Seeing Employees as More Than Their Job Description

How do managers tap into the complex and varied skill set of underutilized employees?

by Karen Armon, August 2013

Karen Armon Headshot

Sarah left work exhausted. She really likes the company that she works for, but with her Master’s degree in business administration, she feels underutilized. Work is easy but repetitive, and not what she expected when she graduated three years ago. Sarah wonders if she should look for another job. She’s happy to have work; she just wishes she could do more and be seen as more than her job description.

Gallup reports that 17.2 percent of the workforce is underemployed, and Sarah is a classic example: young, over-educated, and without many prospects for promotion. Only five years ago, Sarah’s job would have been held by a high school graduate. Many underemployed people in the workforce today hold degrees that do not match current labor market demand, and believe that their degrees have not made them ready for today’s jobs.

Most of the underemployed are multidimensional, possessing a complex and varied skill set. The challenge is to understand and motivate employees who feel that they are more than their job description. With underemployment on the verge of becoming a crisis, how can you tap into these latent skills and provide workplace opportunities that are aligned with where the business is going?

Here are seven steps that operational leaders and human resource managers can follow to help the underemployed stay engaged while finding opportunities to leverage these skills for new roles as the company grows.

Get real. Pretending that there isn’t such a thing as underemployment in your company is a real killer to motivation and engagement. The underemployed don’t feel “lucky” and they know that they aren’t a perfect fit for the job they hold. If you acknowledge that many are underemployed, a great way to connect the dots is to set up a plan to interview and catalog the skills beyond the job description. Then you have a better chance of tapping into their skills if and when they are needed.

Be clear. Define skills that are appreciated and articulate your expectations, clearly and definitively, about what it takes to move up in your organization. If there are not opportunities for promotion, identify other ways in which individuals who are underemployed can contribute, i.e. steering committees, special projects and the like. There are hard skills, such as mathematics, information technology, and engineering that are easy to define. But there are soft skills, such as communications, team work, and collaboration that must be defined and often aren’t.

Find ways to enrich the job. Give the individual a higher range of tasks and challenges of varying difficulty, such as assigning a full end-to-end project to an individual. Of course, job enrichment must be a benefit to both the individual and the company, or this becomes a demotivator.

Get them a mentor. Often, simply connecting long-term, higher-ranking individuals to an underemployed individual is enough. But make sure that the mentoring has a purpose. Can the mentor decode the political landscape for individuals or help coach them toward cultural alignment? Will the mentor stay connected and keep in mind the opportunities in the future for the company and the individual? Don’t just connect mentor to mentee; have a purpose and outcome identified.

Keep connected. The underemployed are at risk of being disengaged and the drag on productivity is real. Staying connected means calling them, going to their worksite, and chatting with them from time to time. A little bit of investment here can bring huge returns down the road.

Talk them up to higher-ups. Make it clear to the leadership ranks that there are underemployed individuals in the company with skills that are not being tapped. Explain how this latent potential can bring in returns for the company as it grows. Keep your presentation focused on customers, revenues, or profit enhancements.

Hire strategically. Strategic hiring is not haphazard and making the decision to hire the underemployed for growth in the future is one way to prepare your total workforce capability. But if you do so, you must explain to the new hire that he or she is being hired into an underemployed situation with the opportunity to expand their responsibilities over time. Be careful, however, not to overpromise and then under deliver. Have an honest discussion with the new hires about the current role and the company’s potential future. They will be more inclined to work with you rather than against you.

If individuals are underemployed, they know it. Pretending that employees are the right fit for a job that doesn’t stretch them is only going to make the problem worse. Recognize it and work with them to define, clarify, and grow the job and the company in tandem. Otherwise, you’ll have a huge turnover problem in the very near future. 

Karen Armon ( is an executive-level career coach and author of the book Market Your Potential, Not Your Past.

    E-mail this page E-mail this page    Printer View Printer View