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Three ‘E’s to evaluate moonlighting: ethics, expertise, efficiency

As long as customers see no lack of quality levels when a moonlighting worker is performing the task they need, then I guess there are fewer questions to worry about other than the big one of keeping company secrets

September 23, 2022 / 05:05 PM IST
Representational image

Representational image

Muddling operational dynamics with issues of ethical callisthenics is an exercise fraught with danger. At the moment, the whole issue of assessing moonlighting is caught in this muddy muddle. On one side are ranged one set of corporate overlords who spot ethical failure in those who moonlight, and on the other side are number-crunching overlords who see employee attrition, and trend stats.

A flashpoint recently was when Rishad Premji of Wipro, having made his views known appropriately early on the subject, caught the headlines with his sacking of 300 people for moonlighting with competitors. There is no doubt that a number of that size would have required a Board decision. At the Board, no doubt, several issues would have been examined, but bloodying that axe was perhaps these moonlighters working for the competition. There can be no compromise, at a corporate level, in dealing with full-time workers who opt to cross over to the other side, during what may be their off hours. Of course, whether they were using Wipro’s computer facilities or codes is unknown.

Moonlighting is getting its moment now after The Great Resignation had morphed into a phenomenon called the ‘Quiet Quitting’. Trapped in between these giant grindstones, ‘Moonlighting’ became a bit of a millstone. In the Boardrooms where I sit, these three trends require a ‘conflict resolution’-type approach. CEOs alone find them too heavy a burden to bear. Should they ‘enforce discipline’ to ensure employees keep their noses squeaky clean? Do they work them to exhaustion heavily-supervised by line managers, or should they worry about how project completion happens if you discover large chunks of your workforce are marching to the sound of two drummers (hopefully at different times of the day) or if you sack, have quitters or face resignations?

The sheer practicality of ‘customer retention’ very often means that any tough decisions that cut to the bone (already encased in thin muscle) will result in delays. Boards looking beyond delays, often have to worry about the management’s inability to grab new business.

What we must recognise is that moonlighting has exploded into such a large phenomenon because work within most companies is more than can be handled by their own routine teams. Also, the ‘biggies’ can now sense the ‘minnows’ nipping away because beyond price-based competition there’s the sheer volume and scale of new kinds of business demands.

This kind of growth, is beyond the IT sector where it is pretty much taken for granted and where the bonanza may continue for at least a few more years (before AI swallows some of it up?) Industries from hospital, advertising and public relations all the way to mining and more, are reporting delivery pressure today.

The worldwide inability of industry to train rapidly enough, and the inability of most economies to spew out trained young-power at the rate that industry needs them are, of course, constraints that have been in the making for long.

A good way to frame these issues eventually will revolve around, among other things, the issues of ethics, expertise, and efficiency. While it may be okay for companies such as Swiggy to allow a certain level of moonlighting by their gig workers, the fact is that full-time employees will always be measured, and assessed differently. Does a Swiggy rider reduce their efficiency by double-dating or do their expertise of areas to deliver develop even more as a result of moonlighting? Those are the questions that perhaps managers at Swiggy, or Uber, may be grappling with.

But with the gig workers, there is less of an ethical dilemma and more of a question of employee energy and efficiency. Do gig workers lower their ops efficiency by trying to stretch their hours beyond what is the norm at any one company? Does this lead to the lowering of efficiency all around, and the ethical dilemma then turns up? Does the worker manage to make ends meet, on gig work alone?

To my mind, the touchstone of making decisions as management is always the ‘Customer Experience’. If the customer senses a falling of standards as a result of having a moonlighting worker, whether contractual or gig, then the company needs to act. Too often, we forget that the responsibility for spotting this lies with overburdened line managers. It is they who can figure out whether their customers are sensing a lack of quality on account of a worker who is moonlighting. While this may not come to the fore immediately in the case of highly-skilled tech workers, this is eventually bound to surface in every kind of work. That is where decisions have to be made. Often that’s where the Boards can step in to help.

The fact that Rishad Premji has chosen to speak and act differently from, say CP Gurnani at Tech Mahindra, who may take a more liberal view on moonlighting, raises the level of the debate. But once we distinguish between kinds of work, and levels of expertise, the final choice actually will depend on how line managers perceive and act on their customers’ responses.

As long as customers see no lack of quality levels when a moonlighting worker is performing the task they need, then I guess there are fewer questions to worry about other than, of course, the big one of keeping company secrets. If you graft onto these ‘insolubles’ the other issue of ‘company culture’, and whether any moonlighting employee can schizophrenically straddle two kinds of cultures, then of course things get gnarly and even more knotty. More on that later, perhaps.

But I guess these are the ‘intractables’ of the future. I suspect that some complex issues around these will get gas lit, and we’ll hopefully have less of that, than ‘moonlight’ eventually!

Dilip Cherian is on the Boards of companies, selectively straddles WFH and office. Monitors the ‘Image impact’ of Moonlighting attitudes, and more. Twitter: @dilipthecherian. Views are personal, and do not represent the stand of this publication.
Dilip Cherian is a communications consultant, a political campaign adviser, and a practicing political & policy professional.