Melbourne Business School News Why hiring overqualified people can benefit organisations

Why hiring overqualified people can benefit organisations

New research is challenging the idea that employing people who feel overqualified is a problem, showing they often engage in citizenship behaviours at work.

Benefits of hiring overqualified employees_research

Traditionally, employees who feel as if they are overqualified for their job have been viewed as difficult for leaders to manage and problematic for organisations overall.

Despite this, the number of people who consider themselves to fall within the category has been rising.

"Many people are increasingly feeling overqualified for the jobs they are being hired to perform, so perceptions of overqualification is something we need to better understand and manage," said Melbourne Business School Associate Professor of Management Deshani Ganegoda.

"The rise is in part due to the increase in job movements following the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the prolific offering of online courses making it easier than ever to access higher education."

Fascinated by this phenomenon, Associate Professor Ganegoda and colleagues – including her former PhD student, Australian National University Lecturer Dr Chao Ma – wanted to explore whether there was a way to better manage employees who feel overqualified.

The resulting paper published in Human Resource Management found that not only could these employees be more effectively managed, but they also brought unique benefits.

"A perception of overqualification gave rise to unique needs in these employees that often led them to take on additional duties," said Associate Professor Ganegoda.

"These unique needs, if correctly managed, could see these employees thrive and make a positive contribution to the workplace."

Proactive and affiliative citizenship behaviours

The researchers found that the needs of employees who felt they were overqualified tended to present in one of two ways, driving them to either assimilate with their peers, or work harder to differentiate themselves from others.

"Some people who feel overqualified want to simply blend in with the group," Associate Professor Ganegoda said.

"If you feel like you are an outsider or 'too good', then there is a social cost in that people tend to exclude you, so there's a natural desire to fit in.

"On the other hand, overqualified people know they have these surplus qualifications, and some will want to show them off. They want to differentiate themselves, stand out from their peers."

In order to satisfy these needs, overqualified employees were likely to engage in additional citzenship behaviours. These behaviours were either ‘proactive’ behaviours aimed at improving existing organisational practices or ‘affiliative’ behaviours, aimed at maintaining existing work practices and relationships.

Research has previously shown that both proactive and affiliative  behaviours, where employees go above and beyond their contractual duties, can benefits organisations in distinct ways.

“We know that proactive behaviours by employees are important for innovation and continued improvement in organisations,” Associate Professor Ganegoda said.

“Affiliative behaviours are also important for organisations – they facilitate collaboration and learning, and enhance interpersonal relationships at work, and we see both proactive and affiliative behaviours in employees who feel overqualified.”

Employees who were motivated to stand out would engage in proactive behaviours that allowed them to showcase their surplus skills and qualifications.

This might be proposing additional projects or coming up with ways to improve existing systems or processes.

Those who were motivated to assimilate, on the other hand, tended to focus on affiliative behaviours that would improve their relationship with others.

"They will look at ways they can help their peers, so they are more liked by them," Associate Professor Ganegoda said.

In both situations, these over-and-above behaviours had the potential to be beneficial for the team and broader organisation.

To stand out or fit in?

Associate Professor Ganegoda and her colleagues found that which of the two motivations an employee tended towards – to stand out or fit in – was strongly linked to the way they viewed themselves. 

"To understand what drove some to behave one way, and some the other, we looked at an individual's self-construal," she said.

"That is, how they saw themselves, or defined themselves, in relation to others. Did they identify as an individual distinct from others, or part of a community?"

This variable is often shaped by culture, with people from collectivist cultures more likely to view themselves as connected to others, and those from individualist cultures more likely to favour standing out and being unique.

However, culture isn't the only determining factor. Personality, background, gender, family responsibilities and other issues can also play a role.

Associate Professor Ganegoda said managers could gauge the motivations of different employees through conversations with them.

"It is something you can identify through your interactions with the employee, when you discuss with them their goals, aspirations and what energises them at work," she said.

Advice for managers

Associate Professor Ganegoda said the research was particularly important for HR teams and hiring managers, and could lead to a change in traditional recruitment practices.

"It shows that candidates who feel overqualified should not immediately be discounted, because they may well make a positive contribution to the workplace," she said.

For those managing overqualified employees within an organisation, Associate Professor Ganegoda said it was important to create opportunities for them to engage in constructive activities beyond the normal duties of their role.

"Because they have a need to use their surplus skills and qualifications – whether by doing additional tasks to stand out or finding ways to help others – it's important that managers find additional opportunities for them to fulfil these needs," Associate Professor Ganegoda said.

"This could be through career development, job design or even job crafting, where you empower the employee to define their role, and how they may do it differently."

Associate Professor Ganegoda said her hope was that the research led to better outcomes for highly-qualified individuals as well as for organisations.

"By adjusting management practices, we can leverage the needs of overqualified employees in a way that increases their satisfaction and improves organisational outcomes," she said.

"At the end of the day we want employees to feel that work is a meaningful place."

To read the full research paper, visit To stand out or fit in? How perceived overqualification motivates proactive and affiliative performance.

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Associate Professor of Management