Why hiring over-qualified people is a good idea - new research

Why hiring over-qualified people is a good idea – new research

Organisational Success Podcast

Over-qualified workers are increasingly common

It is common these days to find overqualified professionals working in a wide variety of jobs that do not require their level of qualification, skills, knowledge and experience. Additionally, many jobseekers these days intentionally omit academic qualifications, work experience and senior roles they have held in order to obtain a job for which they would normally be considered to be overqualified.

Experienced and well-qualified individuals are finding it difficult to obtain employment to suit their skills and qualifications. Increasing levels of educational attainment and the simplification and de-skilling of many jobs, more competitive job markets and high unemployment levels – due to financial crises, the global pandemic of 2020 and increasing global competition – has exacebated this situation.

A new study

Last month we sent out a research briefing to members looking at a new review of research about the impact of overqualified people in the workplace. 

Negative assumptions about overqualified people

The normal reaction and judgement about overqualified individuals in the workplace tends to be negative on the assumption that an overqualified worker is likely to:

  • get bored more easily
  • be less satisfied in their work and remuneration
  • leave

Whilst there is some evidence for these assumptions there is also other evidence that shows overqualified individuals:

  • perform significantly better than their peers
  • engage in extra role activities
  • gain higher status which, in turn, increases their performance
  • enhance team and organisational learning and performance
  • enhance their team’s status and performance

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Podcast interview – The advantages of overqualified workers

In this episode of our podcast – The Organisational Success Academy, Our Editor in Chief, David Wilkinson interviews one of the paper’s authors, Assistant Professor Hans Van Dijk from Tilsburg University in the Netherlands 

Dr. Hans Van Dijk

Assistant Professor, TS Social and Behavioral Sciences, Department of Organization Studies – Tilburg University

Hans Van Dijk
Hans Van Dijk

University Profile: https://research.tilburguniversity.edu/en/persons/hans-van-dijk

LinkedIn Profile: Hans Van Dijk


David (00:00):

Welcome. Today, we’re talking to assistant professor Dr. Hans Van Dijk. He’s from the social and behavioral sciences in the Department of Organizational Studies at Tilburg University. He’s one of the authors of a very interesting paper looking at over qualification and the impact that it has, which we’ll look at, at the moment. Anyway. Welcome, Hans.

Hans (00:28):

Thank you very much. Good morning.

David (00:30):

It’s a pleasure. So do you just want to tell me a little bit about who you are, what you do, and kind of give us a little bit of background of your journey, your research and your doctorate and things like that?

Hans (00:43):

Yeah, sure. I’d be happy to. So, I’m Hans Van Dijk. It’s one of the most difficult Dutch names you can have. So I’m Dutch. I actually studied organization studies and organizational psychology, and then moved on to study applied ethics in Belgium, which I found really interesting. Did my thesis on sexuality of people with a disability, which is something really different.

            Then actually by accident, I started working at a business school. I always wanted to just go work for companies and build a career. But then I started working at a business school and I really loved teaching. After working there for two years, then I figured, okay, if this is what I want to do, then I need to do a PhD. I never considered myself to be really a researcher. But then in Tilburg, they just had a position available for a PhD.

            For four years I focused on diversity as a topic and I got my PhD cum laude. Then it was really at the junction, like, okay, do you want to continue in academia or not? The thing is, academia is a bit that, as you know, once you’re out, it’s very difficult to get in. So I figured, okay, let’s just see, continue on that journey a bit. Now I’m at seven years later.

            So I’ve worked at the Department of Organization Studies, what I used to study. I really loved the combination of teaching and research. I think it’s really nice on the one hand to just dive into a topic, learn for yourself about it, and trying to share what you’ve learned and also discussing with the students and helping in their development. So, yeah, that’s my journey into here.

David (02:24):

Brilliant. What was your doctorate on?

Hans (02:28):

So mostly on diversity in teams. So the diversity literature very much then focused on hey, on the one hand, diversity can be very helpful because if there’s people who differ from each other, they can learn from each other. But on the other hand, when you differ from each other, you tend to hang out with people who are similar to you and then you get subgroups.

            For me it was a bit like, yeah, that’s all true. But I missed one element and that is that at least in my brain, and I know it’s not something that’s desirable, but the moment when somebody is different, you immediately make this judgment or evaluation. Like, okay, where is that person compared to me. That was kind of the part that was missing.

            So what I developed in my PhD is this status perspective, where I argue that the moment when you first get with others in the team who are different than you, immediately the status differences start to emerge and pop up. They influence how you behave towards them, how they behave towards you, this informal hierarchy.

David (03:28):

That’s really interesting. There’s a lot of research being produced at the moment about virtual teams and conflict within virtual teams. A lot of the primary research is showing that there’s more conflict in virtual teams than physical teams, and most of it’s around issues to do with diversity and those differences that people perceive quite a lot of them are cultural differences. They talk about cultural fault lines. Really interesting. I think we need to talk about that sometime.

Hans (04:06):

Sure. We can. Well, at the moment with the whole black lives matter protest going on around the globe, I mean, you can see how much it’s going on. For me, a lot of that is these implicit informal evaluations that we make every day, quite often, subconscious. It influences how we treat each other in society. Obviously also how we treat each other when working together.

David (04:30):

Yes, it does. Yeah and in quite a way. I actually hate that question about PhDs because it’s very hard to kind of just after all that work, years, just trying to just put it down into some kind of language for people. I know what it’s like. Yeah. Sorry about that.

Hans (04:46):

Yeah, no problem. I hope it’s kind of understandable for the listeners.

David (04:51):

Okay. So, you recently published with some colleagues from the University of Dublin and ESCP in Berlin. You recently published a really interesting paper in the human resource management review entitled Welcome to the Bright Side. Why, how, and when over qualification enhances performance. Do you just want to give us a bit of an overview of what led to that research and why you did it?

Hans (05:19):

Yeah, sure. So it’s with two coauthor’s, Kerstin Alfes and Amanda Shantz. Kerstin actually became my colleague in, I think 2012. We were just colleagues for one of the two years, but we got along really well and so first you just introduce yourself to each other, but then you start to talk about the research.

            She together with Amanda, were doing research on over qualification and I was like, what’s that? So they explained it to me and it immediately triggered some thoughts and experiences with me about, for example, when I was a student and I’ve worked at this home care office organization. We made the schedules for home care workers. On the one hand, I mean, you’ve worked with people who are much more experienced than you, but on the other hand as a student, sometimes your brain works a bit differently.

            I just noticed that on the one hand I framed it as differences. But on the other hand, you can also frame it as differences in qualifications and how that then influences working together. When I was talking with Kerstin about all of this, she was saying like, “Well, actually all the over qualification literature and research so far just looks at individuals as overqualified employees avoid from their context.”

            So this is where with my diversity in teams backgrounds, I was like, well, but actually, I mean, everybody, nearly everybody works in an organization together with others and mostly in a team. Then when you are overqualified, you are different. So actually we can use many insights that we have in the diversity literature and apply them to understanding how over qualification works out. So that was the start. Yeah.

David (07:00):

Yeah. Got it. Okay. So, let’s just start with that previous research and quite a lot of it’s usually talking about the negative aspects of over qualification. Do you just want to talk about that for a little while? About what the previous research has been finding?

Hans (07:18):

Yeah, sure, sure. So a lot of the previous research just focused on overqualified employees in and of themselves and mainly looked at how do they experience their work. Then if that’s the question that you’re asking, then that’s also what you’re measuring. Then in this case, if you ask people who are overqualified, “Hey, how do you like your work?” But then it may not be too much of a surprise that they indicate, “Well, actually I’m a bit overqualified. It’s a bit easy. I’m not really challenged. I get a bit bored sometimes.”

            Sometimes when those are the findings in research, there’s sometimes you jus refine them and refocus on them because if this is what we find, we take it for granted. Then we continue building on that tradition and those thoughts. So that’s what most research found and what’s quite soon the literature suggested to be true. But there’s also tended to be a little bit the sense in practice that overqualified workers were seen as undesirable, who would only work until they would get a better offer or a better job.

            That is where we figured like, hey, actually that may be in part true, but we really believe that to be just one part or one side of the story. So on the other hand, you can also look at them. It’s like, hey, if you’re overqualified, it means that you have more qualifications.

            So usually what you want is you want a person to have many qualifications because they will be better able to do the job. So there’s one part. Then there’s the whole social part where we figured, yeah, but also when they work together with other people in a team that they saw these kind of dynamics that may actually be helpful and lead to more positive outcomes.

David (09:05):

Yeah. Okay. So the typical assumptions of people with over qualified individuals, particularly recruiters and HR is overwhelmingly negative. They usually stay away and I’ve experienced this personally. I’m sure quite a lot of people are, where the reason for not hiring you is you’re overqualified because of all those things.

Hans (09:30):

Yeah, exactly.

David (09:31):

So what did your research find that was different from all of that?

Hans (09:35):

Yeah, so it was a conceptual paper and in that sense, we didn’t get a data and then didn’t empirically find something. But what we did was we went to the literature that focused on different topics. And looked at, hey, what insights can those studies that have been done by others in the past can we get, if we can apply to this field of overqualification to better understand or get a more comprehensive view of what the experiences are of qualified persons.

            So if you just look at them themselves, then there’s a broad range of literature on just human capital. Very basic. But it basically suggests the more human capital a person has, the better that they are in their job. The very important element of this capital is your education or your qualifications. Overqualified can also mean more experience than asked for in a job. But, so that was one part.

            But what I think the most important or exciting part is, is the whole social context. Because from the status perspective that I developed and in my PhD, we were arguing, look, if they are the high status person in a team, because if I’ve worked together with others, the first thing that I look at is, who in this team is the most competent person who we can more rely on, who can informally be more of the leader?

            Then whenever a person says something, then you listen more to that person. You learn more from that person. You’ll also, if you have a question, that’s the person usually you to go to. So for overqualified employees, that means that they are being put in a position where they can actually excel because people give them the floor, they give them room, they trust them. It does a lot to you when people see you as a competent person.

            This is quite often what I tell students, “Look, if you see me as competent and I say something, you tend to believe me and you praise me for the things that I’m saying because it’s so insightful.” So even if I make a mistake, you may think like, “But everybody makes mistakes. So, Hans, that’s okay. We know that you are good.” But if you think I’m incompetent and I make a mistake, then your response is, “It’s Hans again.”

David (11:56):

Here we go again.

Hans (11:57):

Exactly. Exactly. So it’s very important what your image or what your perception is of me. I mean, so we argued, look, these are overqualified employees. If you see them indeed as troublesome employees, then, okay, this is how we will treat them and how we’ll see them.

            But if you see them as the people who we believe and argue they are, like the more overqualified person who have a lot to offer, then actually we can really benefit a lot from them. They can perform better and others can learn from them and want to be with them. This can also help the team as a whole, we believe.

David (12:32):

Yes. Yeah. I was particularly interested because one of the things that you were talking about in the paper is the effect of enhancing the team status and performance of having an overqualified team. Just want to tell us something about that?

Hans (12:47):

Yeah, sure, sure. There is quite some more sociological and psychological research that focuses on the role of status and teams. One of the reasons why we like to work in teams, in any way be part of groups is because it helps our self esteem. So as a Dutch person, we love football, as you also do. Whenever there’s the Dutch soccer team playing, then we all like to dress up in orange and behave just as a group. It gives us this confidence and feeling like we’re really good, et cetera.

            But we do that in particularly when we have meaning. So when a Dutch soccer team is losing, then suddenly we get rid of our orange clothes and we don’t like football anymore, et cetera. It’s the same when you work together as others in a team, in an organization. If you’re part of a winning team, then you really like it. Then it gives you confidence. It gives you a boost. You want to be part of that.

            So if you have these superstars in your team, or if you’ve work together with very other competent people, then you’re usually more proud of your team. Being more proud of your team and identifying more with the team means that you want to do more for the team. If I play football and I would be in a team with [inaudible 00:14:05], for example, then I, for sure will make sure that I’m well prepared and really do my best, because I’d look like an idiot compared to him. So having the superstars, which in this case, it’s like what we say, overqualified employees brings out the best in everybody in the team.

David (14:26):

Yes. Yeah. There’s also been quite a bit of research showing about identification. So that if we have a superstar, as you call them, the overqualified person in the team, there’s reflected glory, that person’s ours.

Hans (14:42):


David (14:44):

It is kind of inter team rivalry almost that you get within organizations kind of, we’ve got this person on our group or our team. I’ve seen quite a bit of research about that. One of the papers, so we did a research briefing in 2016, actually with some people from Holland, strangely enough, that was looking at overqualified people. What it is that the previous findings have been, that there’s higher turnover with overqualified people.

            Actually what it found was really interesting. It found the quality, and it was completely opposite to what I was thinking, the quality of the leader member exchange, so the quality of the relationship between the leader and the people within the team, a high quality LMX or high quality leader member exchange, and high quality leaders have more turnover with overqualified people than low quality LMX. Which was like, what’s going on here.

            It turns out, and what this study found was that high quality leaders push overqualified people to expand themselves even further by leaving so that they’re looking after the overqualified people by helping them get into a position where they’re more employable by other people.

            Actually the evidence for them leaving because they’re bored or something like that, actually isn’t quite as strong as we thought it was at first. There was this counterintuitive interaction between high quality leaders and overqualified people, this kind of identification of like, come on, you can do better than this. Go to another organization.

Hans (16:36):

Yeah. I can very much imagine that would be the case. I really think it very much depends on how do we look at those kinds of people. Do we look at them as idiots for not being able to get a better job or that something is wrong with them because why otherwise are they working in a place that they’re overqualified for?

            Or are they perhaps people who willingly choose for it because maybe they are like, “Look, I have many other things that I do next to my job. For me, it’s not the most important thing. I don’t want to work 80 hours a week. I want to just be able to do my job on the easy ways that I have enough cognitive space left to do all the things next to my job.” Which I think is a perfectly reasonable and sensible reason, for example.

            I also think as a leader in particular, it’s so important how do you look at your employees? In this case specifically, how do you look at your overqualified employees? If you look at them as actually people who can offer a lot, then I think, look, then as a leader, it’s your job. Or ideally you just try to, on the one hand, make the best use of that. But on the other hand also just look at them like, “Hey, what do you want and how can I help you?”

David (17:53):

Yeah, there’s quite a bit of research showing that it’s the perceptions of the people around the overqualified people that either cause the problems or help that person to actually use their over qualification, to help the organization and to become those superstars.

            Rather it being the overqualified person that’s the problem, it’s quite often that the managers and people around them that cause the issue because of their perception of them. Some of that I think has got to do with, I’m a psychologist, to do with ego defense and they’re more qualified than me. We’ve certainly seen that in lots of organizations.

Hans (18:35):

Yeah. Yeah. They see them as a threat.

David (18:37):

That’s right, yeah. They see them as a threat and that they want my job. Quite often they don’t. From an anecdotal point of view, I’ve got a friend who’s been a professor. In fact, it was one of my supervisors, a PhD, he’s now a gardener and he just enjoys it. He’s way well over qualified. He’s got more books. I love his citation record, but he just didn’t want any more of the pressure and he’s enjoying what he’s doing.

            He’s very good at it. He’s really as a gardener is not the head gardener, but he does way more than anybody else. I know he’s down in the gardens at times when nobody else is around because that passion that he’s got. It’s interesting. Okay. So for you, for organizations and people in organizations, kind of HR people, recruiters, and things, what are the main takeaways from what you’ve found?

Hans (19:48):

Well, I think the most important one is how do you look at overqualified employees? So when you get a [inaudible 00:19:57] or when you have a right for recruitment, or when you have an overqualified colleague, how do you look at them? I think that’s by far the most important aspects and elements. There’s this idea in mind that how you look at people really influences how you treat them and that influences then how they feel and how they behave and how they perform, et cetera.

            So this is, I think, very influential. What we really want to try to accomplish is the shift in thinking of rather than looking at them in terms of more problems and issues and et cetera, these negative sides, that we want people to shift that thinking and look in terms of possibility to strengths. So there’s anyway, in psychology, this whole development, more towards like strength based looks into people. I think that really applies here. So that’s the first.

            Second in terms of bringing out the best in them. This is where we believe that social context is very important. So it’s not just about them, but it’s about them as part of a larger organization or a larger team. The status elements then is very important that you make people and others aware of the competencies and the strengths in these overqualified employees.

            Because if they understand and see like, “Hey, actually the person is overqualified. That person has quite much knowledge, wisdom, experience, expertise that can help us.” Then on the one hand, you give them the confidence, and the affirmation like, “Hey, I can see you. I see that you are somebody who can really contribute here.”

            The people around that will also see that person like that. So we argue that’s what really helped an overqualified employee to really contribute and be the best person that he or she can be in the organization. Then others can learn from that person. It’s going to give a boost in this identification with the team and with your organization.

David (21:50):

Yeah, yeah. Yeah. One of the things that I’m involved in, in terms of research is learning orientation within organizations. I quick scanned of some of the literature around, perceptions and learning orientation and things like that before the interview.

            I suspect, and I think there’s some reasonable evidence for this, is that teams and organizations that have a high learner orientation are much more likely to make better use of overqualified people and to see them as a learning resource than organizations and teams with a lower learning orientation.

            Certainly we’re finding, so research areas to do with uncertainty and things, and there’s a number of factors involved in that. But learning orientation is starting to come out as one of the big things that changes a person’s perception of uncertainty. So people with a higher learning orientation are much more likely to see uncertainty as an opportunity with people with a lower learning orientation.

            Usually some of that’s to do with ego defense and sense of threatened, things like that. Are significantly less likely to learn from the situation and less likely to move into it in a positive way. So I’m looking at some of the studies around over qualification and some of the things that you’ve found.

            I’m starting to think that there’s something there in terms of learning orientation as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s quite a high correlation between organizational learning orientation and team learning orientation and their perceptions and use of overqualified people.

Hans (23:32):

Yeah. I think you’re absolutely right. So yeah, it should definitely be something there, something to study.

David (23:41):

Yeah. Maybe we need to do it. Brilliant. Thank you. Thank you very much, Hans. I really appreciate it. I really appreciate your time. How can members contact you if they want to do to so?

Hans (23:55):

Yeah. Well, first of all, thank you very much for inviting me and having me here. I really like it. If they want to contact me by email probably is easiest. So [email protected]

David (24:15):

Okay. That’s great. Have you got any social media profiles that you use?

Hans (24:18):


David (24:20):

LinkedIn? Okay. That’s brilliant. Thank you, Hans. That’s brilliant. I really enjoyed that. Yeah, good interview. Thank you very much.

Hans (24:28):

You’re welcome. Thank you. Thank you.

David (24:29):

You take care.

Hans (24:30):

You too.

David (24:30):


Hans (24:30):



Good leaders can cost overqualified employees…

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David Wilkinson

David Wilkinson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Review. He is also acknowledged to be one of the world's leading experts in dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty and developing emotional resilience. David teaches and conducts research at a number of universities including the University of Oxford, Medical Sciences Division, Cardiff University, Oxford Brookes University School of Business and many more. He has worked with many organisations as a consultant and executive coach including Schroders, where he coaches and runs their leadership and management programmes, Royal Mail, Aimia, Hyundai, The RAF, The Pentagon, the governments of the UK, US, Saudi, Oman and the Yemen for example. In 2010 he developed the world's first and only model and programme for developing emotional resilience across entire populations and organisations which has since become known as the Fear to Flow model which is the subject of his next book. In 2012 he drove a 1973 VW across six countries in Southern Africa whilst collecting money for charity and conducting on the ground charity work including developing emotional literature in children and orphans in Africa and a number of other activities. He is the author of The Ambiguity Advanatage: What great leaders are great at, published by Palgrave Macmillian. See more: About: About David Wikipedia: David's Wikipedia Page

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