CBE study finds why overqualified employees engage in time theft

Chao Ma

Dr Chao Ma from The Australian National University (ANU) College of Business and Economics (CBE) explores why overqualified workers are ‘stealing time’ from their employers.

Feeling overqualified at work has become a prevalent phenomenon worldwide.

In Australia, a staggering 45 per cent of the national workforce grapples with the effects of perceived overqualification, normally associated with a lack of motivation, disengagement and, in some cases, a sense of superiority.

Chao, from the ANU Research School of Management (RSM), recently teamed up with Dr Sijia Zhao from the Tongji University in Shanghai to provide much-needed evidence around why employees engage in one of the most frequent ramifications of overqualification: time theft.

Their paper, titled Too smart to work hard? Investigating why overqualified employees engage in time theft behaviors, was recently published in prestigious business management journal Human Resource Management.

“It is not uncommon for employees to engage in time-theft behaviours during work. For example, some employees tend to take extended breaks, browse online shopping websites or even sleep,” Chao explains.


Unlike other forms of theft, time theft is not easily detected, and can significantly influence the productivity and profitability of the company.

The CBE study reveals that overqualified individuals engage in time theft for two primary reasons: a perception of unfair treatment by the organisation and a belief that their work is meaningless.

According to the researchers, ‘voice endorsement’, or managers’ recognition of employers’ ideas and contributions, is an effective way to counter these behaviours.

“When managers value suggestions from subordinates and incorporate their ideas into decision making, they are meeting the employees’ emotional needs, making them feel valued,” Chao says.

The paper also offers a range of practical insights for organisations and human-resource practitioners. Adjusting job design, assigning challenging job tasks and providing mentoring opportunities are additional strategies that can help employers reconcile their relationship with affected staff. 

“Publishing my work in an outlet as esteemed as Human Resource Management is a great achievement, particularly given I am an early career researcher. It not only validates my research, but also reinforces the reputation and good research culture of the RSM and CBE more generally,” he says.

Chao hopes his groundbreaking findings can contribute to improving job satisfaction in workplaces around the globe.

“Money cannot make you happy, it can only make you not unhappy. But if employees are able to leverage their talents and develop a sense of meaningfulness in their jobs, they may be able to cultivate a higher level of job satisfaction,” he says.

The College is always keen to explore research collaborations with the public and private sector and to reconnect with alumni. Please get in touch if you would like to know more about partnering with us.

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Chao Ma

Dr Chao Ma

Chao is a Lecturer at the ANU Research School of Management and his research areas of focus include Organisational Behaviour (leadership, unethical pro-organisational behaviour, voice behaviour and proactivity) and Human Resource Management and Strategy (perceived overqualification and underemployment, career development, and performance management).