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Work Ethic

Too much time on your hands at the office

About the author

Chana is a journalist based in New York City, writing about business, finance, and workplace life. She has written for The Wall Street Journal and spent more than a decade at Forbes, including three years as a Tokyo-based foreign correspondent.

Bored at work?

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Q: I was recently promoted to manage my department, and I’m afraid I don’t have enough to do at work. My team consists of intelligent people who work well together. I don’t want to micro-manage them. I check in with them during the day, I meet with our chief executive officer, I talk to the other managers — but all that takes only a few hours. From the outside it looks like I’m doing a great job, but I feel like a fraud. What should I do?

A: This is a good problem to have. You run a department and you don’t have to work too hard. But you are right in thinking that coasting is not what your company is paying you to do. It’s also smart to recognise that your team is functioning well without your interference — and that you should leave them alone to handle their own jobs.

Step back for a moment and consider first whether your workload is as it seems. There are two possibilities in your situation: either there really is not enough work to do, or you’re just not doing it and don’t realise it, said Kenneth E. Goodpaster, a professor of business ethics at the University of St. Thomas’ Opus College of Business in Minneapolis, Minn.

If your job description truly does not include enough work to fill your day, then you should not feel guilty about doing the job you were promoted to do. Maybe the person you replaced wasn’t as efficient or as good at delegating as you are so it took that person longer to get the job done. In that case, kudos.

Your responsibility here is to tell your boss that you have plenty of time to add more to your list of responsibilities. Let your superiors know that you’d like to tackle more challenges. It’s then up to senior management to give you more to do.

“The interests of the organisation, the rights of the shareholders, the duty to one's fellow managers, and the virtues of honesty and loyalty all seem to point in the same direction here,” Goodpaster said.

Even if your boss does not follow through with more responsibilities, you could take this opportunity to expand your profile within the company. Volunteer to take on some bigger projects, or ask for more duties outside your area. That would serve both your interests and those of the company.

The other possibility is that you do not fully understand what is really required in your new role. Ask yourself: Is there something I could be missing? Is it possible that you should be spending this extra time on strategic planning, something your subordinates may not be tasked with or don’t have time to do because they are taking care of more immediate tasks? Perhaps you are expected to serve as a proactive resource to your team, helping them with bigger-picture questions or working with higher-ups to secure funding for initiatives your department is pursuing.

If you are not sure what your subordinates want, or need, from you, ask them. Survey your direct reports to find out what you can do to help them be more productive, more engaged and more creative in doing their jobs, Goodpaster said.

The best way to solve your problem — both ethically, and for your own career — is to see it as an opportunity. In contrast to most executives, your workday has some blank spots on the schedule. Now figure out how best to fill that time.

Work Ethic is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the ethical and interpersonal dilemmas that workers face around the world. We welcome knotty questions from readers at workethic@bbc.com.