Workplace deviance, or counterproductive work behavior (CWB), is a pervasive organizational problem, with 25% of companies having fired employees for Internet misuse and 95% of organizations reporting being the targets of incumbents’ theft and fraud, according to the American Management Association.
As unemployment and underemployment remain high—Gallup Daily reported more than 20% underemployment in the U.S. in March—highly qualified and experienced employees are forced to take positions that are below their skill level, explained SIOP member Aleksandra Luksyte, a PhD candidate in I-O psychology at the University of Houston. Overqualified individuals are often bored and their talents are underutilized, Luksyte explained. As a result, they likely engage in CWB. Luksyte said it is important to understand why.
At this year’s SIOP annual conference, she presented a poster based on her research,completed with advisor and SIOP member Dr. Christiane Spitzmueller on overqualified employees and workplace deviance. The research focused on finding out what leads overqualified employees to engage in workplace deviance, an area of research that Luksyte explained is lacking.
“Overqualified people, or those who think they have more skills, education, and work experience than the job requires, tend to engage in counterproductive work behaviors more so than those people who feel they fit the job requirements,” she added. “This is a timely issue right now because the economy is not really good, and many people have lost their jobs. So, the reason it is important to know about the job performance of overqualified people is that there are so many of them out in the workforce right now.”
In her study, Luksyte’s purpose was threefold: First, she empirically examined the long-theorized link between perceived overqualification and CWB. Second, she examined the person–job fit, burnout, and psychological contract as possible mediators of this behavior. Finally, she investigated which of the proposed mechanisms best explains counterproductive work behavior of overqualified incumbents.
“There are numerous reasons of why overqualified people may engage in CWB. We considered three potential explanations: poor person–job fit, burnout, and psychological contract. We thought maybe overqualified people feel that their psychological contract is being violated. Maybe they joined an organization thinking the job would be interesting and challenging, and it wasn’t. Maybe they thought the psychological contract was violated or that the implicit agreement about what they would expect from the employers was violated.”
Luksyte recruited 215 full-time working adults (160 women [74%] and 55 men [26%]) with an average age of 25 years for her study and surveyed them for perceived overqualification (Maynard and colleagues’  nine-item Scale of Perceived Overqualification), person–job fit (Cable and Judge , and Saks and Ashforth’s  Perceived Person–Job Fit scale), psychological contract (Rousseau, 2000), burnout (16-item General Survey of the Maslach Burnout Inventory), and counterproductive work behavior (Bennett & Robinson, 2000).
The results showed that overqualified employees do engage in a great deal of deviant behavior and that all three mediators affected the overqualification-CWB relationship as expected. The results also showed that, consistent with person–job fit and frustration-aggression paradigms, overqualified incumbents misbehave at the workplace because they become cynical about the meaningfulness of their activities. Although person–job fit or inadequate psychological contract can motivate such misbehavior, cynical work attitudes dominate as a reason for why overqualified employees engage in CWBs, Luksyte said.
“Overqualified employees become cynical about the meaningfulness of their work because they feel they are coming to work every day and wasting their time and wasting their skills,” she explained. “When we put all of these variables into a regression equation, we found that it was not the psychological contract or the organizational fit that had the greatest effect, it was the cynicism. When you look at the variables separately, all of them explain counterproductive work behavior in overqualified employees, but when you put all of the variables into one regression equation, we found that cynicism actually explains all of the variance in counterproductive work behavior.”
However, despite their tendency toward CWB, Luksyte said overqualified employees are far from undesirable.
“This doesn’t mean that companies should not hire these overqualified people,” she said. “Because there is also research suggesting that other overqualified people perform very well. The reason some perform this counterproductive behavior is that they have performed all the essentials of the job, and then they don’t know what to do next.”
Luksyte said this is a situation where organizations who know they have overqualified employees need to find more meaningful work for these employees, challenge them, or somehow accommodate the types of skills and qualifications they have. Organizations could ask overqualified employees to perform duties beyond their job. She said overqualified employees, who have more time and resources than other employees, could conduct on-the-job training for newly hired employees or make good mentors because they have so many qualifications. Organizations could also give these employees training or workshops or ask them to organize a workshop for less experienced coworkers.
“Basically the idea is that organizations really have to utilize this kind of unused potential in overqualified employees,” she explained. “Many companies are happy with the work these people do. It’s just when they are done with all of their essential tasks and when they sit and do nothing that they may transgress, and they start getting on the Internet or talking to their co-workers, or maybe they take excessive breaks because they are not challenged. They are bored, and this is when they become cynical about their jobs and engage in deviant behavior.”