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Rice Business research finds benefit to hiring overqualified employees

Slightly-to-moderately overqualified workers are more likely to be valuable and to reimagine their duties in ways that advance their institutions. Getty Images

You're a rocket scientist. You've worked for NASA. You won a Nobel Prize. Shouldn't your qualifications give you an edge on a software developer job?

According to typical hiring practice, the answer is no. You might not even get an interview for a job sweeping the floor. That's because, for years, research has warned that hiring applicants with too much experience or too many skills will saddle you with employees who don't appreciate their jobs.

Now there's good news for rocket scientists and others who happen to be overqualified for their work. According to a groundbreaking new study coauthored by Rice Business professor Jing Zhou, workers who are slightly to moderately overqualified are actually more likely to be active and creative contributors to their workplace. As a result, they're more likely to be assets. The study adds to a new body of research about the advantages of an overqualified workforce.

Zhou's findings have widespread implications. Worldwide, almost half of the people who work for a living report that they are overqualified for their jobs. That means Zhou's research, conducted with Bilian Lin and Kenneth Law of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, applies to a vast segment of the labor market.

To reach its conclusions, Zhou's team launched two separate studies in China. The first looked at six different schools with a total of 327 teachers and 85 supervisors. The second analyzed an electronic equipment factory with 297 technicians. Both studies revealed a strong link between perceived slight and moderate overqualification and the frequency of "task crafting," that is, expanding the parameters of the work in more innovative and productive ways.

In the school study, teachers who were slightly to moderately overqualified set up new online networks with students and parents. They also rearranged classrooms in ways that made students more engaged and productive. Meanwhile, in the factory, workers took tests to gauge their abilities in complex tasks designing a ship. The ones who were slightly to moderately overqualified built more complex versions that reflected their superior competencies.

The key to both sets of workers' superiority was their impulse to "job craft." Every worker leaves a personal imprint: meeting the bare minimum of criteria, pushing to exceed expectations, innovating or imagining new or more useful ways of getting the job done. Expert "job crafters" turn this impulse into an art. Some redraw their task boundaries or change the number of tasks they take on. Others reconfigure their work materials or redefine their jobs altogether. Still others rearrange their work spaces and reimagine their work procedures in ways that can catapult their productivity upward.

For overqualified workers, Zhou's team found, task crafting is a psychological coping mechanism – a welcome one. Workers want to show their superiors the true level of their skills. Doing so fortifies their self-esteem and intensifies their bonds with the company they work for. Far from being dissatisfied, these overqualified workers are more productive, keen to help their organizations and interested in finding ways to be proud of their work.

So how did the outlook on such workers go from shadowy to brilliant? Past research, it turns out, focused rigidly on the fit between worker experience and a task. It didn't consider the nuanced human motivations that go into working, nor the full range of creativity or flexibility possible in getting a job done.

Thus, older studies cautioned that overqualified workers are likely to feel deprived and resentful. Zhou's research shows the opposite: a statistical correlation between worker overqualification and high job performance.

Organizations do need to do their part for this alchemy to work. Above all, Zhou writes, it's crucial to build a strong bond between worker and institution. This is because workers who identify strongly with their workplace feel more confident that their job-crafting efforts will be well received; those who don't feel this strong bond often feel mistreated and give up the project of crafting their work.

Similarly, companies also need to grant workers flexibility to expand the scope or improve the process of their jobs. The outcome can be the evolution of the entire business in unexpected and often creative ways.

Not all super-qualified workers will be inspired to re-craft their tasks. When the gulf between skills and task is extreme, Zhou writes, workers are bored and job crafting loses its juice as an incentive. For more moderately overqualified employees, however, their expertise should rocket their CVs to the top of the stack. For seasoned workers, the evidence shows, a job is not just a job. It's an adventure in finding ways to be excellent.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Jing Zhou is the Mary Gibbs Jones Professor of Management and Psychology in Organizational Behavior at the Jones Graduate School of Business of Rice University.

It's possible to predict some violent public protests by tracking social media posts on moral outrage over a triggering event. Tracy Le Blanc/Pexels

Every grade school teacher knows that student conduct can get out of hand, fast, when a group of kids eggs on one individual. Time-outs are a testimony to the power of isolating one 10-year-old from a choir of buddies.

Social media plays a role similar to a gang of hyped-up grade schoolers, providing a community that can express collective disapproval of people or events. When this disapproval has a moral cast ⁠— for example, after a police shooting or the removal of a statue ⁠— the social network's particular characteristics are key predictors about whether that disapproval will turn violent.

There is a word for the way group support of a belief system makes it seem worth fighting for: moralization. Tracking social network activity now makes it possible to measure the chances for an individual belief to become moralized by a group ⁠— a phenomenon known as moral convergence.

In a recent study in Nature, Rice Business professor Marlon Mooijman, then at the Kellogg School of Management, joined a team that analyzed when and how violence erupts in protests. In a series of observation and behavior experiments that mixed psychology, organizational theory and computer science, they accurately predicted how violence is influenced by group discussion of moral views on social media.

The researchers started by studying the number and content of tweets linked to the Baltimore riots in 2015, after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. The researchers then compared these tweets with the number of arrests in a given time frame, using a methodology developed by Marlon Mooijman and Joe Hoover from the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California.

To analyze the tweets responding to Gray's death, they first separated them into two sets: Those with moral commentary and those without moral judgments.

Next, the researchers tracked whether tweets with moral content increased on days with violent protests. Violence was measured using the number of police arrests, which the researchers compared with the specific time frames of moral tweets.

There was no major difference in the overall tweet traffic discussing Freddie Gray's death on days with violent protests and on peaceful days. The number of moralizing tweets, however, clearly correlated with episodes of violent protests, rising to nearly double the moralizing tweets on days with no violence.

This raised a provocative question. Were morally ⁠— based tweets a response to the events of the day ⁠— or were they somehow driving the violence?

To find out, Mooijman and Hoover worked with computer scientists Ying Lin and Jeng Ji of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Morteza Dehghani of the University of Southern California to develop algorithms that could establish mathematical probabilities for the results.

For every single-unit increase in moral tweets over a 4-hour period, the researchers found, there was a .25 corresponding increase in arrests.

The researchers then tried to measure the effect similar moral views ⁠— such as a social media page with self-selected members of a similar political affiliation ⁠— had on violence during protests.

To do so, they set up a second study, which measured participant reactions to the protestors of a far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. Participants ranked their level of agreement over the morality of protesting the rally.

There was a direct relationship between believing a protest action was moral, the researchers found, and finding violence at that protest acceptable. This relationship held true throughout the study, regardless of political orientation.

The researchers' next goal was to identify the impact of exposure to people of like beliefs. To do this, participants rated their feelings when they were told that most people in the U.S. shared their views. While the intensity of participants' moral views created the potential for violence, the researchers found, violence resulted when only actively validated by others with similar views.

Having one's moral outrage supported by others on social media, the professors concluded, may explain the spike in violence in recent protests.

While respect for privacy remains critical, governments and law enforcement can use the social media trend to pinpoint the moments when moral outrage can turn deadly. Perhaps most importantly, however, the research also suggests practical tactics for calming violent tendencies before they get out of control. To reduce real-life protest violence, they wrote, it's critical that social media sites include a variety of voices. It's another reason, if any were needed, that a bit of judicious exposure to other views is healthy for everyone.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Marlon Mooijman is an assistant professor of Organizational Behavior. He teaches in the undergraduate business minor program and MBA full-time program.