Overqualified Is Good

In the current bear economy countless numbers of experienced, highly skilled workers find themselves among the ranks of the 6.2 million long-term unemployed, pitted against prevailing recruitment “wisdom” warning against hiring overqualified workers. Ironically, this group, comprising nearly half of the U.S. jobless in September according to the U.S. Department of Labor, is actually a rich and untapped source of competitive advantage.

In a December 2010 Harvard Business Review article “The Myth of the Overqualified Worker,” Andrew O’Connell cited two studies — Talya Bauer and Berrin Erdogan’s analysis of data on more than 5,000 Americans and Greg Reilly, Anthony Nyberg and Mark Maltarich’s examination of 244 employees in a Turkish apparel chain — demonstrating that, in addition to performing significantly better, highly skilled, “cognitively overqualified” employees have a stronger work ethic and stay longer on average if they are empowered.

Despite this evidence, “The prejudice against ‘too-good’ employees is pervasive,” O’Connell said. “Companies tend to prefer an applicant who is a ‘perfect fit’ over someone who brings more intelligence, education or experience than needed.” What is often overlooked is that job descriptions frequently list the minimal performance requirements for a current problem set, not one that could develop as business progresses. In these terms, the best candidate should be overqualified.

Only when organizations challenge faulty thinking about the highly skilled can they begin to see their true potential competitive value. This negative bias persists due to concerns these individuals will quickly leave or become disgruntled, hiring managers’ fears that highly skilled employees could replace or outshine them and assumptions that these individuals will be too expensive.

While reasonable on the surface, such fears can be allayed by engaging this talent in high-traction, value-producing jobs. Highly skilled workers offer an advanced level of critical thinking, enabling them to cut through issues that baffle less-experienced employees. As a result, the highly skilled can offer shortcuts, redesigns, best practices and other improvements that not only provide competitive value for their new organizations, but make them feel more valued as well.

Perhaps more important than having a fresh opportunity to apply their talents and make a name for themselves again, free choice, self-direction and autonomy — all more viable for a highly accomplished worker — are also the glue for employee engagement and retention. As for threats to hiring managers, experts have long preached the wisdom of hiring people with greater talent than one’s own as being the best way to advance one’s own career.

Regarding cost, organizations must consider the value generated by the highly skilled. While most overqualified workers are actually willing to take a step down in salary for the chance to demonstrate their worth, their full value comes from their shorter ramp-up time, thus shorter time to create profitability. According to Fred Reichheld’s The Loyalty Effect, longer-tenured employees offer other benefits, including peer training, job efficiency, greater depth in customer service, network contacts and strategic business savvy that produces a five to 10 multiple of salary benefit, which generally does not kick in for three to five years in new hires. All of this is immediately available from the overqualified or highly skilled employee.

Despite these benefits, staffing professionals still may worry about a potential Mr. Hyde lurking inside the highly qualified Dr. Jekyll they wish to hire. The addition of two key competencies to the hiring criteria can mitigate the potential for overaggressive or bait-and-switch types in the applicant pool. Specifically, a history of collaborative innovation — the practice of teaming with others from an awareness of the higher potential for synergy — in combination with a self-assured humility — the maturity of character that no longer needs to assert or insert one’s ego into the mix for its own gain — make the highly talented hire an eager and willing participant striving for the greater good of the company.

To identify these competencies, skilled talent managers who rely on behavioral/historical interview questions quickly will recognize examples of collaborative innovation. But recognizing the maturity that comes with self-assured humility is a bit more difficult. Interviewers should look for modesty in expression mixed with a confidence that allows the person to respect and recognize others for their contributions.

Amy Bladen Shatto is president of Leadership Variations, a management development consultancy. Kris Girrell is senior partner of Camden Consulting Group in Boston. They can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.