Recent TV debates on Moonlighting have fully lived up to the potential of the medium. Participants have talked past their opponents and sometimes even past those purportedly on the same side!
Proponents of Moonlighting almost break into one of Andy Williams’ signature lyrics (with minimal augmentation):
Moonlighting river, wider than a mile
I'm crossing you in style someday
You dream maker, you heartbreaker
Wherever you're going, I'm going your way.
The other side fields supreme court advocates threatening death, doom or (failing those) dismissal. Nothing less will assuage the righteous anger of the affronted CEO. White-hot moral indignation about employees wanting to earn more must take special chutz (grand)pah from promoters who out-wage the moonlighters by a thousand times or more.
Neither side chooses even to define terms, much less investigate causes. Such confusion is not recent. As far back as 1963, Harold Wilensky wrote that "the range of fact and opinion about moonlighting discourages understanding and prediction."1
This column seeks to describe how mid-level Moonlighting is only the culminating act in a long sequence of neglect coupled with several enabling technologies. It goes on to analyze varieties of Moonlighting as well as the special circumstances when Moonlighting can be a boon. But we can do none of that till we get some definitions and terminology in hand.
I find the definition provided for Multiple Job Holding (MJH) by Emily Campion (et al) useful: "The act of working more than one job simultaneously, including working for employers and self-employment, wherein all tasks, or sets of tasks, are performed in exchange for, or expectation of, compensation…. MJH is distinct from but can overlap with, the concept of 'gig economy work'… MJH is a broader concept that captures working and managing multiple jobs simultaneously, which may or may not be short-term or project-based."2 Their justification for preferring MJH over Moonlighting is also convincing. Moonlighting is pejorative and implies a clandestine activity which need not be true of all MJH. In the interest of greater familiarity, however, I shall continue with the less happy usage for most of this column.
Psychological contract pyramid
When an issue is fraught with confusion and emotion, I find it useful to start from the basics. "The psychological contract concept is used to explain behaviour by considering the extent to which the employee believes that the employer has kept the promises the employee perceives were made to them. As in any relationship, if promises are kept, then satisfaction and a desire to stay in the relationship are likely consequences. If, on the other hand, promises are broken, negative emotions and the urge to withdraw may follow."3
In this case, I shall pick five fundamental building blocks of the psychological contract that exists between people and the organisations that employ them. My choice is also dictated by the help they provide in classifying Moonlighting and the triggers for it. The following table provides a summary:
The Employee Brings The Organisation Provides
Time Living wage
Energy Differential recognition and reward
Competencies Development of new competencies
Loyalty Durable employment
Citizenship behaviour Fairness in all dealings
Neither these terms nor the reciprocity between the columns needs an explanation for an HR reader. What could do with some elaboration are the consequences when one or other side fails to live up to its side of the unwritten psychological contract. Moonlighting is a particular type of employee withdrawal behaviour, usually in response to some breach in what the organisation is expected to provide. It involves diverting at least 'Time' and 'Energy' from the primary job (or from the time intended for rest and recuperation) and sometimes the other 'Employee Brings' as well, to another job. Professional codes vary greatly in the extent to which they accept such diversion, with the military and religious orders being least tolerant of divided loyalties while doctors and teachers generally enjoy far greater leeway. The corporate world is somewhere in the middle, making its challenge more nuanced and complex.
Recrimination will not make it easier to understand the issue. So it’s no use organisations childishly shouting "He started it first". Even if it were true and a small set of employees were the first to be, say, disloyal, the retaliatory insecurity of tenure created by the employer would hit the till-then loyal employees and not the disloyal ones who would have left in any case. Nor should employees imagine that retaliatory Moonlighting behaviour will simply damage the organisation. The employees’ own well-being and long-term growth can also be irreparably damaged in the process. Rather than destroying each others’ ocular organs, far better to use them for seeing which forms of Moonlighting are detrimental – and which aren’t.
From BOP to MOP moonlighting
Long before the term Moonlighting became popular and almost since the time the first person confined to a salaried job felt the terms of trade were unfair, people have sought to burst the monetary confines of a single job. Even today, there are countless Bottom of Pyramid (BOP) jobs that yield incomes inadequate for supporting a family with school-going children and, sometimes, ailing parents. If at least one more earner is unavailable, there is no choice but for the prime earner to offer time and energy for sale again. Employers over the years have become inured to this phenomenon and find closing their eyes to it less expensive than raising payments or reducing precarity.
The reason Moonlighting is raising under-collar temperatures in recent days is that an entirely new slice of the organisation (the Middle of the Pyramid or MOP) has started entering the multiple job market in significant numbers. The reasons for the flood of Moonlighting are trifold.
For several years now, employers have been trifling with their side of the bargain in return for employee loyalty and citizenship behaviour. Family feelings were fore-fronted to blunt the edge of compensation expectations when business boomed but forgotten when times turned sour and familial sacrifices were used to mollify Abrahamic shareholder deities. Similarly, values were vapourised when commitments (e.g. campus appointments) were drowned in fine-printed clauses and the braggadocio of challenge-us-legally-if-you-dare. A previous column detailed how these short-sighted shareholder value steroids hollowed the muscles of employee loyalty.4 Such unfairness may, in the past have resulted in disengagement, attrition or some other form of employee withdrawal. This time, however, for a large variety of mid-level jobs, technology had created smoothly functioning conduits to take capabilities to the demand face with minimal dislocation and identification. Moreover, the increasing GIGification of tasks had prepared companies at the demand face to extract the effort the conduit conveyed without the inconvenience of arms, legs and a questioning tongue accompanying them. Perhaps most providential of all, Covid gave every part of the virtual system a thorough trial while wiping those with reservations about such impersonal organisation of work off the reservation.
Costs of Conventional Moonlighting
Neither organisations nor individuals emerge scatheless from BOP and, even less so, from MOP Moonlighting. "Generally speaking, spiralling and compounding demands from maintaining boundaries around each job cause depletion. In other words, the extra demands [Moonlighters] face in managing the space between their work roles drains their personal resources above and beyond the demands of each role. In addition to these role-related intrapersonal mechanisms, scholars have found that interpersonal mechanisms also explain depletion effects. For example, according to partial inclusion theory, an individual’s involvement with a social group dictates the degree to which he or she identifies with that role and social group... [B]ecause [Moonlighters] spend less time, or are less involved, in their secondary roles, they are less likely to integrate with coworkers, leaving them feeling socially marginalised and contributing to feelings of depletion. Further, depletion from [Moonlighting] demands relates to other negative outcomes, such as reduced job commitment."5 Add to these the strain of maintaining a deceptive front, skewed work-life balance and hugely lowered chances in the career stakes and Moonlighting doesn’t seem such an obviously rosy path to success.
For companies, the loss is even more apparent, especially if leaking IPR to competitors and working during the time committed to the company are factored in. Lack of full energy and attention, higher incidence of errors and aloofness from teams, play havoc with regular and (particularly) remote work quality and quantity. Threats and tantrums can no more be a cure for the organisation than for any failing relationship. Until the psychological contract is healed, the withdrawals symptomatic of its failure will remain uncured even if they bury themselves deep out of sight.
Obviously, Moonlighting is useful neither as a retaliation nor as a cure for breaches of the psychological contract. There are, however, some critical circumstances when Moonlighting might not just be permitted but encouraged. We have already referred to those individuals whose primary job does not provide adequate means of sustenance or a living wage for the family. Ideally, employers should cure the compensation and contractualization problem here. Until they can, insisting on single-job discipline should buy nothing more than a business-class seat to purgatory for the businessman insisting on it. The more interesting exception arises when open Moonlighting (or should we call it Sunshining?) provides learning or 'calling' fulfilment that the organisation is not in a position to provide but which the individual considers essential not only for future progress but to be extremely effective in the prime job. Let me illustrate this with a personal example.
Sunshining for Vitamin D (Development)
When I came back to India after a four-year stint in Europe, it was to a job that didn’t score very highly on standard yardsticks for measuring CHRO job size. Thus, though it exposed me to a range of new industries and governance styles, raw headcount and geographies were far fewer than those to which I had been accustomed. I, therefore, had a genuine fear (unjustified, as it turned out) that my talents would be underutilized and my personal development attenuated. I still admire the flexibility shown by the promoter seeking to bring me on board in accepting my suggestion to permit me to consult for other organisations that were not direct competitors. Of course, the number of days I could consult each month were limited and I got no leeway in delivering the ambitious results expected in my primary role. In return, the organisation continually benefited from the additional exposure, new capabilities and fresh contacts that I acquired through my consultancies. A clear win-win made possible by an enlightened promoter operating a relationship of trust that I was careful never to betray.
In these special circumstances, Moonlighting is converted from being a cause of both individual depletion and organisational talent leakage into a source of enrichment for both. Here are the five essentials for the conversion:
- The focus must be competency building or venturing into a 'calling' which is not feasible in the primary job.
- There should be no scaling down or relaxation in the KRAs of the primary job.
- Ideally, the competencies acquired should have some rub-off that benefits and certainly no competitive disadvantage for the primary employer.
- Employers must be willing to craft policies that make selective Sunshining feasible and attractive to those for whom the lure of the 'calling' or competency accretion makes the strain worthwhile.
- For all of this to work, the understanding must be open and scrutable.
I appreciate that employees may prefer the excitement of gambling with unauthorized Moonlighting. They also make unauthorized alterations to Frankie Laine’s lyrics:
You can gamble for match sticks, you can gamble for gold,
The stakes may be heavy or small,
But if you haven't gambled for your job and lost, you haven't gambled at all
They call me a moonlighting gambler.
The Future of Work Crafting
Since this column started with the shallowness of TV debates on Moonlighting, it may be fitting to end it with a far more popular perennial of talk shows and web-ad-nauseums: the future of work. All the blinding new insights we have received on the subject in the last couple of years can easily be accommodated on the head of a needle without inconveniencing any of the thousand angels already gathered there. Let me be radical enough to suggest a way in which Sunshining could actually transform the future of work for organisations bold enough to launch such an experiment.
This column has embraced the happiness of people as a core goal for HR and repeatedly pointed out how the enrichment of jobs is the most lasting way of growing aggregate happiness.6 Job Crafting is an even more felicitous term and Amy Wrzesniewski (et al) explain it well: " [J]ob crafting is the process of employees proactively changing the boundaries that comprise their jobs… Job crafters shape the boundaries that define their jobs in three main ways. First, job crafters may change the physical or temporal boundaries around the bundle of tasks that they consider to be their job. We refer to this as 'task crafting,' and it consists of adding or dropping tasks, adjusting the time or effort spent on various tasks, and redesigning aspects of tasks (e.g., a teacher who spends time learning new classroom technology to fulfil his passion for IT). Second, job crafters may redefine the relational boundaries that define the interpersonal interactions involved in performing their jobs. We refer to this as 'relational crafting,' and it consists of creating and/or sustaining relationships with others at work, spending more time with preferred individuals, and reducing or completely avoiding contact with others… Third, job crafters may reframe the cognitive boundaries that ascribe meaning or purpose to the tasks and relationships that comprise their jobs. We refer to this as 'cognitive crafting,' and it consists of employees’ efforts to perceive and interpret their tasks, relationships, or job as a whole in ways that change the significance of their work… The three types of job crafting are not mutually exclusive, and job crafters may exercise any combination of the three "7 Broad as is this description, one searches in vain for a reference to the Sun shining outside the confines of the organisation in it. The reasons are not far to seek. In 2013, when the book containing Wrzesniewski and her co-authors’ chapter appeared, the technologies and business models permitting skills to be piped remotely and organisations being able to put them to productive use were nascent (see the section on 'From BOP to MOP Moonlighting'). It is not only technologies for organising work that needed to catch up but the harnessing of big data to help individuals in understanding and realise their own developmental demands better8. This process is just making a start in a few progressive organisations. Perhaps even more game-changing than the techno-economic feasibilities will be is the evolution of mindsets that permit non-competitive Sunshining to figure as a full menu choice in the restaurant at the end of the universe.9
This is such a far stretch from present reality, even if we peer all the way to the horizon, isn’t it? Perhaps that’s because we have been looking directly into the sun for light.
And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light,
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
But westward, look, the land is bright. 10
1) Harold Wilensky, The moonlighter: A product of relative deprivation, Industrial Relations: A Journal of Economy and Society, 1963.
2) Emily Campion, Brianna Caza and Sherry Moss, Multiple Jobholding: An Integrative Systematic Review and Future Research Agenda, Journal of Management, Volume 46, Issue 1, January 2020.
3) Neil Conway and Rob Briner, Understanding Psychological Contracts at Work: A Critical Evaluation of Theory and Research, Oxford University Press, 2005.
4) Visty Banaji, The Great Reciprocation: Loyalty is a two-way street, 11 July 2022, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/strategic-hr/the-great-reciprocation-loyalty-is-a-two-way-street-34519).
5) Emily Campion, Brianna Caza and Sherry Moss, Multiple Jobholding: An Integrative Systematic Review and Future Research Agenda, Journal of Management, Volume 46, Issue 1, January 2020.
6) Visty Banaji, ‘If you want people to do a good job, give them a good job to do’, 24 June 2021, (https://www.peoplematters.in/blog/life-at-work/if-you-want-people-to-do-a-good-job-give-them-a-good-job-to-do-29771).
7) Amy Wrzesniewski, Nicholas LoBuglio, Jane Dutton and Justin Berg, Job Crafting and Cultivating Positive Meaning and Identity in Work, from A B Bakker (Ed.), Advances in positive organisational psychology (pp. 281-302),. Emerald Group Publishing, 2013.
8) Visty Banaji, Big Data: Bigger performance – biggest delight, 14 January 2022, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/strategic-hr/big-data-bigger-performance-biggest-delight-32248).
9) Visty Banaji, PC in the hybrid age, 13 September 2022, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/strategic-hr/pc-in-the-hybrid-age-35265).
10) Arthur Hugh Clough, Say not the Struggle nought Availeth, from The Poems of Arthur Hugh Clough, Clarendon Press, 1974.