Finding, hiring, and training new staff members is expensive, which is why employers want their employees to stick around. It's also why many are reluctant to hire the overqualified. When candidates look like they could easily bag a better job elsewhere, why take them on only to watch them get bored or poached and leave you high and dry in a matter of months?

The case against hiring the overqualified seems to make intuitive sense, but does science concur that hiring an employee with more than the necessary skills and experience tends to lead to poor performance and quick turnover?

The conventional wisdom on the overqualified is wrong

The answer, according to a new collaboration between scientists from Rice University and researchers in Hong Kong, appears to be no -- at least in some ways. When the research team tested out how the overqualified fared in the real world, their findings turned the conventional wisdom on its head.

To see if the bias against the overqualified was rooted in reality, the researchers assessed the qualifications of groups of teachers and toy factory technicians, looking to see if those who had more than the required skill level actually ended up faring worse on the job. In fact, they found the opposite. The most overqualified teachers and factory workers actually performed best, according to skill tests and ratings from their superiors.

They were able to excel, the study demonstrated, because they engaged in what's known as "job crafting," or consciously shaping their responsibilities and outlook to make the most of the job at hand. In short, they took initiative and used their "excess" skills to figure out creative ways to do the work better. But only if their managers let them.

"Sometimes managers say, 'You're not focusing' or 'You're stepping outside of your boundaries,'"Jing Zhou of Rice explains in a Fast Company write-up of the research. "Instead, let [an overqualified employee] engage in job crafting and have confidence that over time, their efforts will result in creativity."

What's the real reason you're scared to hire that overqualified candidate?

While this study demonstrates that it's completely possible for the overqualified to remain engaged with a job that's well below their capabilities given proper management, it doesn't address the issue of tenure. The overqualified might actually make better workers, but how long do they stick around?

But while this specific study wasn't designed to weigh in on this question, other HR experts are happy to. Take, for example, a recent, impassioned post from veteran HR pro Ed Baldwin on recruiting blog Fistful of Talent. In it, he asserts that the usual reasons managers cite for their reluctance to hire the overqualified (such as the likelihood that they'll quickly bail) are, essentially, BS. These are the real (far less flattering) reasons many companies shy away from overskilled candidates, according to Baldwin:

The hiring manager's ideal candidate is someone younger and the candidate is too old. And in case you didn't know it, this reason is illegal.

The hiring manager has a "smartest person in the room" mentality and leadership style, is intimidated by the candidate's background and experience, and is too immature to recognize and make the most of a team member that has capabilities to make them look like a rock star.

You don't want a talent deal; or you don't think hiring a candidate with more skills and capabilities than the job requires is a deal at all. If it appears too good to be true, it probably is. This is your own recruitment insecurity.

"If your company has a talent strategy where you are trying to get the best ROI for your talent dollar (quite frankly, why wouldn't you), then you would hire the overqualified candidate because they are offering more skills and capabilities than the job requires at the same talent cost. That's a higher ROI," he concludes.

Are you convinced by this combination of research and expert rant that perhaps you've been thinking about the overqualified all wrong?

Published on: May 4, 2017