She works with a Delhi-based events company, travelling frequently for work. But the travel is not restricted to her primary job. This 51-year-old, who prefers to remain anonymous, consults outside work hours with another client, organising for them events and attending exhibitions—all of which also requires travel.
To be able to do so, she often takes unpaid leave from the company where she works as a full-time employee. Outside office hours, she usually spends four-five hours a day working on external projects for a few months in a year. The employer is unaware of her part-time work, except the freelance writing side gig. While her company’s work is unrelated to her part-time projects, she prefers not to tell them. Her contract forbids external employment. The workload is not intense, and she attributes her time management skills for striking a good work-life balance. While her monthly income from the primary job is similar to the amount she earns from each part-time project, money is not her main motivation.
“I like being busy and working on a variety of things. I would not take them on if I did not find them enjoyable,” she says. “If there is no clash of interests, no one can tell me what to do with my time outside the office if I am putting in my hours and not hurting them.”
Moonlighting, or working a second or multiple jobs outside the primary job, occurs across the economic spectrum. Motivations for it vary, from monetary reasons to pursuing part-time interests or building an independent business. There is also a shift in employee mindset, particularly since the pandemic, questioning the ownership companies wield over them outside of work. This concept gained more attention recently with some technology companies being more vocal about their opposition towards it. Few months ago, for instance, Wipro reportedly fired 300 employees after they were found moonlighting. The company’s chair Rishad Premji later called moonlighting in the IT industry “cheating”. The debate continues, with several organisations voicing against moonlighting and others encouraging it.
Workplace experts say, as moonlighting is neither new nor unusual and will continue to be a trend, employers need to understand employee motivations for taking the path and explore a mutually beneficial way for both parties. “Remote working has provided more opportunities for it (moonlighting),” says Siddharth Shekhar Singh, assistant professor (marketing), at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad. “It is better to have clear policies that align with and create shared values for both companies and employees.” He adds, “Strict policies against moonlighting could be harmful for firms as good talent will always find other opportunities.”
Discouraged in corporate culture, professionals rarely disclose if they are moonlighting. Staffing agency CIEL HR Services claims 5% of IT services employees have secondary jobs. According to a July Kotak Institutional Equities survey of 400 people in the IT industry, 65% knew of someone moonlighting while working from home.
Sweta Panigrahi, 23, has worked remotely since entering the workforce in 2020. The Bengaluru-based content manager at Keyhole, a social media automation company, is also a freelance writer, and her employer is supportive of the part-time work.
“Several colleagues here have secondary jobs, including working on their own start-ups,” she says, adding that she left her previous company, where moonlighting was forbidden, to work at a place that allowed her to explore external opportunities. Her monthly freelancing income is equivalent to 30-50% of her monthly primary salary. She spends two-four hours beyond her nine-hour workday on freelance projects and leaves her weekends free to spend time with friends and on herself. Being efficient with the time helps her avoid any stress from her primary job and secondary projects. Her eventual plan is to start a business.
Apart from her full-time role with a picture books publisher, Bengaluru-based Smit Zaveri, 30, freelances as an editor and baker. Baking is a stress buster but also a potential future full-time business, and freelance editing allows her to work across genres and maintain skills she has built over her career.
“My company is supportive and aware of all my external projects. This flexibility was not possible in my prior roles at larger publishing houses where you are treated as their intellectual property,” she says. Depending on the quantity and nature of the projects she takes on, her freelancing earnings start at ₹20,000 a month. Her days can be long— about two hours after office are spent on freelance projects. She bakes during weekends. “I don’t mind working late nights occasionally because I like exhausting myself to sleep” she says.
Zaveri admits that sometimes it gets difficult and stressful to finish work and she has to forgo personal time. “But I regularly make time to meet friends, watch plays and have some fun,” she says.
So, where does one draw the line so that there is no conflict of interest with primary employers?
Zaveri prioritises her primary job, slotting secondary work around it. “I understand why companies would object to employees taking a skill that they are honing at their primary job and then applying it to a competitor. There should be rules when it comes to working with other competitors,” she says. For her, these rules include not editing picture books, her company’s specialisation, for external clients and keeping her manager aware of all her freelance projects.
Panigrahi understands restrictions on moonlighting for competitors: “But if your part-time work is not in conflict with or using resources or time from your primary employer, then it should be okay.”
The 51-year-old Delhi resident is clear of her boundaries as well. “I wouldn’t do anything harmful or from the same industry as my primary employer,” she says.
Some companies believe the problem is not just the kind of work, but the fractured focus that may result from moonlighting. “In moonlighting, your involvement in multiple places often results in average work because great results are possible only with full involvement,” says Aditi Bhosale Walunj, founder and chief visionary officer of Repos, an energy distribution company. “Eureka moments do not just happen at your workstation, but often while bathing, chatting with friends, eating, scribbling. This is only possible when a person is fully involved in one single work at a time.”
Zaveri believes this is a narrow view of productivity. “There are multiple reasons for non-productivity. People have various responsibilities outside the office. Are companies taking care of employees beyond work hours to demand this focused productivity in the office?”
The reality is that people often want to explore interests beyond their jobs. Hybrid and remote-work environments allow them the flexibility to do so.
Walunj believes clear company policies with acceptable norms for external pursuits would be helpful. “Cases where an employee is working on their hobbies and may be able to generate some employment from them warrants approval and encouragement,” says Walunj. “But its overall impact on the primary job needs to be understood better before we jump to a conclusion.”
While each company works differently, Indian School of Business’ Singh highlights that even in research academia staff are allowed time to explore external opportunities and apply the learning and experience to their primary jobs. He explains: “While this cannot be translated directly to the corporate world, understanding the logic and advantages behind this culture could be beneficial.”