Making Light of Moonlighting
Unable to put up with angst that management interferences in editorial issues caused, the legendary Indian editor Samar Sen left the cushy job with a leading publishing house in the mid-1960s to start a highly Left oriented but classy at the same time weekly magazine Now that became an immediate hit here and abroad. How could that be so since all that Sen could count on was the part-time editorial support in the office from Utpal Dutta, who subsequently became a big theatre and cinema personality? The magic was large scale moonlighting that several assistant editors at the then highly acclaimed The Statesman and also a few in the Times of India did for Now and subsequently for Frontier.
Philosopher economist Dr Ashok Mitra who then was working with the government first in the capacity of chairman of Agricultural Prices Commission and then as economic adviser to the prime minister, would write the famous Calcutta Notebook and also editorials for the two magazines without government approval. Why did they do that for gratis? For, the newspapers that the contributing journalists worked to earn a living did not provide the platform to write freely. Dr Mitra used the publication to tell the readers about the unacceptable kind of existing inequity and what was the way out, besides occasionally writing in his inimitable style about literature, music et al.
To return to The Statesman of the past. There then came a moronic CEO who nursed the ambition of seizing the editor’s chair and would spy on the journalists he suspected of moonlighting and then harass them to end.
That advertising people and journalists have always indulged in moonlighting in their spare time to earn some extra money has never been a secret. (Take the case of Nityapriya Ghosh, famous essayist and expert on Rabindranath Tagore, who through his entire career first as an adman and then as a corporate communicator practised moonlighting on an unbelievable scale writing for the country’s leading English and Bengali dailies. No doubt, the government and also company managements in the past didn’t find anything wrong in the practice if some restraints are exercised by practitioners. But times have changed.)
The house in perpetuity will remain divided about the ethicality of using the free time to do some work by people holding regular jobs. Moonlighting is practised globally with employers taking stands moving from wholesale acceptance to rigid disapproval. Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “do a second job, especially secretly and at night, in addition to one’s regular employment.” Whatever it is, moonlighting always has a veil of secrecy about it and carries a certain of risk of being found out and then paying a price for that.
An official of a leading Delhi based chamber of commerce says on condition of anonymity “employers may be suspecting that many in their payrolls are accepting gig assignments from third parties for execution during off hours, but rarely they got caught in the process. How much control should an employer have over his/her employees? No question about employees falling in line with office rules and doing an honest day’s job. What also goes without saying that in their free time, they must not accept any assignment from competition or share any information about the company with outsiders that may compromise its interest.” But such restrictions that come with full time jobs are more honoured in their breach than in observance, thanks to the growing ranks of gig workers.
Boutique ad agencies, which by definition are all small outfits in some cases without regular offices are generally run by senior executives who quit jobs in big agencies to strike out on their own in the belief of making a success of their ventures. Their business is pivoted on moonlighting. They outsource most work from preparing presentation material to copy writing to art work to outsiders working for big agencies and rewarding them handsomely. The ones doing such work do so with clear conscience that the work-order their own agency has already lost to the concerned boutique agency. Whatever that is, gig workers will get paid for their efforts but they can’t claim credit for the work done. In India, gigging is practised on a large scale by school and college teachers who would not spare a thought in charging usurious rates for giving private lessons to students and at the same time do regular classes more as a routine. In this profession all that is done openly. The nobleness in teaching has been sacrificed at the altar of commerce.
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Bangalore-based Alok Seghal who retired as vice president of a leading ad agency a couple of years ago and continues to do copywriting as a freelancer for old associates and friends says: “I shall neither confirm nor deny if I ever indulged in moonlighting while I was in regular service. At the same time, I shall confirm that ad executives doing outside work for a consideration is rampant in the industry. Ad agencies will also not stop from utilising the services of pliant business journalists on the sly.”
Here in the last case ethical issues are involved. Besides advertising, in consultancy services, especially finance and engineering, moonlighting is quite common and also largely tolerated by principal employers. Doing work for others using time over which employers should ideally have no control while holding a permanent job somewhere else has always been in vogue but is largely overlooked for comfort of the two parties. Actions are taken when limits are crossed like doing it stealthily sitting in office desk or when office information is compromised. But why suddenly a subject of which people are ever aware but thought it wise to look the other way is generating so much heat and media attention?
All this is happening because some leading IT (information technology) companies, including Infosys, Tata Consultancy Services and IBM have raised their shrill voices against accepting outside assignments by staff members, though to be executed using their free time. No doubt, work from home (WFH), which virtually became the norm for IT companies and other industries during the two and a half years of Covid-19 movement restrictions has spawned a big gig economy with more and more white collar workers participating in moonlighting with abandon much to the discomfiture of regular employers. Even as Covid scare faded and most companies wanted their employees to return to the regular desk, many refused to give up WFH not willing to disengage from side hustles. A representative survey of people working in IT&ITES done by Kotak Institutional Equities found 42 per cent of respondents saying that they would either change jobs or quit if they are denied WFH facility. Not surprising since a whopping 65 per cent survey participants confirmed of their awareness of moonlighting in the industry. Sadly norms of decent behaviour are crossed in many cased as revealed in the survey such as using the office email for doing gig work or holding several active provident fund accounts amounting to doing more than one job at the same time.
When margins for the IT industry has come under pressure due to the Western economies experiencing recession, low rates of growth and inflation all at the same time and its constituents have to live with high rates of attrition, it is no wonder some employers will react very strongly against “two-timing and double lives.” Wipro chairman Rishad Premji says: “There is a lot of clatter about people moonlighting in the tech industry. This is cheating – plain and simple.” He finds full support from IBM India MD Sandip Patel who says: “I am with Rishad on moonlighting. Notwithstanding what people can do with the rest of their time, it’s not ethical to do that.” In the meantime, Infosys told its employees in an email “dual employment is not permitted as per the employee handbook and the code of conduct. As clearly stated in your offer letter, you agree not to take employment, whether full-time or part time… without the consent of Infosys.” But to the relief of gig workers the industry remains sharply divided on moonlighting.
For example, Tech Mahindra MD & CEO CP Gurnani has made the startling observation that his company is in the process of formulating a policy which will let employees to pursue more than one job at a time. He recently said at a conference: “Most of us (IT companies) have efficiency and productivity targets that are measurable. If someone meets the productivity and efficiency norms, and wants to make an extra buck, as long as he is not committing a fraud and not doing something that is against the values and ethics that the company upholds, then I don’t have a problem.” Many of the new technology driven companies are not disposed to punishing the employees found to have accepted second assignments. In fact, cofounder of CashKaro and EarnKaro Swati Bhargava told the Economic Times: “Moonlighting can be a great way to improve skills one doesn’t get the time to practise during their full-time job.” Bhargava will look the other way when employees at her companies accept gig assignments if these don’t compromise their “commitment” to principal work. The debate is on. The last word on moonlighting remains to be said.