Home / Opinion / Views /  The gleaming promise of moonlighting employers fail to see

The ongoing debate on moonlighting puts into sharp focus serious shortcomings in people management—not in the sense of managers not being able to command the total loyalty of those who work under their charge, but in the sense of corporate inability to set the right expectations from their employees and then to measure the work turned in by those employees.

Wipro’s Rishad Premji described moonlighting as cheating. The TCS CEO described it as an ethical failing. These views are valid if, and only if, binding corporate policy prohibits an employee from doing another job on the side. Suppose policy explicitly allows employees to transparently take up jobs that neither take away from their deliverables at work nor conflict with the business of their primary employer—in that case, where is the ethical problem or any question of cheating?

The very term moonlighting conveys secrecy and possible illegality. However, let us accept that employers are happy to overlook, if not encourage, certain side hustles without calling them by that pejorative name or dubbing their performance as moonlighting. Writing a book in their free time is something that most employers are willing to tolerate of their employees. Managers who deliver lectures at management schools or speak at industry dos are treated as brand ambassadors, rather than as people who are wasting the time paid for by the company–even if such public appearances boost the sales of management tomes such corporate leaders might write on the side, also without opprobrium.

If an employee chooses to paint, play a musical instrument or play weekend shutterbug, no employer would think of lambasting them as cheats or crooks, even if the paintings, performance or photographs fetch their creator a supplementary income. So why does taking up another job raise hackles at most human resources departments?

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An HR manager might say that when an employee writes a book or volunteers at a local Gurudwara, he does so in his spare time. That is, his additional activity does not eat into the time, for making which available, he or she is paid. Another difference, it would be pointed out, is that there is no conflict with the company’s own business in such activity by an employee. So, the second principle is that the supplementary work should not entail any conflict of interest.

Provided these two conditions are met in the case of a second job as well, why should there be any objection to an employee supplementing his or her income?

The key issue is management capacity, to set goals for employees and measure their work output, apart from transparency. If an employee meets her targets and still takes up odd jobs, while a peer does not, it probably would help the company identify people with potential and drive, who are currently being underemployed and could be given additional responsibility, along, of course, with additional income.

In fact, a policy of allowing employees to take on a second job could help companies identify not just levels of competence and initiative among its employees, but also the roles that cannot possibly be outsourced, as well as the roles, whose work expectations can be pre-determined and deeper employee engagement, apart from measuring the work delivered against the goal, can be dispensed with. Such roles can be opened up to gig workers. An employee who performs multiple jobs is, in effect, a gig worker, with the distinction that her retirement savings and health insurance come from one particular work provider.

A culture of transparently permitting supplementary work would, in other words, help companies identify recruits whose careers need to be fast-forwarded, sharpen job profiles and share worker cost with other companies in the case of certain types of work. It would improve managerial efficiency as well, and create a new culture of sharper focus on employee potential to identify and reward the employees that need to be retained, which could, in theory, reduce the rate of attrition as well.

Swiggy, which set off the moonlighting debate by putting in place a policy that permitted employees to take up supplementary work, was not swigging any moonshine when it formulated its new policy.

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