

Study finds cynical work attitudes main cause of problems associated with overqualified employees

Employers and human resources professionals have long recognized a link between overqualified workers and counterproductive work behavior (CWB), or workplace deviance.

“Overqualified people, or those who think they have more skills, education, and work experience than the job requires, tend to engage in counterproductive work behaviors more so than those people who feel they fit the job requirements,” says University of Houston researcher Aleksandra Luksyte. This is particularly problematic now, she says, because the recession has forced many people: even highly educated, experienced professionals: to take jobs for which they are overqualified.

Recently, Luksyte conducted a study of 215 full-time workers to find out what leads overqualified employees to engage in workplace deviance, behaviors that may include anything from excessive chatting with coworkers and Internet misuse all the way to workplace theft and fraud. Her research, publicized by the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology , employed a series of psychological survey instruments to test employees for three factors thought to be at the root of the overqualification-CWB link, including poor person-job fit, burnout, and the feeling on the part of the employee that his or her psychological contract: the mutual, implicit expectations and beliefs between an employer and an employee: has been violated.

Main Findings

The results showed that overqualified employees do engage in a great deal of deviant workplace behavior and that all three factors affected the overqualification-CWB relationship as expected. The results also showed that overqualified incumbents misbehave in the workplace because they become cynical about the meaningfulness of their activities. Although person-job fit or inadequate psychological contract can motivate such misbehavior, Luksyte says, cynical work attitudes dominate as a reason that overqualified employees engage in CWB.

“Overqualified employees become cynical about the meaningfulness of their work because they feel they are coming to work every day and wasting their time and wasting their skills,” she explains. “When we [compared the effects of all the variables], we found that it was not the psychological contract or the organizational fit that had the greatest effect, it was the cynicism.”

Implications for Employers

Luksyte cautions that her findings do not mean that employers should avoid hiring overqualified job candidates, because other studies have shown that they can perform well in the workplace. Instead, she recommends that organizations that know they have overqualified employees try to find more meaningful work for them, challenge them, or make an effort to accommodate the types of skills and qualifications they have. She suggests that companies could ask overqualified employees to perform duties beyond their job description. For example, overqualified employees who have more time, experience, and skills than other employees could conduct on-the-job training for newly hired workers or serve as mentors.

“Basically the idea is that organizations really have to [capitalize on] this kind of unused potential in overqualified employees,” Luksyte explains. “Many companies are happy with the work these people do. It’s just that when they are done with all of their essential tasks and sit and do nothing…they may transgress and they start getting on the Internet or talking to their coworkers, or maybe they take excessive breaks because they are not challenged. They are bored, and this is when they become cynical about their jobs and engage in deviant behavior.”

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