So why hire?
1. You are merely a fan of my skill set. You see that in some potential future, such a skill set could possibly add value. You see that having this skill set is a mark of credential or possibly domain-specific trendiness and you want your team or organization to be viewed as "with it." Though you don't have any work for me to do that will exercise this skill set, you like thinking about me as a "latent" resource, waiting to spring forth with all sorts of innovative value creation at the moment that changing political tides or market conditions will allow it (which predictably never comes).
2. You have halo bias about all of the soft skills that this role will require. Because you are a fan of my skill set or otherwise view my credentials and interview performance as impressive, and maybe even you like me, you will make biased inferences about my simulated behaviors and reactions to certain aspects of the job. You will infer that I will not become frustrated. You will infer that, of course, I will "just do what I am told" with no regard for the way my aptitudes and goals match up with what I am told to do. You will infer that regardless of how wildly inappropriate a task might be compared with my skill set, that I will happily just "find a way to get it done." You will infer that the rampant political issues won't bother me, either because you think I will happily accept "junior" status and will somehow lobotomize away any critical thinking skill as they might apply to the political situation I walk into, or because you think that I value wage more highly than dysfunctionality-avoidance, again, due to the halo effect.
3. You are desperate to fill a seat. You're fighting your own political battles and many of them are based on attrition and headcount. Perhaps some of your yearly compensation incentives are based on building a team and the clock is ticking. Pretty much anyone will do as long as they meet some bare bones requirements that make the employment offer appear defensible on paper. You haven't given any thought at all to the impedance mismatch between what I am capable of and what the job will actually require. Nor do you care. You need to say whatever it takes to get my ass in the chair.
4. You are not knowledgeable about the domain-specific requirements of the position. Mostly you evaluate "personal fit" and "culture" or "team player" attributes in a candidate. You look for signs of impressiveness and credential on a CV. You have no idea whether my skills will be used in the job, and it may even be a significant surprise to you that there exists variety between people in my skill area, that we aren't all fungible, and that we may resent being placed in a job that is fundamentally different than what we set out to accomplish. Any discontent I display after being hired will be a surprise to you. You won't be situated to evaluate the domain-based merit of my claims, so you will default to believing that it is a problem with me -- that I am "not a team player" or "not a good fit" or some other HR-approved catch-all buzzword escape valve that lets you continue living in a snow globe of misunderstanding about the makeup of a domain expert.
5. You are fully aware of what you're doing and have ulterior motives or just plain don't care. You plan to bait-and-switch me by selling me a job completely different than the real work I'll be asked to do. You hope you can gain some leverage on me in the meantime that requires me to stay in the job. You might even look for this in my personal characteristics: do I have children, student loans, or a mortgage that might imply financial needs and thereby a need to endure workplace bullshit to service those needs? If I don't, you may very well not hire me because you don't forecast an ability to get leverage. You may try to see if I am motivated by prestige, by eventual high-level promotions, by level-grinding may way to a private office, by attending annual conferences, or whatever other carrots you might be able to dangle.
6. Rarest of all: you have an adequate understanding of the domain expertise demanded by the duties of the job and you are trying to locate a candidate with specifically the right skills and experiences to meet the demands. You're not looking to play games. You're not looking to task me with unrelated or menial work. You know what work needs to be done and you have a real plan for mapping that work onto a candidate's qualifications. You hope that I will be a good cultural fit and you are prepared to make sacrifices, change policies, or provide accommodations if necessary. But you also realize that because you are hiring for the purposes of matching up a domain-expertise need with a candidate's domain knowledge, you don't get to be picky about enforcing your fluffy HR-approved notions of "cultural fit" or "team player" -- you have to collaborate with me to determine if those things will work out. You don't get to dictate them and because you actually care about solving the domain-specific problem, you don't want to dictate them either.
I admit that items 1-5 are written with an angry tone, yet they are accurate depictions of motivations out in the wild. In any real hiring scenario, the motives are likely to be combinations of the various options above. Even in good scenarios when it is mostly number 6 that dominates, there can still be elements of the others items, and it's not always bad or irrational that this is so.
Yet when items 1-5 dominate the picture, which from my own experience, from the testimony of others, and from academic studies of this sort of thing is by all accounts the overwhelmingly dominant case, it creates a very toxic environment -- and truly it's only survivable in the long-run if you are happy to engage in those subordinating compromises I mentioned earlier.
So it might be useful to try to understand the confluence of items 1-5 more systematically, and I believe that the concepts of overqualification and underemployment (specifically underutilization of skill) can help with exactly that.
Basically, if you strip away all of my loaded language and try to see it not as malicious, ignorant, or political, these kinds of hiring problems are at their root an issue of underemployment, except possibly the case when any employee will do to fill a seat, as in item 3. In the other cases, a hiring manager is seeking someone overqualified for the specific duties that await them in the role.
Why should this be a bad thing? In fact some argue it is not. Even just a cursory Google search for overqualification brought up a link to a prominent Harvard Business Review article, The Myth of the Overqualified Worker. The article is pretty weak, but illustrates a pervasive kind of rationalization that managers really want to make. Basing its conclusions on some cursory and poorly controlled research publications, the article says things like, "In addition to achieving higher performance, these cognitively overqualified employees were less likely than others to quit. The researchers point out that many overqualified workers stay put for lifestyle reasons, such as the hours or the company’s values."
It perpetuates the idea that managers want to hear: overqualified candidates will more assuredly produce the baseline amount of labor output necessary for the role. The worry, that they will become discontented with the lack of learning or growth opportunity in the role, is soothed away by arguing that these folks are motivated by other factors, exactly the subordinating compromises that I keep incessantly bringing up.
The HBR article goes on to give a perfunctory nod to a factor that I believe plays a huge role in this issue: autonomy. For instance, the article continues,
"Berrin Erdogan and Talya N. Bauer of Portland State University in Oregon found that overqualified workers’ feelings of dissatisfaction can be dissipated by giving them autonomy in decision making. At stores where employees didn’t feel empowered, “overeducated” workers expressed greater dissatisfaction than their colleagues did and were more likely to state an intention to quit. But that difference vanished where self-reported autonomy was high."
This is backed up by some heavier research too. Generally, this type of work has focused on studying heteronomous goals (goals expected of you from others) versus autonomous goals (goals you choose for yourself). One branch of this theory is called Self-determination Theory (SDT) and one research paper from this approach is On Happiness and Human Potentials: A Review of Research on Hedonic and Eudaimonic Well-Being, by Ryan and Deci, 2001.
Here are some select quotes (see the original paper for the citations; SWB stands for subjective well-being):
"Another actively researched issue concerns how autonomous one is in pursuing goals. SDT in particular has taken a strong stand on this by proposing that only self-endorsed goals will enhance well-being, so pursuit of heteronomous goals, even when done efficaciously, will not. The relative autonomy of personal goals has, accordingly, been shown repeatedly to be predictive of well-being outcomes controlling for goal efficacy at both between-person and within-person levels of analysis (Ryan & Deci 2000). Interestingly this pattern of findings has been supported in cross-cultural research, suggesting that the relative autonomy of one’s pursuits matters whether one is collectivistic or individualistic, male or female (e.g. V Chirkov & RM Ryan 2001; Hayamizu 1997, Vallerand 1997)."
"Sheldon & Elliot (1999) developed a self-concordance model of how autonomy relates to well-being. Self-concordant goals are those that fulfill basic needs and are aligned with one’s true self. These goals are well-internalized and therefore autonomous, and they emanate from intrinsic or identified motivations. Goals that are not self-concordant encompass external or introjected motivation, and are either unrelated or indirectly related to need fulfillment. Sheldon & Elliot found that, although goal attainment in itself was associated with greater well-being, this effect was significantly weaker when the attained goals were not self-concordant. People who attained more self-concordant goals had more need-satisfying experiences, and this greater need satisfaction was predictive of greater SWB. Similarly, Sheldon & Kasser (1998) studied progress toward goals in a longitudinal design, finding that goal progress was associated with enhanced SWB and lower symptoms of depression. However, the impact of goal progress was again moderated by goal concordance. Goals that were poorly integrated to the self, whose focus was not related to basic psychological needs, conveyed less SWB benefits, even when achieved."
Another research paper, If money does not make you happy, consider time, by Aaker, Rudd, and Mogilner, 2011, puts it like this:
"... having spare time and perceiving control over how to spend that time (i.e. discretionary time) has been shown to have a strong and consistent effect on life satisfaction and happiness, even controlling for the actual amount of free time one has (Eriksson, Rice, & Goodin, 2007; Goodin, Rice, Parpo, & Eriksson, 2008)."
"Therefore, increase your discretionary time, even if it requires monetary resources. And if you can't afford to, focus on the present moment, breathe more slowly, and spend the little time that you have in meaningful ways."
(Both of these are part of a much larger review article at LessWrong, covered in the section on the relationship between work and happiness. That whole article is highly worthwhile.)
This can be a disaster in highly specialized jobs, however, because such jobs tend to be extremely demanding of both personal time sacrifices and on-the-job autonomy sacrifices. My experiences have been in the technology and financial sectors and in these places, it's bad. It's arguably even worse in start-ups unless you are sitting at the top of the start-up and personally feel that all of the necessary tasks for growing the business are aligned with your autonomous goals. This is why some start-ups obsess over locating employees who deeply resonate with the company's ethos and purpose. It's not because they want to create a cult of their company (although that does happen), and it's not purely because they want to rip off unsuspecting employees who incorrectly forecast that their enjoyment of the company will compensate them for the reduced salary that the start-up will pay them. It's also because it would be death for the company if they hire a lot of people who are highly skilled, and who need autonomous goals or lots of personal time in order to be happy, and cannot provide them with either. Some start-ups have begun going in the other direction, and trying out things like unlimited (or even mandatory) vacation, since the supply of workers who just so happen to deeply resonate with a particular business idea is necessarily scarce. The success of these kinds of discretionary time approaches seems mixed.
In the end, this is why these underemployment traps are so debilitating and why they often entail above market wages, bonuses, or other compensation benefits: the company believes they are obtaining less volatile, surplus labor, but they have little freedom in allowing the worker to have autonomy, and the nature of the job requires long working hours without much personal time. The job itself often leaves an employee exhausted and without the necessary energy to use limited personal time to undertake the restorative autonomous goal achievement they need to be healthy.
Prolonged states of this surely lead to burnout.
Saddest of all is that, like many things, there is a blame-the-victim culture in this issue. Since not everyone is underemployed or overqualified, and some workers happen to have jobs which afford them adequate free time and energy to pursue autonomous goals outside of work, and higher-level decision makers in a firm often have the most freedom to pursue work-based autonomous goals, it creates a very dangerous in-group versus out-group mentality.
On one side, you have the higher-ups who can access freedom at work, and you have the workers who are happy making subordinating compromises to obey heteronomous goals while at work because they are satisfied with autonomous goals outside of work. Together this collection forms a large group of people who characterizes itself by "being able to get shit done" and "just doing what needs to be done" at work. They view their fortunate ability to not feel cognitively distressed by the lack of work autonomy as their own virtue, earned through their efforts to endure work, rather than considering whether it could just be a lucky coincidence that they have other ways of obtaining the needed autonomous goal achievement to be happy.
On the other side, you have overqualified / underemployed people who for whatever reasons are not able to engage in autonomous goals at work, and whose jobs place such a strain on their discretionary time that they also cannot get autonomous goal satisfaction outside of work, and any potential compensation increases they are paid for this arrangement don't provide them with replacement satisfaction that enables their cognitive health in the circumstance. Take me, for example. The autonomous goals that I want to achieve are all about writing quality-focused scientific software to solve worthwhile applied problems. If I have to write crappy software to solve worthless problems while at work, in a demanding and long-hour job, then I will not have the time, energy, or impetus to even try to pursue the necessary autonomous goals in my personal time. So there is nothing that any workplace can do for me to help with my cognitive health and job satisfaction except provide me with opportunities to write the sort of scientific software that my autonomous goals draw me towards. Raises, bonuses, promotions, lots of vacation, etc., all won't work. Which makes me a villain (or perhaps a whiny, entitled brat) in the eyes of most bureaucratic managers.
As with so many other majority/minority issues, especially when stigmas of cognitive health are involved, the maligned, minority group is used as a scapegoat and vilified for the suffering they must endure. The problem is offloaded from the majority group, so that they need not feel any stress about helping to find a solution, and HR codewords can be created, such as "not a good fit" or "not a team player" that let tightly-wound business managers wrap the issue up neatly in some foil and place it in the trash can like the Anal Retentive Chef :)
The introvert / extrovert spectrum is another great example of this divide, manifested in the prevalence of open-plan offices and vilification of naturally-introverted folks who cannot function normally in such offices. It's not enough to merely fail to provide reasonable accommodations, even productivity-boosting accommodations that are in the business's interests: the in-group has to go further and label the vocal minority as whiny, complacent, or entitled. It can often result in unhealthy workplace gaslighting where you are made to feel like you are the crazy, problem person for having a sane reaction to insane conditions.
I can't draw any useful conclusions other than to point out what a destructive long-term force this type of phenomenon is. Over time, it drives organizations to monoculture. People who express very natural and healthy tendencies, such as a desire to either work on autonomous goals while at work, or else to have enough discretionary time to feel satisfied with autonomous goals outside of work, or people who express natural inclinations, such as an introvert's natural inclination to be more productive in a highly private environment, are punished and weeded out over time. The corporate population converges to a large, dominant in-group made up of people who are willing to subordinate their own urges for the sake of the company, with all kinds of unpleasant side-effects regarding their career motivations, their aptitudes in the actual domain-specific business area, and the prevailing culture of the workplace.
That is the state of affairs in modern first-world employment. A hiring process that seeks to underemploy people tends to produce cultural environments where only those who are happy to find another way to satisfy autonomous needs, or who can compromise those needs away, can achieve the corporate, HR-approved definitions of success. If you are so arranged internally that you cannot get rid of your itch for autonomous goals, and if your job doesn't leave you with enough discretionary time or energy to do it outside of work, then you are a Bad Guy, a toxic, uncooperative whiner that the bureaucratic system will not attempt to accommodate. Your labor productivity, however great it may be, just doesn't matter next to your organizational fealty.