Are your employees underemployed?

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR

Despite the recession being officially over, the media are still reporting about the great number of underemployed Americans—Americans who either don’t have enough paid work or whose jobs require significantly less qualification than they possess. CNBC recently reported that 17.2% of the workforce is underemployed.

Generally we think of the underemployed as those in fairly menial positions doing repetitive, low-skilled work for low pay, and that’s one face of underemployment, for sure.

However, even a highly skilled, well-paid employee can be underemployed if his abilities and knowledge aren’t consistently put to good use.

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There are probably as many reasons why this might occur as there are organizations, but here are a few common ones:

  • Employees have gained education and skills faster than the organization can recognize it or capitalize on it.
  • The organization’s processes and procedures prevent progress that would necessitate employees using more advanced skills.
  • Managers are not providing opportunities for employees to use their abilities.


Company XYZ employs an HR professional with top-notch recruiting and interviewing skills, but the company’s hiring procedures are decentralized and disorganized, and managers routinely source candidates without input or direction from human resources. As a result, quality of hiring is uneven, managers have too much to do, and the HR professional is frustrated that he’s unable to contribute his talents in this important area.

In this example, if recruiting were the only area in which the accomplished HR professional couldn’t apply his skills, he wouldn’t be underemployed. However, if the underused skill application in the recruiting area represents a pattern (e.g., the company also isn’t taking advantage of the employee’s influencing skills, strategic thinking abilities, and so on) he most likely is. And as the example illustrates, underemployment affects more than an employee’s job satisfaction.

Here are some suggestions for how to turn things around:

  • Take inventory. What processes and procedures are working and which aren’t? Survey line staff, managers, and customers. Make sure you know why employees are leaving. Look for trends and address them.
  • Hold managers accountable for getting work done through others and developing talent.
  • Work with your HR department to create career paths, mentoring initiatives, and other employee development programs. These actions will reduce turnover, improve employee engagement, and protect your organization’s intellectual property by ensuring that employees don’t “information hoard.”

Related: Pay-for-performance Resource Kit  (Toolkit to get you started with Pay for Performance)

It’s a poor investment to pay employees for skills they aren’t using and that could benefit the organization, and it’s vexing and disappointing for employees as well. Fortunately, there are steps an employer can take to ensure this doesn’t happen.



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