Hiring Star Performers Can Be a Mistake – The Dangers of Overhiring

By Michelle Malay Carter on May 7, 2008 

underemploymentworkspace.jpgWith all the buzz about hiring the best and the brightest, few people talk about the downside of overhiring.

Overhiring Trumps Underhiring
Our data shows one in five people is in a role that does not tap their full capacity, i.e. they’ve been overhired in a role. In contrast, only 15% are slotted in roles that they simply do not have the mental bandwidth to handle. So our data shows that overhiring is a larger problem than underhiring. Either shoots engagement in the foot.

Last week, I taught a course called Judging Candidate Potential. It was as much about teaching first level managers how not to OVERHIRE as it was to teach higher level managers not to underhire.

Why Understanding Work Levels is an Imperative
We’re back to work levels, folks. You have to understand the work in order to hire someone whose cognitive capability matches the complexity level of the work. If you overhire, they’ll be bored and will annoy their manager. If you underhire, they won’t do the work you need done.

Extra Capacity? – Extra Time for Complaining, Criticizing, Gaming the System
My experience and that of my clients is that overhired, thus underemployed, individuals wreak more havoc, more quickly within organizations than those who are incapable.

I wrote about this in an article called, What to Do About Attitude Problems? Promote Them! When I wrote the article, quite a few people called me and said, you wrote that article about me didn’t you?

Being Underemployed Hurts
Have you ever been underemployed? My friend and fellow blogger, Forrest Christian, equates it to being forced to work standing in a 3 foot attic crawl space all day. Sure, you can do it, but it’s exhausting – mentally and physically.

Untapped Potential
With all the flap about the war for talent, I’m amazed at all the talent that currently resides within organizations – untapped. I’m OK. You’re OK. Let’s fix the system.

What’s your experience been with underemployment?

Photo Credit: Dennis G. Jerz, Somewhere Nearby is Colossal Cave

Filed Under Employee Engagement, Organization Design, Requisite Organization, Talent Management, Work Levels


11 Responses to “Hiring Star Performers Can Be a Mistake – The Dangers of Overhiring”

  1. Forrest Christian on May 7th, 2008 9:39 am

    According to the research I’ve been able to find, managers are good at identifying underperformers but don’t recognize someone overpowering their role. Your article on “attitude problem” employees, though, nails how to do it in simple, clear language.

    This type of “overachiever” really needs to be pushed out of the nest, either promoted out or encouraged to find fuller employment. For the good of you, the company and the employee.

  2. Michelle Malay Carter on May 7th, 2008 11:36 am

    Hi Forrest,

    Thanks for the comment. Yes, I agree managers can spot those who are not qualified. Unfortunately, the longer the time span, the longer this takes. At the executive level it could be years before a manager can be sure that someone is underperforming because the key deliverables have such long time spans. So wise hiring practices are essential up and down the organization.

    I’m OK. You’re OK. Let’s continue to buck the system, my friend!



  3. Glenn Mehltretter on May 7th, 2008 3:18 pm

    One more thing. The reason it is difficult to identify the underemployed is that they typically have equal or greater capacity than their boss. As a boss that tends to be a real pain, and frequently causes the underemployed individual to be rated lower that their actual capability.

    We have good data to show this phenomena happens in almost every case that the boss is less than one level of capability ahead of his or her direct report.

    So therefore, in any organization in which the Manager one removed (that is the bosses boss)doesn’t have enough contact with employees two levels down to judge their capability directly ,it is almost guaranteed that the underemployed will be underrated and likely lost to the organization.

    Give Michelle a call and she’ll show you how to fix the system!


  4. Chris Bailey on May 8th, 2008 7:22 am

    Michelle, let me propose that perhaps its not the various individuals at fault but the system used for job definition. If you try to find someone to fill a very specific job role, then you’re looking for a very specific individual. How many times does that perfect individual fall in a manager’s lap? I’d argue hardly ever. Each person approaches their work with an array of talents, skills, and experiences that are always going to push against the boundaries of the static job description. So why not give the employee the ability to roam a bit outside the description and bring that something extra to the table?

    The art of employee engagement is knowing how to tap into each person’s unique qualities and help them bring them into their work. That underemployed person may be complaining because he or she wants the freedom to bring more of themselves to the organization. And it’s to the organization’s detriment not to find out how to meet this desire.

  5. Michelle Malay Carter on May 8th, 2008 12:15 pm

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for the comment.

    I agree with everything you’ve said. As you stated, the system used for job definition is critical. I’m suggesting that understanding work levels and classifying roles by work levels is an important component of fixing ambiguous job definition systems.

    You’re right on the money that the underemployed complain because they want to bring more of themselves to work. I’m suggesting that the way that an organization can allow that is understanding at what level the person is currently operating and offering them a job at that level.

    I think we are in complete agreement. I may not have made myself clear. Thanks for the comment.


  6. Chris Bailey on May 8th, 2008 4:23 pm

    Hi Michelle, thanks clarifying and hooking me back to that link on work levels that really drives your post above. It’s all sparking a question for me…do you see work levels as a linear concept or has your research found that work levels can successfully exist in a non-linear webbed concept? In this case, I guess it would be more based on a competency level rather than a global work level. Make sense? For instance, a sales person may have level 1 competency in growing a territory (strategy), but level 3 competency in communications skills (tactical).

    And then a second question based on something I’m working on right now…what if an individual has a competency that falls outside of the work level and job description? Say a sales person who has a background in computer design. How do you best engage this employee who wants to combine two (perhaps) dissimilar talents?

  7. Michelle Malay Carter on May 8th, 2008 6:19 pm

    Hi Chris,

    I don’t use a competency model because I find it confounds three components that I like to separate. I use the following 3 point model for matching a person to a job:
    1. Knowledge, skills, experience – can they do the job?
    2. Values and temperament – will they do the job?
    3. Cognitive Capacity – could they do the job? (if the two other factors were in place)

    So a person may have a range of zero to extensive knowledge, skills, and experience in “growing a territory”. (component 1)
    That same person may value the act of “growing a territory” on a continuum from zero to “I live for it”. (component 2)
    And component 3, cognitive capability is independent of the first two components. It is a generic ability to problem solve which is present in discreet levels. It can be thought of as mental bandwidth or mental horsepower.

    It has to do with the way a person organizes and uses information to make decisions and solve problems. This ability matures with age throughout the course of our lives. For reasons unknown, some people mature in capability at a faster pace than others. The research has not shown a correlation between education, socioeconomic status, or experience.

    So back to my three point model. What I am saying is that even if I had extensive knowledge, skills, and experience in growing a territory AND I valued territory building, if a role due to its level of complexity was at level 4, but my cognitive capability was currently at level 3, I would not be capable of the work.

    Think about university professors. This is a population that generally fulfill components 1 and 2 in the subject area. For example, a geography professor will have extensive knowledge, skills and experience with geography AND he will value geography greatly. However, the complexity level of his teaching and lectures will be bound by his level of cognitive capability. Haven’t you ever attend a course and thought – I could teach this better even when you are not an “expert” on the topic?

    Have you ever met a minister who has memorized the Bible but cannot put together a sermon that adds value to your thinking?

    Cognitive capability is the filter through which we apply our knowledge, skills, experience and values.

    When you sit in meetings with the same people over time, aren’t there some people who add value to your thinking consistently? And when they speak you make sure to listen because you usually learn something. And conversely, there are likely others who consistently find you to be a thought leader to them? This is that third factor at work.

    Your thoughts?

    Michelle Malay Carter

  8. Robyn on May 10th, 2008 8:18 pm

    I would LOVE to once again be part of a team that is using me to the limit. Unfortunately, lack of a Bachelor’s has frequently kept me from being considered for challenging positions, but being overqualified has kept me out of other jobs. There’s a strange sort of Catch-22 working here.

  9. Michelle Malay Carter on May 11th, 2008 7:19 am


    Thanks for the comment. Yes, I’ve argued that a college degree has become a proxy for managerial judgment. Organizations that require them are being short sighted.

    Sure, if one has a degree it tells you some things, but there are plenty of people without them who can add value to an organization, Bill Gates for one. http://www.missionmindedmanagement.com/could-you-hire-this-man

    Conversely, there are plenty of people with degrees who don’t do well within organizations.



  10. Will Pearce on May 13th, 2008 4:13 pm


    Did you see this question on LinkedIn?


    It describes a situation in which a top salesperson is clearly unemployed (he’s the top salesperson, but is late for work one or two times a week). What shocked me were the answers from the two HR professionals who responded–one said that this top performer needs “counseling and progressive discipline,” while the other compared the manager’s situation to “negotiating with terrorists.” I could see how that would really help…to drive off the top salesperson to their chief competitor (as sales manager, perhaps?).

    If this is common HR thinking, then we’re in worse trouble than I thought.

    I was really interested in your response to Chris, BTW–a future blog post, perhaps?

  11. Michelle Malay Carter on May 14th, 2008 10:45 am

    Hi Will,

    No I hadn’t seen that question. Thanks for the link.

    Yes, you will probably seen the content of my comment to Chris in a future blog post.