Too bad you thought they were too good

Too bad you thought they were too good

Too bad you thought they were too good

The common wisdom behind excluding the over-qualified is straightforward; despite an initial expectation of strong performance, employers fear the applicant will soon become bored and leave the firm.

High on the list of lame breakup clichés sits a five-word paradox: “You’re too good for me.” Perhaps you’ve been on the receiving end. Maybe you were too “nice,” or maybe your love poems were too sincere, your embrace too warm, or your flowers too aptly arranged. In any case, when goodness—a traded commodity among would-be lovebirds—becomes a relationship-ending liability, the heartbroken are left to scour the aftermath for times when they could’ve been “less good.” It just doesn’t make sense.

Dating aside, this kind of exchange takes place every day in the context of potential employment relationships. Employers routinely use cognitive and other testing approaches to measure the abilities of job applicants. Wonderlic, a leading purveyor of such tests, reports the administration of over 200 million of these screenings throughout its history (c.f., Results are compared against defined performance bands not just to exclude those who might be under-qualified, but also those who might be over-qualified.


The common wisdom behind excluding the over-qualified is straightforward; despite an initial expectation of strong performance, employers fear that after the substantial investment of onboarding is complete, an over-qualified applicant will become bored and prematurely leave the company. The logic suggests that a “more appropriate” match in abilities will result in a longer, more fulfilling relationship. This view is reinforced by widely used selection test services, which prescribe an ideal range of test scores for different job types. Importantly, the courts have supported these practices as being within the rights of employers (e.g., Binder v. Long Island Lighting Co., 933 F 2nd 187 [2nd Cir. 1991]; Jordan v. City of New London and Keith Harrigan, 99-9188 [2nd Cir. 2000]).

But recent research casts doubt on the wisdom of such practices. In a recent paper published in the Journal of Applied Psychology called “A Conceptual and Empirical Analysis of the Cognitive Ability–Voluntary Turnover Relationship,” professors Mark A. Maltarich, Anthony J. Nyberg, and Greg Reilly reported on the results of their study of more than 5,000 people in the United States.

The research found that in positions with low cognitive demands—as defined by the government and including garbage collectors and car washers—employees with higher cognitive ability were no more likely than others to voluntarily leave their positions. This is in contrast to the related finding that for high-intellect jobs, screening for under-qualification may retain its importance. The research found that the likelihood of voluntary turnover increases as cognitive ability falls.

But what about job satisfaction? Shouldn’t that drive bored high achievers out of low-intellect jobs?

The answer is apparently not. The study found that job satisfaction, although important overall, did not influence the over-qualified differently than the under-qualified for those kinds of jobs. Importantly, job satisfaction did have a significantly greater impact on the likelihood that the under-qualified left high-intellect jobs.

I asked one of the study authors, Greg Reilly, for his views on these results. Here is how he explained it:

A high-intelligence candidate might have any number of reasons for seeking a simple job. Rather than automatically reject the applicant, a hiring manager should probe for the rationale. Is it lifestyle? The candidate’s affinity for the company’s values? The simple need of a paycheck? Whatever the reason, many of these candidates really do want the job, are likely to stay in it, and will deliver high performance if the company will give them a chance.

All this suggests that companies trying to fill jobs that demand less-than-top-level smarts should think hard before rejecting candidates because their intelligence test scores label them over-qualified. The research concludes that, if anything, such candidates might be expected to stay longer and perform better than applicants whose scores supposedly make them better fits. This makes sense to me if we believe that non-job related issues such as lifestyle are of increasing importance to today’s workforce.

I am interested to hear about experiences or perspectives on this phenomenon, particularly from my HR colleagues. Feel free to leave your comments below so we can see what people think.

Written By

Mark J. Cotteleer

Mark J. Cotteleer is a research director with Deloitte Services LP, affiliated with Deloitte’s Center for Integrated Research. His research focuses on operational and financial performance improvement, in particular, through the application of advanced technology.

Too bad you thought they were too good
  • Todd Filter

    Great assessment of how intelligence testing is simply one aspect of any solid selection process. Smart employers have learned to use them as indicators, not rules. A careful weighing of all variables and truly understanding one’s motivators and desires will always trump a singular assessment, as that often times becomes a crutch for the lazy hiring manager.

  • Umber Chaudary

    As an HR major, I found this to be quite surprising. I have had a lot of recruiting experience throughout my internship, and while seemingly over-qualified candidates are never immediately turned away from being considered for roles, there is often the reservation that over-qualified candidates are more likely to leave a company pre-maturely versus less-qualified candidates. I found it espescially interesting that the study results indicated that employees with higher cognitive ability were no more likely than others to voluntarily leave their positions than employees with lower cognitive ability.
    I agree with the comment below, it is important to understand a candidates motivators versus basing decisions on singular assessments. For this reason, I have been trained to always discuss why a candidate – especially one who seems over-qualified for the role- is interested in the position during the interview process. Moving forward, the findings in this study are definitely something I will take into account when screening resumes and conduciting interviews.

  • Nathan Dennis

    It is very interesting to see data disprove this commonly held belief of hiring managers: If I hire someone who is over qualified they will soon quit. “I need a more fullfilling/challenging job” is probably an excuse HR hears a lot when people seperate from an employer, as it is easy to use and avoids “burning bridges”, which can often happen when someone gives the real reason for quitting. HR could very easily interpret that to mean the individual considered themselfs over qualified and wanted something more from work. If that were the case, it is very easy to see how hiring managers would develop a bias against “over qualified” candidates. I think we all know an individual or two who told their employer they were leaving for one reason when the reality of the matter was very different.
    To expand on the example the author started the article with, when someone breaks up with you and says its because you’re too nice, you’re probably being lied to. Relationships don’t end because someone is too nice or too good. That may often be the reason given, however that doesn’t make it true. Put in the context of the employer/employee relationship, the excuse of “I need a more fullfilling job” can be veiwed much the same way. Today, I would guess that most employers have plenty of opportunity that can be given to employees, in instances when someone actually wants more challenge/responsibility. If an employee really wants that, wouldn’t it make sense that their first stop in the search would be their current employer?
    The passive-aggressive nature of our society teaches people that its better not to hurt feelings when you’re breaking up someone. That same passive-aggressive nature teaches people that when they quit a job they should avoid offending their managers and/or co-workers least they “burn bridges”. Thus, we have the common phrase “its not you, its me”. Unfortunatly, there are euphimisms for and variations on that phrase which employees use when they exit.
    There is no doubt that a better understanding of why people walk out the door would allow managers to make better decisions regarding those they let walk in. Obviously, that knowledge would also provide managers the opportunity to make changes so that people don’t quit in the first place!

  • Jeanne Simmons

    This is a very interesting article and I think many people will have a hard time believing in it as we have all been trained for so long to say “over qualified” is a bad route to take when hiring. We see the same issue with people that are “over educated”. At times I wonder why someone wants “another graduate degree” but I am finding in many cases people are simply hungery to learn more. They love to learn and graduate programs give them the structure they are looking for to achieve this. I agree with Todd Filter’s comments below; These types of assessments should only be one part of the equation such as the GMAT or GRE scores are one part of an application for an MBA program.

  • Matthew Prange

    This was an interesting and surprising article. It is also timely as we are currently in the hiring process for some key positions. Overqualified candidates’ resumes have run across my desk, but we have not called on them for the reasons suggested. It appears that the reality is if a candidate is willing to accept a job that he/she is overqualified for he/she will be willing to stay in said job. It makes me rethink our SOP on hiring. Thanks for sharing, Mark.