The prejudice against too-good employees is pervasive. Companies tend to prefer applicant who is a “perfect fit” over someone who brings more intelligence, education, or experience than needed. On the surface, this bias makes sense: Studies have consistently shown that employees who consider themselves overqualified exhibit higher levels of discontent. For example, over qualification correlated well with job dissatisfaction in a 2008 study of 156 call-center reps by Israeli researchers Saul Fine and Baruch Nevo. And unlike discrimination based on age or gender, declining to hire overqualified workers is perfectly legal, as shown by U.S. federal court rulings upholding the New London, Connecticut, police department’s rejection of a high-IQ candidate on the grounds that he’d probably become dissatisfied and quit.
This kind of thinking has tossed untold numbers of experienced, highly skilled people into the ranks of the long-term unemployed, a group that now constitutes nearly half of all U.S. jobless.
But even before the economic downturn, a surplus of overqualified candidates was a global problem, particularly in developing economies, where rising education levels are giving workers more skills than are needed to supply the growing service sectors. In China, where the number of college graduates has tripled since 1998, more than one-fourth of this year’s 6.3 million college grads are out of work, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.
If managers can get beyond the conventional wisdom, the growing pool of too-good applicants is a great opportunity. Two recent studies—one analyzing data on more than 5,000 Americans, the other examining 244 employees of a Turkish apparel chain—show that overqualified employees outperform their colleagues. In the former study, Greg Reilly of the University of Connecticut, Anthony Nyberg of the University of South Carolina, and Mark Maltarich of St. Ambrose University looked at employees with above-average intelligence working in jobs such as car washing and garbage collecting. In addition to achieving higher performance, these cognitively overqualified employees were less likely than others to quit. The researchers point out that many overqualified workers stay put for lifestyle reasons, such as the hours or the company’s values.
by Andrew O’Connell