Sunday, May 11, 2014

Is moonlighting on company time ever OK?

Years ago, a former colleague at a magazine left to take a job at another publication. He was a star writer on our staff, one of the most productive, and left on great terms. He also moonlighted while on the job, something he made public in an article he wrote for his new publication.

At first, he noted, he relegated his moonlighting to times when he was away from the office. Soon, however, he started using downtime at work for some moonlighting, utilizing company supplies and equipment, He always made the deadlines for our publication, but he made clear in the article that the money he earned moonlighting soon surpassed what he made from his full-time job.

While this writer reported his moonlighting income to the IRS, and his outside client wasn't in the same business as that covered by our magazine, he never told his boss that he was essentially working a side job while on the clock. Clearing his moonlighting activities with the boss always struck me as something he should have done. The boss didn't find out until he read the article in our former colleague's new magazine.

I was reminded of the moonlighting escapade when a graduate student -- whose job it was to man a desk for several hours in case students came seeking outside help for a course -- asked me recently if it was OK for him to do other work while he waited for students to show up. Often, no one visited him throughout his shift. When students did seek help, they never took up all of the hours the grad student had available.

Still, the grad student felt that somehow there might be something wrong with doing other work while he waited.

He could have dissuaded himself of any guilt by simply asking the professor for whom he worked if it was OK for him to complete other tasks as he waited for students. But the burden of doing so was not as great for him as it was for my former colleague.

The grad student was hired for one specific task: to be in the office ready to help students if they needed assistance. My magazine colleague, on the other hand, was hired as a full-time contributor to the publication. Even though he met his deadlines and was productive, had the boss known that my colleague had a significant amount of downtime, it would have been perfectly appropriate for the boss to ask him to take on more during the workday. He was being paid to do more than sit at a desk waiting for students to come by.

As long as the grad student fulfilled the function for which he was hired -- and dropped everything whenever a student showed up for assistance -- he could rest easy knowing he was doing the right thing and not taking advantage of his boss. 

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Anonymous said...

Jeffrey, this is a question that contains too many points to logically and completely cover in an e-mail. The easy answer is, there is no easy answer. The second answer is there might be some situation where, such as the example given, it was the job of the worker to sit at a desk and wait for persons to contact him at his desk. For that particular situation, I see nothing unethical if he did other work while so waiting. However, in your description of the problem, too many, if not most situations where someone might do work not having to do with the regular job, it pretty clearly could represent unethical work being done. I believe each of us would probably know which situations fall into the first example I mentioned and would also know when other examples where it might not be ethical to do extra work.

Charie Seng

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey, I finished typing my above comment and misspelled my first name. Could you please correct my spelling error to "Charlie"? Thanks!

William Jacobson said...


I agree with Charlie. The answer is it depends but he's probably crossed the line on this one. The employee owes his company a duty of loyalty during his employment. If he's not happy with this he can leave at any time. The company pays for his time and using their paid time and company resources to outside endeavors without permission to do so could easily be construed as theft. The best thing to do is to clear all of the above with his employer beforehand.

William Jacobson
Anaheim, CA

Anonymous said...

I have been in similar situations, where my "assigned" work didn't fill my time. In most cases, I would seek additional work (is there something that I can help with?).

In one case, I made sure that I was working efficiently and effectively, and finished my assignments on time and done well. Because I was not running around in a panic like a headless chicken, I was seen as not being a good employee. I later found that the company was being purchased by a larger company, and everyone above me was worried about being seen as unnecessary. At no time did I do anything unethical, though it turned out that my employer had.