Srinath Sridharan

Independent markets commentator. Media columnist. Board member. Corporate & Startup Advisor / Mentor. CEO coach. Strategic counsel for 25 years, with leading corporates across diverse sectors including automobile, e-commerce, advertising, consumer and financial services. Works with leaders in enabling transformation of organisations which have complexities of rapid-scale-up, talent-culture conflict, generational-change of promoters / key leadership, M&A cultural issues, issues of business scale & size. Understands & ideates on intersection of BFSI, digital, ‘contextual-finance’, consumer, mobility, GEMZ (Gig Economy, Millennials, gen Z), ESG. Well-versed with contours of governance, board-level strategic expectations, regulations & nuances across BFSI & associated stakeholder value-chain, challenges of organisational redesign and related business, culture & communication imperatives.

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Moonlighting - The Buzzing Hashtag

If the industry wants knowledge workers, then it needs to show better respect and transparency. Can the industry learn to engage with civil conversations and better engagement ways, than one-way narratives and loud rhetorics?

After much mudslinging about moonlighting, it looks as if the realisation that one can’t get away from it. (In an earlier OpEd for BW Businessworld, Steve Correa & I had opined so). It is also surprising that people raked up this topic as if it’s a new phenomenon!

The industry leaders, especially in the IT sector have been divided on this subject. Few leaders even term moonlighting as “unethical”, and some have a balanced view that employees are entitled to their side-gigs, but not with competitors of their employer and with full respect to confidentiality. Of course, this topic does not seem to have impacted any sentiments or emotions across non-IT sectors.

There is absolutely no debate that it’s unethical to work on moonlighting projects that use company time or even call up sick to focus on the moonlighting project and/ or use company resources, like office premises, laptops and stationery. Working parallelly on the payrolls of two or more companies is blatant cheating. Examples are aplenty now, of how IT companies have smartly used Provident Fund deposits to track offenders who work in multiple companies.

Leaders & their board seats

Let’s play this ethical question of moonlighting, as a spotlight on the senior leaders - CXOs and upwards.

What if we start calling out their presence on various corporate boards and advisory committees of other companies (than that of their employer), and industry bodies as moonlighting? Well, one might argue that this adds to their employer’s branding, etc. Some might argue that these are for professional development and to contribute as a responsible corporate citizen. Some might argue that they don’t make financial gains from these.

The point is this: if such additional roles are permitted for CXOs (same would be called by the industry as side-gigs if one were a non-CXO), then a similar ideology should apply to the non-CXO talent. Anecdotally, some of the Indian IT companies or brands were formed as moonlighting efforts of their founders - when they were working elsewhere and worked in kickstarting their venture. So what worked for them should apply to other youngsters today.

Why moonlight

IT sector has particularly had stagnant starting salaries for a long time now. It is an economic concern that its employees have about this issue and sadly, no industry leader has answered this head-on.

Of course, it would be easier for them to defend it saying talent market prices itself with demand and supply. Add some dimension of (lack of) quality of talent and you can further defend such inaction easily.

We also forget that the younger generation wants to have the experience of multitasking with multiple types of projects - for their incremental learning and to increase their earnings. That cannot be slowed down only by the nature of engagement for the core job. Or cannot be satisfied if one is ‘on the bench’ for a long time. Either the employer does not have work to give them, or does not see them fit to work (in which case, they should let the employee leave the employment rolls). If the industry is using the ‘bench concept’ effectively as a buffer against attrition or sudden influx of business which might necessitate fresh and urgent recruitment, then it could do with more transparency and better communication with the younger stakeholders.

If the employees' aspirations of career growth, their emotional intelligence development, and newer learning experiences are not being met by their core employment, moonlighting will increase further. It is not just about additional financial gains. Companies should rather learn how to tap into and to increase the potential of their talent force.

For individual employees, they must remember that a career is a long-term process. Building a successful career will need staunch commitment from the individual and lot of effort. The responsibility of personal development cannot be abdicated to the employer. Rules of engagement of how society perceives their work behaviour is shaped by how their industry perceives it.

Not at fault, by law

Under Indian Laws, there is no restriction regarding moonlighting.

There is absolutely no restriction, as to the number of places an employee could work, except if the employee is working in a factory. Section 60 of the Factories Act, 1948 restricts factory employment from any second parallel employment.

As long as the employment terms do not prohibit employees from moonlighting, it cannot be stopped. Some organisations in their employment letter explicitly state that the employee needs to take prior permission to undertake any other business or employment, even if it’s honorary capacity. But then, if it is used as a process-hurdle, rather than the spirit of engagement issue, will make employees find ways to skirt it further.

As long as the employees don’t work with competing projects of a non-employer base, moonlighting should be acceptable.

If the industry wants knowledge workers, then it needs to show better respect and transparency. Can the industry learn to engage with civil conversations and better engagement ways, than one-way narratives and loud rhetorics?

Srinath Sridharan - Corporate Advisor & Independent markets commentator

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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