Over Qualified? Not Really

A widely held perception among human resource managers – the assumption that someone who is “too smart” for a relatively simple job will get bored and leave – has been debunked by a UConn business professor and two colleagues.

<p>Greg Reilly, assistant professor of management in UConn's School of Business. Photo by Sean Flynn.</p>
Greg Reilly, assistant professor of management in UConn's School of Business. Photo by Sean Flynn.

“Prior research has found that when everything else is equal, the brightest applicant is expected to perform better,” says Greg Reilly, an assistant professor of management in the School of Business. “Yet there is a popular and persistent belief that it is risky to hire high cognitive ability employees for simple jobs because they are likely to become bored and leave, resulting in wasted training and the high costs of hiring a replacement. However, based on our research, we have concluded that, in most cases, being smarter does not make someone more likely to leave a job.”

Reilly, in collaboration with Mark Maltarich of Saint Ambrose University and Anthony Nyberg from the University of South Carolina, drew their conclusions from five years of data mining and crunching numbers from the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a study sponsored by the Center for Human Research. In this nationally diverse survey, nearly 13,000 adolescents between the ages of 14 and 22 were assessed on a wide variety of dimensions, including their cognitive ability using the U.S. military’s test of intelligence. Researchers then followed up with the youths every year, tracking what jobs they took, how long they remained at the job, and why they left – if they did. Since 1994, the cohort has been interviewed every other year. Reilly, Maltarich, and Nyberg focused on the follow-up interviews in 1994, 1996, and 1998. More than 5,000 of the individuals initially surveyed in 1979 responded to those surveys.

“We looked for a relationship between cognitive ability and voluntary job turnover in both complex and relatively simple jobs,” said Reilly.

The researchers consistently found that the smartest workers were least likely to leave – with one exception. The smartest workers in the most demanding jobs showed an increased willingness to leave compared to their co-workers with average intelligence. The authors point to a “superstar effect” for these exceptional individuals, and speculate that an abundance of alternative job choices draws them out of jobs at a higher rate than others.

No such superstar effect exists in less demanding jobs. “We suspect that high ability people take on low complexity jobs with their eyes wide open,” says Reilly. “They’re not taking the position because they are particularly interested in job fulfillment or moving up a career ladder. Instead, we think that these individuals have alternative motives, such as family, location, or outside interests, and want a job that will enable them to do the non-work activities they desire.”

The authors conclude that a mismatch between intelligence and the demands of a job does not result in turnover because these workers know what they are getting into and why.

This explanation gets support from another of the study’s findings. The authors found that dissatisfaction does not drive employees in lower complexity jobs to leave to the extent it does in high complexity jobs. So, says Reilly, if minimizing turnover is an important objective for a company, employers should be most sensitive to the job satisfaction of the highest cognitive ability employees in the most cognitively demanding jobs – those who are likely to be pursued by other firms.

The research could have far reaching implications. A number of employers and widely used testing services have relied on the belief that workers can be overqualified for a job, and have used that belief to exclude some of the best and brightest from being hired for certain jobs, based on the assumption they will become bored and leave.

One of those widely used services is the Wonderlic Personnel Test, an intelligence test used by hundreds of companies, including the National Football League. In its manual, the test’s authors tell managers they should look for the right ‘level’ of intelligence for the position they’re offering. Reilly and his colleagues say that is wrong.

“The right level of intelligence for any job is the best you can get,” he says.

Excluding the highest achievers also has resulted in several court challenges, including a case in New London, Conn., in 1996 when the city rejected a candidate for the police department who had scored well on the Wonderlic test – a 33 – which was above the median for any occupation and well above the median of 21 suggested for a police officer.

The candidate and his lawyer introduced some evidence that there was no correlation between aptitude and length of service, but the court was unconvinced, ultimately ruling that even if their evidence was true, “The city could rationally have relied upon the guide to interpreting test results provided by the test maker as justification for reducing the size of the applicant pool with both a low and a high cut off. Even if unwise, the upper cut was a rational policy instituted to reduce job turnover and thereby lessen the economic cost involved in hiring and training police officers who do not remain long enough to justify the expense.”

The case was dismissed.

Reilly’s research covered employees from across the spectrum: from workers at McDonald’s to aerospace engineers. The team’s research is scheduled to be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology this fall or winter.