Overqualified candidates are equal parts tantalising and terrifying. Sure, they’ll fill the role beautifully but what if they become upset with its limitations, or leave within months of being hired? Here is how to approach the geese that lay the golden eggs, without scaring them off.
There’s an anxiety many HR professionals are familiar with that you only experience when reading a resume. You’re nodding your head thinking “this person ticks all the boxes” but as you keep reading it occurs to you “oh no, they’re ticking boxes I haven’t even drawn.”
But new research shows that anxiety should perhaps be replaced with joy. Published by the Academy of Management Journal, it reveals why overqualified candidates are of benefit to organisations, and that far from becoming unhappy they can in fact thrive. Across the two studies conducted, overqualified employees were found to “job craft”, organically expanding and experimenting with their role.
Jing Zhou, co-author of the research and a professor of management and psychology at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University, spoke to Fast Company about the findings. “Overqualified workers tend to try different things, and through the process they bring creative insights and find better ways of doing their work,” she says.
Zhou goes on to explain, “they can complete their assigned tasks more quickly” and that “when a situation requires it, or an opportunity appears, they step outside of their job description for the organisation, generating new and useful ideas and doing more than they’re required.”
Keeping the goose satisfied
Nevertheless, there are important techniques to onboarding and managing the overqualified that can’t be ignored. First of all, their manager should not arbitrarily limit the golden goose as they try to shape the job to their superior skills. Secondly, the research showed positive effects the more the employee identified with the company.
In a separate study from 2011, discussed in the Harvard Business Review, the research author Berrin Erdogan, says, “People don’t stay or leave a company because of their skills. They stay or leave because of working conditions… Effective onboarding is essential, especially for the overqualified. Unmet expectations are one of the more common reasons for turnover.”
Don’t hire an AI programmer to a data entry position
There is a tipping point however. Even though overqualified candidates are desirable, there is still such a thing as too qualified. Zhou describes it as “an inverted U, with the benefit to the employer increasing to a certain point, then falling”. The researchers can’t describe when that tipping point happens but it’s something to keep in mind.
Here is a list of other advice, taken from the researchers, of what you should be aware of when considering the overqualified, or how to handle them once they’ve been hired:
- Do hire the overqualified when it’s an employer’s market. There’s a reason why articles about such candidates tend to appear during an economic downturn or an industry shakeup – top notch recruits will come your way when the number of jobs available shrink.
- Don’t lie to yourself about the limitations of the position. If there is little room for advancement, or no organisational willingness to expand the role’s capabilities then someone overqualified is unsuited. If you only need a worker bee, hire a worker bee.
- Overqualified candidates are aware of their skills and will expect that to be at least somewhat reflected in their pay.
- Just as you should let them job craft you also shouldn’t push them into it. Zhou notes in the Fast Company article that it’s the employee’s choice and implies that compulsion won’t work.
- As the HBR article helpfully articulates, even if someone’s resume blows you away with their experience, be sure that they actually have the skills required for the role. Someone can be impressively capable without being able to accomplish what your organisation needs.
- Finally, traditional interviews aren’t the best predictors of how successful someone will be in a role, but they might be a good way to measure and manage the expectations of candidates.