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Overqualified workers can be a boon for employers, though only up to a point, new research finds

March 8, 2017

For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz, (718) 398-7642,

Their job-crafting results in extra creativity and helpfulness

Few things are more exasperating for job seekers than to get turned down because they are deemed overqualified. Now some new research should prompt second thoughts among managers who cite this as a reason.

A study in the current issue of the Academy of Management Journal focuses on underemployment on the job – an outcome of being overqualified – and finds that in moderation it is a boon for employers.

According to the paper by Bilian Lin and Kenneth S. Law of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Jing Zhou of Rice University in the U.S., "a low-to-intermediate degree of perceived underemployment may drive employees to craft their jobs actively in ways that benefit the organization... Recruitment managers should not turn away job applicants who are overqualified, because such individuals, if managed appropriately, may bring creativity and organizational citizenship behavior to the organization."

The underemployed have a special ability to do this, the authors explain, as they "have underused capabilities and more time to engage in extra activities at work because they can complete their assigned tasks more quickly than those who are not underemployed." And the gain to be realized from such workers represents a considerable benefit, given that "organizations today compete in a dynamic and uncertain environment in which creativity and organizational citizenship behavior are highly valuable."

A key finding, though, is that an overqualification is most an asset in modest amounts. "When perceived underemployment is too high," the professors write, workers "may be too demotivated to craft [their jobs]." Thus, picturing the organizational gain from underemployment is like drawing an inverted U, with the benefit to the employer increasing to a certain point then falling.

The discovery may help resolve contradictory findings in the prior scholarly literature, some of which found worker underemployment a plus for employers while many others found it a minus. As the professors explain, "the inverted U-shaped relation implies that a low to intermediate degree of perceived underemployment may drive employees to craft their jobs actively in ways that benefit the organization. However, the negative side of the inverted U-shaped relation highlights that the large discrepancies between employees' capacity and job requirements are detrimental."

Unsurprisingly, the professors also find that the gains employers reap from modestly overqualified workers are greatest when the employees identify strongly with the organization. As they write, “practices that enhance organizational identification can increase task-crafting efforts for employees perceiving themselves as underemployed.”

The paper’s findings are decidedly timely, since, as a 2013 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research reports, employers' demand for cognitive tasks has been on the decline after soaring in the final decades of the last century. In response, high-skilled workers in the 21st century have increasingly filled jobs traditionally performed by the lower-skilled.

What gives the new paper special authority is that it consists of studies of two quite different kinds of employees – school teachers and factory workers.

In the first study, data was obtained at three points in time from 327 teachers and 85 supervisors in six high schools in China. Initially teachers were asked, among other things, to respond on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree) to statements that they were overqualified for their jobs.

Then, one week later they were surveyed to what extent – on a scale of 1 (never) to 7 (very often) – they had engaged in job-crafting, such as introducing new approaches of their own to the classroom or organizing special classroom events (like celebrating a student's birthday) or bringing in materials from home.

Finally, one week further on, the teachers' supervisors were asked to rate their creativity and organizational citizenship.

Teachers’ educational credentials varied. Sixty percent met the minimum qualification for high school teachers, an associate degree from a three-year community college; 40% were graduates of four-year universities or had even higher degrees. Differences in academic attainment in combination with greater or lesser teaching experience significantly influenced whether teachers perceived themselves as overqualified. And the extent to which teachers saw themselves as overqualified predicted how much job-crafting they did.

For the sample as a whole, job-crafting reached a peak at the point where perceived overqualification measured about 5, which was modestly above the sample mean. In other words, other things being equal, teachers whose perception of being overqualified measured about 5 on a scale of 1 to 7 tended to do significantly more job-crafting than colleagues who saw themselves as either more overqualified or less.

And, in turn, that extra job-crafting paid off in high ratings for creativity and good citizenship, a measure of the benefit realized not just by the modestly overqualified teachers but by their students and schools.

The second study involved 297 factory technicians whose daily job was to assemble electronic toys. All were graduates of electronic technical schools and worked on similar tasks in the factory.

To obtain a measure of overqualification, the researchers asked the technicians to do a preliminary exercise that entailed reproducing within eight minutes a helicopter model shown on a screen. The number of pieces that individuals were able to assemble in this short time provided a reference to assess overqualification for this kind of work.

The group was then assigned a second task, which was the heart of the study. Participants were asked to design and assemble in 30 minutes at least one toy boat patterned after a rough model projected on a screen. Although a single boat would require a minimum of 30 components, the workers were free to use an unlimited number of parts to produce completed boats, whether they crafted one boat or more than one, whether boats were simple or complex. As the professors explain, "If the workers used more than 30 pieces and assembled boats in different patterns...the excess number of the parts reflected the degree of self-driven effort for altering task boundary, i.e. task-crafting."

The result? The number of components that went into boats ranged from 36 (barely above the minimum) to almost 350. Workers scoring lowest on overqualification used the fewest components, and those who were modestly overqualified employed the most, outdoing those who were most overqualified. In short, an inverted-U pattern emerged similar to what was found among teachers.

In conclusion, the professors urge managers to “support employees’ efforts to craft tasks. Because the perception of underemployment may be experienced by many employees, managers should provide support to sustain positive outcomes in these situations.”

And how to find the point where job-crafting and creativity are optimal? Answers Rice University’s Prof Zhou: “There is no magic point, no one-size-fits-all answer. First and foremost employees need to perform their jobs well, but, once that is made clear, they should have discretion to engage in job-crafting, which, our paper shows, spurs creativity. A manager should not try to push someone into job crafting – it’s the employee’s choice to do it or not – but if they want to do it, they should have that freedom, with supervisors monitoring, coaching, and advising as needed.”

The paper, “Why Is Underemployment Related to Creativity and OCB? A Task-Crafting Explanation of the Curvilinear Moderation Relations," is in the February/March issue of the Academy of Management Journal. This peer-reviewed publication is published six times yearly by the Academy, which, with more than 18,000 members in 126 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. Its other publications are Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Perspectives, Academy of Management Learning and Education, Academy of Management Annals, and Academy of Management Discoveries.

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