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Moonlighting: What's Left for the Day Job?

Jennifer J. Halpern, Ph.D.




According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 6% of all employees hold a second job. Unfortunately, that statistic isn't easily broken down by sector, so we can't readily establish how many knowledge workers do. But a quick look around suggests that in the IT sector, and especially in new media, the practice is fairly widespread.

While in some cases, the moonlighting may not in fact rise to the level of a second job, it might be nothing more than a few hours' spent on an occasional web page design project. In other instances, employees may be starting a new business. At both extremes, the "day job" company has to be concerned with the employees':


How Much Is Too Much Mental Effort?

Can an employee do both jobs? The answer, of course, is "it depends". .Before an employer can make any general statements about a moonlighter's ability to handle both jobs, it is useful to consider why a person is moonlighting. The why has implications for whether the individual can handle both jobs.

Here are some answers:

Perhaps more important than knowing whether the employee has the mental capital to handle moonlighting and a "day" job, therefore is understanding what role that moonlighting plays in the employee's life, and what it means for your company.


What About the Additional Stress?

Although stress can have severe consequences for individuals and their organizations, stress in and of itself isn't necessarily harmful. In fact, moderate stress can heighten an employee's interest, the amount of effort s/he puts into a task, and ultimately may improve performance, growth and development. It is always an individual affair: something that one person sees as stressful may be irrelevant or even a pleasure to someone else.

It's a little like skiing: for the advanced beginner, the bunny slope is boring and black diamond trails are definitely for the future. But there's a whole range of red and blue and even some black trails that might work very well. Which path the person chooses will be a function of his or her ability to handle the stress and uncertainty of the different trails.


Moonlighting Can Help Your Company Stay Alive

From the company's perspective, an employee's moonlighting can be either:

Both situations should make the good employer stop and think.

Moonlighting may be your first signal that you are underutilizing a talented, energetic employee. It might be worth chatting with that person to see "what's up", and whether there are avenues in your company that employee would like to explore.

Of course, you might find out that he's really unhappy, and that you're likely to lose him. But now, at least, you won't be surprised by a letter of resignation; and you have an opportunity to try to keep him.

Ironically, if your employees feel unhappy, underpaid, or underchallenged, it might actually be a good thing to good thing to have them moonlight.

A wide variety of psychological theories describe how people will seek satisfaction, and a positive sense of themselves. If they don't feel good about themselves at work, they will look for satisfaction elsewhere. As an employer, you don't want them looking to another company's "day job" to supply these positive strokes. So, if you can't supply additional pay, perks, or challenge, moonlighting might be the ticket: Your employee gets the money and/or satisfaction they need without your having to spend anything.

In this situation, it is unlikely that there would be a real problem with the employees' mental capital being stretched too far; instead, they aren't able to capitalize sufficiently on their mental prowess during the day.

If you're a responsible employer, of course, you won't want that situation to last forever. Many employers, especially smaller businesses, tend to have "down" times, when the orders just aren't rolling in, and when there isn't enough money to encourage free-style R&D. Permitting — or even encouraging — moonlighting may be the best way to keep people on board while they are bored.

If your employee is relatively happy, his or her moonlighting might represent " a breather". This is another situation in which moonlighting may bring more benefits than disadvantages to your company.

The benefits are probably clearest in the case of, for example, an IT professional who is a massage therapist on the weekend. Most employers wouldn't have any more problem with this than if s/he were taking a kung-fu class after work. The benefits of having an employee who arrives back at work relaxed, refreshed, and so on are clear.

It is harder for the employer to see the benefits accruing to the company when an IT professional does something more closely related to her work during her fee time. But just as with being a masseuse or studying painting, the work may offer an outlet for exercising creative or other talents which simply aren't being used at work. In this situation, while the employee is clearly using mental capital, s/he finds it refreshing. The exercise of the different work may also help the employee bring new approaches, see new patterns, or just work more efficiently than she could have before.

It's also important to realize that whether the employee has enough energy left after moonlighting really does depend on individual. Some individuals have the stamina to work incessantly, and the ability to understand own limits. These people thrive on the additional excitement, and probably are bringing that same energy to the day job.

One software developer holds down two related, but different jobs. He prefers to work his "second" job in 48-hour spurts. I asked him how he can manage to keep up the quality of his work for the full two days. His answer: "I can't. But I break down the work. I do the nitpicky things at the end, when I just focus in. The things I need to think "big" and broadly about, the really hard thinking, I do at the beginning. I've found that projects tend to have those two phases, and it works very well for me." And for his supervisors: they both can't say enough good things about his work and his personality.


The Dark Side of the Moon

It can be more of a problem when your company is literally the employee's "day job", in the sense that waiters in LA tend to be actors waiting for their big break. It is one thing for actors to be waiters, another for IT professionals to be starting their own companies.

The biggest part of the problem is that their new company is getting started on YOUR time.

At first, starting a business is not so time and thought-consuming. But after a relatively short while, it definitely is. Moreover, there are numerous issues about the use of your company's property and resources. In fact, the entire area of intellectual property is very hot right now, and there are no easy answers.

Even if the employee/CEO isn't spending time at your desk making calls, plans, or developing materials, s/he probably is thinking about the other business at some level.

Consider that if your job requires employees to "think in the shower" to solve problems — and that employee also has a little dotcom in the works — guess whose problems that employee is going to be thinking about while scrubbing away with the loofah.


Controlling Moonlighting

Some companies already have moonlighting policies in place. Employees may be required to notify their company, in writing, that they are holding a second job. Other companies require employees to have "written permission" to take a second position.

As HRWire notes, it's probably a good idea to only take the steps to control moonlighting that are truly necessary. If you need to have assurances that your information will be kept proprietary, or if you're concerned about conflict of interest issues, you don't need to eliminate moonlighting to control the information: instead, you can draw up an agreement that specifies these concerns.

However, it is generally a bad idea to change any policy single-handedly. In the case of moonlighters, an unnecessary display of authoritative policy-making may drive moonlighters underground, or worse, away. And it would most likely generate bad feelings, rather than creating the positive workspace that will help you develop your employees, retain them, and attract new, high-quality individuals to join you.




  1. Most recent Department of Labor Statistics: 6.7% of employed women and 6.1% of employed men report holding a second job. Chicago-Tribune, News-Times Business, October 8, 1997.
  2. HRWire, February 26, 2001.

Copyright 2001 ZevGroup. Further information about the contents of this report is available upon request from Jennifer J. Halpern, Ph.D.