Help Wanted sign in window of a coffee shop, "PhDs apply inside"

Imagine that you have years of experience in your field, but the only job that you can find after some time away from the workforce is an entry-level position. Or, that you studied physics, but the best job that you can be hired for is in sales.

Dr. Tina Williams, interim chair and associate professor of the Department of Management and Quantitative Methods, specializes in studying this phenomenon, referred to as underemployment. Williams published her first paper on underemployment in 2009 —in the middle of the largest economic meltdown since the Great Depression.

In her research, Williams connects underemployment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Williams also examines the outcomes of overqualification in the workplace. She was inspired to study these areas after facing underemployment herself.

“Before I went back to earn my Ph.D., I had to make a decision as to whether or not I would take a job that would pay me 40 percent less than I made at my previous job,” said Williams. “I decided not to take the job, and I realized when I went back to school that not everybody has that privilege. What does work look like for people who were required to take that job, understanding that they have made more in the past at a job where they had more responsibility and prestige?”

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This revelation prompted her initial research question: How do job attitudes and behaviors differ between the overqualified and adequately qualified?

After finding that overqualification is a complex and polarizing issue in the workforce, Williams restructured her research question.

“Not all people who are overqualified are in that situation because they are forced to be; there are people who are overqualified because it fits with their lifestyle,” said Williams. “So, the question becomes, ‘How do job behaviors, attitudes, and outcomes look when you have a person who is voluntarily underemployed compared to a person who is involuntarily underemployed?’”

Williams defines underemployment as the inability to secure adequate employment according to the individual’s specifications. There are five dimensions to underemployment.

The first dimension of underemployment is education, where one has more education than their job requires. The second dimension, experience, is a similar concept—one has more experience than their job requires. The third dimension is wage underemployment, which occurs when one makes less than they did at a previous job.

Job field underemployment occurs when the best position one can find is in a different field than they have experience in, while job status underemployment occurs when one is unable to secure full-time work.

“People who are experiencing job status underemployment will often have multiple part-time jobs trying to achieve adequate employment according to their preferences,” said Williams. “That creates a whole host of other issues.”

In a 2016 paper titled “Reimagining Overqualified Human Resources to Promote Organizational Effectiveness and Competitive Advantage” published in the Journal of Organizational Effectiveness, Williams and her co-authors posited that organizations could benefit from hiring overqualified candidates who are voluntarily underemployed.

“The sentiment is that a lot of companies don’t want to hire people who are overqualified for their jobs because those employees might leave when they find a higher paying job with more prestige, but not everybody is in that situation,” said Williams. “There are several instances when you should hire a person who might seem underemployed, especially if they are voluntarily underemployed; essentially, you’re getting a person with more resources and capabilities for less cost to the organization from someone who has chosen underemployment because it fits their job preferences. It’s a win for all parties.”

However, Williams said the challenge is distinguishing between voluntarily and involuntarily underemployed workers.

“There’s no delineation between voluntary or involuntary underemployment, and I am investigating that in an ongoing research project,” said Williams. “We should not treat all underemployed employees and job applicants as a homogeneous group.”

“If we find problems, let’s fix them.”

Dr. Tina Williams

To alleviate the impacts of involuntary underemployment, Williams stresses that organizations must consider employees’ situations when making decisions.

“I think organizations can help to eliminate involuntary underemployment by taking job preferences into account,” said Williams. “Sometimes people end up in situations where they’re underemployed because of child care issues, downsizing, or technological advances. If an organization is downsizing, they can host a job fair or partner with employment agencies so that affected employees can search for new jobs. If technology is changing, organizations should consider reassignment, additional training, or retooling for affected employees.”

Additionally, Williams urges organizations to use data to solve socioeconomic inequities such as wage underemployment.

“The gender wage gap can be considered using the lens of underemployment. It sits at the intersection of gender and socioeconomic diversity,” said Williams. “While the gender wage gap is complex, we have the means to investigate it. Individual organizations have the data, so let’s evaluate that data and see if there are disparities between what’s paid for the same job for people of different genders. We can even go further; let’s look at people of different races, ages, sexual orientations, nationalities, degrees of ability. If we find problems, let’s fix them.”

Inclusive research, curriculum

Since joining Illinois State in 2013, Williams has championed DEI as a researcher and an educator. Williams, a recipient of honors such as University College’s Impact Award, Outstanding University Teaching Award for Pre-Tenure Faculty, and the University Research Initiative Award, has encouraged students, staff, and faculty to continue pushing for DEI while reconsidering what diversity can look like.

She is most proud of a case study she wrote with Dr. Susan Dustin, an associate professor of Management and Quantitative Methods. The researchers focused on a 2015 incident at a Lowe’s Home Improvement store in Virginia, where a customer requested the store to not send a Black delivery driver to their home. Marcus Bradley, the delivery driver, who had worked at Lowe’s for over a decade, was told by management that he could not deliver to the customer. The incident subsequently received national backlash, eventually leading to the firing of three managers involved with the decision.

After analyzing the news story, Williams and Dustin created teaching exercises designed for students to put themselves in the situation of the Lowe’s managers.

“I was just very proud of how we crafted that story, and I was proud of leading and teaching that case in the classroom,” said Williams. “I actually taught it to some faculty members, and I presented it a couple of times at different conferences. It helps people realize that you may not always make the decision that you think you will make when facing situations involving DEI.”

Williams’ immersive approach to teaching was appreciated by former Interim MQM Department Chair of Management and Quantitative Methods Dr. Roberta Trites, who passed her role to Williams in July.

“She is so energized in front of a group of students that it’s like watching a strong light bulb grow even brighter,” said Trites. “Her understanding of how demotivating underemployment can be leads her to want to maximize the potential of everyone she works with, including students and colleagues.”

Dr. Tina Williams.
Dr. Tina Williams

Williams also takes pride in a new course she developed, titled MQM 120: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Workplace.

“I think that is one of the most important courses that we teach,” said Williams. “We offer two versions of that course: one of them is a course on campus, and the other version is a study abroad course that I teach in Barbados.”

Although the study abroad opportunity was unavailable this past year due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Williams and Assistant Professor of History Dr. Keith Pluymers last took students to Barbados just weeks before COVID-19 travel restrictions were put in place last year.

“With the Barbados course, we take a group of students to a nation where the demographics are basically reversed,” said Williams. “It’s just different experiencing what business is like and what it’s like to exist socially in that environment. The students who went last year definitely had a transformational learning experience.”

The students examined the differences between the United States and Barbados in society, culture, and business before writing reflection essays. In their essays, students of color wrote about feeling empowered by experiencing an environment where they were in the majority.

“Dr. Williams is a voice for all students on campus, regardless of their background,” said Trites. “Dr. Williams listens to students and colleagues who have been historically marginalized and then uses her creative skills as a scholar of organizational behavior to develop programs that help address those problems.”