Employers Have New Reasons to Shun ‘Overqualified’ Candidates

After months on the unemployment roles, desperate 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 during the hiring process. They don’t want someone taking a junior position, then bolting for greener pastures when the economy improves.  

Tired Old DogNow 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.

— Leslie Stevens-Huffman

38 Responses to “Employers Have New Reasons to Shun ‘Overqualified’ Candidates”

  1. They don’t want to hire people with no experience because they are afraid the new worker will have to be trained. That new worker will leave after a few years and go work somewhere else. Now they don’t want to hire people with that magic 2 to 7 years of experience because they might leave too?? I wonder what they think is going to happen with a mindset like that?

  2. Quoting from the above blog/article: “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.”

    It required a study to show that poor management adversely effects productivity? Wow. What next? That poor management effects morale?

    My apologies for the sarcasm but “over qualified” candidates should not simply be dismissed because someone fears they will jump ship at the first opportunity. Keep them engaged and happy and they probably won’t jump ship, because they’ve probably learned through experience that the green grass might lie over the septic tank.

  3. Only insecure managers try to snuff out overqualified candidates during the hiring process. This is interesting research and worth consideration but great companies will hire the best available talent anyway. Job satisfaction is so low right now that companies need to be careful not to weed out overqualified candidates. Forward looking organizations that recognize the long term value of professional business practices, with respect to adding staf, will be rewarded when the resume flood dries up.

  4. Don’t overqualified workers tend to be older – isn’t over qualified often a euphamism for older worker? Wouldn’t you think younger workers on their way up will only stay at a company or job until it bores them or they want more challenges or money?

    What is a company saying if they pass on an over qualified worker? We want a dunce that will continually be challenged by the same job for years? What kind of employee would that be? Low paid. Low ambition. Limited value to the company, too.

    If an employer says you would be bored, it says more about that manager or company. There’s a management theory that says; A and B managers tend to hire B’s and C’s. Then the B’s and C’s tend to hire C’s and D’s. Pretty soon a company loses their edge as insecure managers dumb down the company.

  5. I wonder if the assistant professor of psychology and doctoral candidate in UH’s industrial organizational psychology graduate program have ever had REAL jobs ….

  6. Pezgun

    The study sample is too small to be meaningful except to provoke comment. This researcher is evidently trolling for grant money.
    There are too many variables; employees and managers in the study presented.
    Any conclusion based upon data returned under these conditions is at best conjecture and at worst an exercise in prevarication.
    I for one would not risk my reputation presenting such findings predicated upon this flimsy, even circumstantial basis.

  7. I agree with the posts regarding “over” qualified candidates intimdating management. I’ve interviewed with small development companies that I was sure I could “take over” within a year. I don’t blame them for not hiring me. Large corporations with defined roles shouldn’t have anything to worry about.

  8. ostmott

    The study by these 2 women is fundamentally flawed.

    First, the use of the word “overqualified”…
    Nobody can ever be overqualified for a job for which they were hired.

    People are hired because they possess some subset of the required qualifications, or criteria, that a company recruiter or manager deems important for their employee to have.

    Employees who are not focused may not be focused on their “jobs” or “projects” for only a few reasons. Either the employee doesn’t know what they are doing, in which case the employee is “not qualified”
    or the employee has some personal issues. But neither reason for “underperformance” has any relation to “overqualified”.

    A highly qualified employee with a set of good skills will always find a way to “add value” to their position or project or job.

    If one follows the conclusions of these two batty “psychologists”, then we should all hire incompetent or under-educated people for top tier positions in the enterprise.

    Why hire someone who is skilled in C++ for an embedded software project when we can hire someone who failed the C++ course and ensure that the project runs overbudget or outright fails??

  9. Frequently absent? playing video games? working on other than assigned duties? I think the blame for this goes to our outmoded belief that people do the same amount of work in the same amount of time. If you can do your assigned work in a few hours, you don’t have much of a choice. Either learn to work slower (habit forming), make the task more complicated than it is (how many different fonts can we use in a 1 page memo), ask for more work (not exactly fair and annoying to managers), sit and stare at the wall, or at least try to keep yourself occupied in ways that don’t impact your work habits or the quality of your work.

    Taking stuff from the office? there’s no excuse for that.

  10. Floyd Cobbard

    This article is a irrational generalization which is unfounded in my experience. Typically experience comes with time and the peers I respect in the industry with lots of experience have lots of time. They come from a more solid work ethic culture. My experience has been that less qualified and less seasoned workers have a hand out mentality and self-centered work orientation instead of a team orientation. Typically this manifests itself in workplace drama, self seeking glorification, and less desirable behaviors all aimed at creating the perception that they are dying to give to the company when in actuality they are self-seeking. In my experience true leaders surrond themelves with talent since they are not threatened by expeienced professional and strive to build the best team possible.

  11. I believe having a challenging position is the best for your career. Nothing is better than staying up on your skills and keeping busy, plus it makes the day go faster. unfortunately my current employer allows me to do whatever without any direction & it is not pressuring me to keep up on my game. I just keep thinking of the people coming out of college and make myself learn what is the latest new & upcoming technologies.

  12. Srikant Aiyar

    The survey results represent 215 participants. Wow! So all the years of working and earning degrees and certificates – not to mention the accolades from previous employers – are of no use. Excellent and this from a professor – who probably never strayed farther than the nearest Starbucks from campus. Well! Sorry prof! I guess reality has not intruded in your life – but a lot of us experience – as you stated ‘over qualified’ folks work many hard hours bringing in the bacon – completing ‘REAL’ projects in REAL time for yes !! REAL money. So please take this opinion of yours – and stuff it in a pipe and smoke it – Really!

  13. Srikant Aiyar

    The survey was conducted using 200 odd participants – it is neither compelling evidence nor does it establish any recognizable facts or trends. I find this pointless.

  14. Could it also be that more-qualified employees have more time for “non-work” activities because they’re able to complete assigned tasks quicker and with fewer issues that the less-qualified employees? It’s been my experience that a lower skilled worker may seem more productive, only because it takes them so much more time and effort for the same amount of work.

  15. I question the survey and its conclusions. I would question if this survey was meant to justify the attitude and hiring practices regarding older workers. Unfortunately, companies will not hire over qualified people. Which in this economy is really stupid IMHO. If someone with 20 years of experience is willing to work for the same salary as someone with 5 years of experience, seems to me to be a no brainer. I’m sorry but the argument that an overqualified worker would leave when things get better only holds some truth. When most early career high-tech professionals leave after 2.5 years why not benefit from the employee who can do a better job without constant supervision and training.

  16. More conflicting information…Govt needs more IT workers…No raises for IT staff…Overqualified workers need not apply…Go with your gut feelings! Tuesday morning I put my resume on DICE, Monster, and Career Builder. Today, Thrusday morning I removed it because I am flooded with emails, calls, and interview scheduling. I am a Senior Architect with 25 years experience. The hourly rates are higher than ever. The recruiters tell me that there are thousands of IT job openings at the banks here in Charlotte, NC. Skilled IT workers will always be in demand irrespective of outsourcing, offshoring, and poor economic conditions.

  17. “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.”

    Why don’t they do a survey on how employees feel about training their replacements from offshore countries.

    My work makes the employee train their replacements from offshore outsourcing companies and then once the knowledge is transferred the person who did the training is let go.

    How else are you suppose to react to this when you see this go on all around you. Employers think it isn’t good enough to be great at what you do and enjoy what you do. Why are people who are hard workers and worked their behinds off to make the company what they are today being treated so rotten. If you gain experience and like what you do everyday they take it away from you because you are nothing but an expense on the bottom line because you have accrued vacation and benefits.

    I think the UH should do a study on that subject and publish the findings.

  18. An article without numbers probably is an article without research or basis. Without research or basis, the article is the author’s opinion.
    It sounds like every experienced person out there is less qualified than an inexperienced person, without regard to the salary. All unemployed people will take a job and play games and steal things. Really?
    More what I take from this survey is that those surveyed are running sweat shops, looking for the most experienced people at the cheapest prices.
    When I get a job, my new employer will get a brand of loyalty and service that will impress them, guaranteed.

  19. Insecure management does not want to employ anyone smarter than they are. we intimidate stupid people. in nature, the slow and the sick are culled from the herd by predators. in the business environment the fast and the healthy are culled my management. in other words, nature provides for survival of the fittest, we ensure survival of stupidity.

  20. This is just a paid advertisement by employers or, worse yet, by colleges. This is not real research, but just fodder for employers to justify keeping experienced people out of their organizations, while having something to throw back to those who subject them to scrutiny.
    It would be really interesting to follow the money on this particular piece of so-called research. Maybe the University of Houston and other colleges are trying to “shake the tree” of employment so the “ripe fruit” falls to the ground and their newly minted grads can then grab the jobs left behind … nice trick!
    Like that other piece of “bull droppings” that says there are not enough IT people in the marketplace and therefore “they need to import IT talent”.
    Who says that younger people do not also engage in these counterproductive behaviors?
    A bonus assignment: Find out why Dice.com and other employer-friendly sites publish all this counterintuitive “bull droppings”.

  21. TweedleDeeIsDumb

    So James, ARE you hired yet for the high rate?
    Fill out those online forms and take the goofy tests.

    The head-hunters for the corp. “shoppers” will, of course, feed the mirage.

    Oh yes, don’t forget that mandatory field…your birthdate.

    At a certain age, you are eliminated, even if you architect software to reverse the revolutionary direction of the Milky Way.

  22. “AGEISM” pure and simple, and barely disguised.

    Legally, there is no difference between not hiring someone because they are “old”, and not hiring someone because they are a member of another minority group. However, business tends to ignore the “age” part of the regulations because they know they can usually get away with age discrimination.

    If Ms. Luksyte had chosen to do her research by attempting to claim how certain minority groups were allegedly less productive; it is almost certain that the academic powers-that-be would assure she was silenced before she became a major embarrassment to UH.

  23. This article just makes a lot of unfounded generalizations.

    First of all, younger workers, who are looking to better themselves, are more likely to leave quicker than older workers, who realize the value of having a stable position.

    Second, hiring a younger, inexperienced worker, is like buying a base model car with no options, while hiring a more experienced worker is like buying that same car, loaded with options, at the price of the base model. Which would you do? The older, more experienced worker is by far, the better deal. It just shows how out of touch hiring managers really are.

    Third, playing games, and other non-productive activities, are more in the realm of the younger workers than the older ones. For example, I am an older, more experienced IT worker, and I dont waste my time with social sites like Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, or whatever, while younger workers do spend a lot of time on these sites. They seem to have an overwhelming need to tell everyone in the world every time they have a stray though or bodily function. I spend my time doing my job, not telling the world I just drank 5 cups of coffee.

    This type of study comes from the very people who epitomize the lack of productivity, namely college professors.

  24. OMG Are you guys willing to accept the fact that we all screwed. Managers fear that they could loose their jobs eventually due to more qualified candidate in the stack. And they loose their appetite thinking that someone can critisize their decisions in front of their group. JOB SECURITY and EXCUSE before their superiors not to hire – is reality and they can now even refer to this article – this is where it becomes invasive, like other media actions.
    I do believe that study even though it has no numbers
    and it was Posted for a Reason by 2 female researchers

  25. Yoko Olsgaard

    I think that the study was flawed.

    All of my fellow project managers are taking project coordinator/business analyst jobs or if they were senior PM’s they are taking first level PM jobs. Why? Because it will pay the bills and most importantly, keep us networking and productive during the downturn. I am taking any and all contracts I can get. I am studying each company I work in, making tons of contacts, learning how things are done in each company, learning new technologies and new process methodologies.

    Yes, I am not constantly in high stress mode. I love being over-qualified. This is almost a vacation! I can do this job comfortably. And I am in high demand as a contractor. Why? Because I can do everything from get the boss a lunch when he has no lunch break at all, write requirements, prepare presentations from a quick conversation and scribbled notes, and fill in as traffic cop for all issues that arise while he is away. I am now the go-to person for any group that wants to get something done. You pay me a rate that I like, I’ll do anything within reason ethically that you want!

    How was a simple project coordinator able to do all that? Because I am overqualified for my job. I am happy being overqualified in a tight market. I’m worth every penny my client pays for my time. In fact, I’m way better than their even higher paid consultants from big consulting companies.

    My hope is that I will build a great network of happy former customers who will offer me a job when the market allows them to open up FTE positions.

    I believe that studies done by an ivory tower denizen of a university may not reflect what those of us who are actually IN the companies doing the work experience.

    As for moving any where else in the world… iffy… standard of living may not be what we are all used to. And the pay is considerably lower.

    My Indian colleagues that work for a consulting firm are paid so little that it’s shocking. Their consulting companies pay a LOT less than I am willing to accept. The consulting companies bid on a project basis and hire whoever will work for them at their considerably lower rates. I cannot afford to work for them. If I did, though, I would have a lot of work.

    One thing that I have noticed that works to keep hiring companies from abusing their consultant employees is to insist on knowing the rate that the resource is paid and set ranges of reasonable pay. Wells Fargo has done so. It keeps the abuse down and allows American-born contractors to play on an even field.

  26. Being an older worker myself; I take exception to most all the research findings. It all depends on the marketability of your skills, how well you market those skills in your job search, and the value you can bring to the company. Managers should be aware of the value an employee can add to the company as a whole rather than simply filling an immediate menial need. Whatever happened to ‘career path’?

  27. Yoko Olsgaard

    I am on a HUGE project here in SF – 90%+ of the resources are contractors. Most of them are working on an SoW basis where the consulting company bidded on a project basis for a fixed fee. They then turn around and hire whoever will work at the lowest rate. It is SHOCKING how little the consultants are paid on my project. US based consulting companies are paying considerably more for the same positions in project management. These hiring practices are undermining rates for all of us.

    I have noticed, however, that if a hiring company insists on knowing the rates that the consultant is paid by the consulting company and sets a fair rate for each job classification, the situation is much more equitable.

  28. “This is nothing more than a dodge so people will do more work more for less.”

    Posted by Mark on March 04, 2010 at 08:31 AM EST #


    I agree. “DO MORE… WITH LESS!” is neo-con mantra created by Republican-voting bean-counters during the Bush and Cheney Era.

    These are the guys in upper management that rake in huge bonuses as rewards for saving the company money by laying off all the good people in the non-management labor-force.

    If they want to follow the dictates of their biased research, why don’t they lay off all of these so-called overqualified people in India that have Master’s Degrees working for a pittance, because American corporations outsourced all of our jobs to these poor schmucks overseas, that are already overworked and underpaid! What kind of HYPOCRISY IS THIS, AT WORK? It’s called, ‘DO MORE… WITH LESS!’

  29. A couple of college professors. I am one…part-time. And I know this is garbage research done by people who want either another advanced degree or the podium at a professional conference. They are telling me and others what we really do: play videogames. No, I’d rather shop online, and I did it for years under the noses of some of the biggest names in finance.

    But we are back to Frederick Winslow Taylor a century ago: the worker as interchangeable part. Only by mid- or late career the parts have learned to talk, do the work, and assess it is not worth it. Let me ask you this: if I take your brain-damaged job for half of what I once made, and I put up with your verbal and emotional abuse with a sword pointed at me…I won’t try to leave because the economy is NEVER going to improve, you imbeciles. I am just going to time-serve, engage my work ethic to do my work, and attempt to also engage gratitude that it’s not worse. “Overqualified” my butt. Look at the white hair and 30 years of experience, butthead, and see your future as Nagg and Nell living a Beckett garbage can.

  30. This all is a generalization. I’ve been in IT for 33 years. I worked for the last 6 years as an IT Consultant for the same company. Was I overqualified? Yes sir, most definitely YES!

    Did I “engage in counterproductive work behaviors”? Definitely NO! The whole article is a misnomer!!!

  31. How was this study completed? Does older performers¿ value added far outweigh those issues? Like taking ½ the time that a younger, inexperienced person would take? Not making the mistakes that inexperienced persons make, as they just don¿t have the background or years in a task to perform as well as someone who has seen every permutation and knows they answers? Sounds like a survey done by people who are young, without the guiding hand of older performers. If you asked them on a survey whether they play video games at work, how would you determine the truthfulness of their answer? Perhaps they are joking with you? If someone asked you whether or not you played video games at work, you would no doubt say no. So what then? Do you guess on how many told the truth and how many lied? If you had to spend your time fixing the problems the younger group bring to the table, and you don¿t even have to tell the seasoned professional what to do, you might change your mind.