3 ways to keep overqualified employees happy


Overqualified employees often pose a flight risk, but there are ways to keep them in place, according to Berrin Erdogan, professor of management at Portland State University, who has run several studies on overqualified employees.

In general, workers who think they are too good for a position are probably already looking for a new one. "Those who are objectively over-educated for their jobs also are likely to change jobs more quickly," says Erdogan in a recent reddit Ask-me-Anything question and answer session.

"There is a positive correlation between perceived overqualification and turnover intentions. This could be because they are bored but also because they have the qualifications to actually leave."

Photo courtesy Berrin Erdogan

Overqualified employees likely see the job they are in as a stepping stone, Erdogan says.

For a company, the decision to hire an overqualified employee involves weighing the cost of turnover if that employee leaves quickly with the benefits the employees' skills can bring into the company. "You get more skills, but someone who is more of a flight risk," says Erdogan.

There are ways that the overqualified employee and employer can make the situation less uncomfortable and more permanent, however.

"My own research, as well as that of others, also has shown that there are conditions under which feelings of overqualification do not translate into higher turnover," says Erdogan.

Here's what helps keep overqualified employees in place.

1. Agency

Employees who have a say in the way their work environment is run, even if they are overqualified, are likely to stay.

"We found that empowerment plays the role of a buffer. When employees have autonomy, and when they feel that they have the ability to influence their work environment (rather than being expected to take a passive, cog-in-a-machine approach to work), their turnover rate is no different from others," says Erdogan.

2. Similarly talented coworkers

If overqualified employees interact and work with others at their level, that can keep those employees around, she says.

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3. Appreciation

If overqualified employees feel valued by the company and management, they're also more likely to stay.

"Pretty much all this research shows that the negative effects of overqualification only emerge under certain specific conditions," says Erdogan.

And if employees have chosen to work at jobs where they are clearly overqualified for some reason not related to the actual job, that makes a difference, too.

"Not a lot of research on this, but scholars often talk about having choice in the matter as a contingency of whether feeling overqualified will be problematic or not," says Erdogan. "For example, if the person willingly goes into a situation due to a desire to spend more time with family or reduce stress inherent in their jobs, the outcome is different for them."

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