Why IT companies are wrong in opposing moonlighting

There is trouble in geek paradise. After months of Covid-induced work-from home (WFH), geeks are aggressively moonlighting. Information technology (IT) bosses, divided over whether this is ethical or not, are raising the decibel to clamp down on side-hustles. In a market where demand outstrips supply, it would be wiser to redraw work contracts to accommodate the future of work and, more importantly, attitudes to it.

Moonlighting is neither new nor unusual. Scores of people in the creative industry routinely moonlight —be they copywriters, photographers, journalists or filmmakers. And, for decades, the friendly neighbourhood tuition teacher has coached armies of geeks and the rest of us by moonlighting after school hours.

In great measure, all this has been driven by the need to make a bit more money in undervalued professions that don’t often pay well, and some even erratically. Arguably, India’s IT industry has created a reasonably well-paid middle class, which many not necessarily feel a pressing need to make bucks on the side.

The working class has a higher earning capacity now than it did two decades ago. So, when food delivery service Swiggy announced that it is changing its work policy to allow for moonlighting as long as it is not a conflict of interest, it stirred the pot vigorously.

India’s IT industry behemoths ranging from

to () publicly denounced moonlighting. Wipro chairman Rishad Premji tweeted, saying a side-hustle is ‘cheating’. Other critics of moonlighting have said availing training given by the employer to then deploy it for others is unacceptable. And herein lies the problem.

For the longest time, companies have treated their employees as commodities that they own, with the ownership paid for by the wages and perks they give. In truth, what companies are paying for is fixed hours of work, and the delivery of services set out in contracts with targets, wrapped watertight in confidentiality clauses.

Training, a constant given in a landscape of ever-changing technology, is not a one-way street or a largesse bestowed on workers. Compnies have to impart it to stay relevant to clients, and workers have to show aptitude to succeed.

So, while companies should ringfence anything that poses a conflict of interest, to argue that moonlighting is unethical and unfair is both unreasonable and Neanderthal. Moonlighters may not always be doing side-hustles for money. A workplace is as complex as a country.

There are politics, boundaries, jostling for opportunities, hierarchy, power play, parochialism and blame game. Workers are frequently shoehorned into jobs they dislike.

And, even more frequently, their loyalty is measured in long, wasted hours in office, pandering to a toxic appeasement culture. In a workplace that is less than ideal for most, a side-hustle may be a way to own the work and enjoy it, indulge in a passion project or embark on a fulfilling entrepreneurial journey. A regular job not always guarantees any of this.

At a practical level, there is the impossibility of monitoring people’s activities outside of office hours. And then classifying what type of moonlighting constitutes this socalled ‘cheating’. How many degrees of separation would it take? Would developing an app unrelated to the work an employee does at the firm be moonlighting? Or would writing a money-making technology blog classify? What if an employee with industry perspective was offering advisory services, without consulting or compromising his existing employer?

In reality, moonlighting for money is far more honourable than the rampant rent-seeking that permeates the private sector in everything from marketing contracts to canteen supplies to choosing transport providers, and even processing vendor payments. Companies cannot — and should not — arrogate to employees what their outside-of-work goals and ambitions should be. Instead, IT firms are better off setting terms that allow greater rewards for higher productivity, innovation, ownership and problem-solving. It should no longer matter how an employee gets the job done as long as he or she meets what’s asked of them quantitatively and qualitatively.

Organisations must encourage openness and offer more flexibility to employees. Companies in the US are already battling ghosting by new hires, who don’t bother to show up for the role offered. Besides, study uponstudy has shown that lack of trust between employers and employees dampens productivity and commitment in the workplace, something Indian firms need more of if they plan to move up the value chain.

Indian technology firms have long boasted about how they are the gatekeepers to the future. Holding on to that role might require adapting to their workforce, especially one that sees the employer as fungible.

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