One In Three Employees Believe They Are Overqualified For Their Job

In news that should hardly be surprising, a third of employees believe they are overqualified for their current job according to a study commissioned by recruitment agency Randstad and conducted for them by Ipsos Public Affairs. While most believed they were neither over or underqualified for their job, only 3 percent believed they were underqualified.

Similarly, nearly two in five respondents believed they had the right combination of hard skills (like education and training) and soft skills (like communication and leadership) to do their job well.

Before I start investigating whether this survey extensively hit the Lake Wobegon area of Minnesota, it might be worthwhile to think about how this happens and what HR professionals can do to help.

Is feeling overqualified natural, especially now?

It may seem odd to hear that a full third of the employee population feels overqualified, but is it really all that surprising? We know that experts and surveys say that people are going to leave their companies as the economy improves, and it can be inferred that part of it is due to the fact that some people took jobs below their experience level. So some of the feeling is justified. Some people are very (sometimes egregiously) overqualified for their jobs.

But a full third of the entire workforce? I don’t think so.

And that’s not to take anything away from the people who are overqualified, but my gamble (and my experience in HR) leads me to believe that the number of people who are overqualified and underqualified are much closer to the same percentage than this survey indicates.

Dealing With Misplaced Sense Of Competency

Of course, buried further in the report is the fact that 38 percent consider their hard and soft skills perfectly developed for their role, something that flies completely in the face of everything I experienced dealing with training and development. Very few have the perfect combination of hard and soft skills (I’m under no illusion that I’m there, either).

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This can have real business consequences. There are major issues like the Lake Wobegon effect impacting CEO pay when companies don’t want to admit (and pay) like they have a less than above average CEO. If every CEO is above average (and are paid that way), guess which direction CEO pay goes?

The more common consequence is where an employee believes they are better at a task than they really are capable of. For example, I had a manager I counseled who thought he was great at communication but everyone on his team completely disagreed with that assessment. It took months of convincing that his team was right and he was incorrect (and I still think he didn’t fully buy into it).

Doing something about overqualified employees

In dealing with this issue, it is easy enough just to disregard it and say that there will always be a certain percentage of people who will overestimate their abilities and believe they are better than their job. That may be true and we will likely never change that core belief but there are certainly some things that can be done to combat the issues that result from it:

  1. Communicate fully with them – Both the positives and negatives about where they are in the organization and role. Many people will focus in on the positives and make excuses for the negatives but they need to hear it.
  2. Focus on symptoms, not causes – You’re not a doctor and you aren’t going to “fix” them. Focus on the pain points that impact the workplace or the things they think they are doing better and resolve those.
  3. Focus on results, not change – If someone who thinks they have great leadership skills (but doesn’t) improves them but still doesn’t think they needed it in the first place, don’t sweat it. If the result is better, that’s all that matters.
  4. Egos are important – Especially for your leaders, not stomping on their self-esteem is an important part of this process. That means working to improve their issues without making them feel wrong or defensive.
  5. Being patient is a must – Even if you’re focusing on changing the behavior, not changing the person, it can take some time for progress to be made.

Are employees who think they are overqualified (but clearly aren’t) always going to hurt your business? Not always but it is important to realize why it happens and there are ways you can help ease the pain when problems arise.

Lance Haun is the practice director of strategy and insights for The Starr Conspiracy, where he focuses on researching and writing about work technology. He is also a former editor for ERE Media, broadly covering the world of human resources, recruiting, and sourcing. 
He has been featured as a work expert in publications like the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, MSNBC, Fast Company, and other HR and business websites.
He's based in his Vancouver, Wash., home office with his wife and adorable daughter. You can reach him by email or find him off-topic on Twitter.