Moonlighting has become a hot topic ever since Wipro’s Executive Chairman Rishad Premji called it “plain and simple cheating”. Many industry captains have jumped onto the bandwagon to share their views liberally on the subject matter and most of them are against it, barring CP Gurnani of Tech Mahindra. In a tweet he wrote, “My thoughts on the trending 'M word'... It's necessary to keep changing with the times, and as always, I welcome disruption in the ways we work”.

For those who have joined this conversation late, moonlighting is nothing but taking on assignments outside of one’s regular day jobs, and may I add, full-time jobs. There are many who will support his view as it is a breach of contract, but the IT industry is fraught with human resource problems that it cannot wish away.

Moonlighting trends

Moonlighting may have become a conversation point in India now, but it has been a trend that’s been on the uptick in the United States since 1996. According to US Census Bureau’s Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics, multiple jobholding rate has increased to 7.2% in 2018 from 6.8% in 1996.

More women in the US hold multiple jobs than men. In the US, employers tend to put in place policies for employees that require disclosures from them to avoid conflict of interest and use of office resources for other jobs. It is time, employers in India recognise the writing on the wall instead of using strong-arm tactics that will further alienate employees.

Moonlighting has been around for the longest time and professionals from creative industries have toyed with the idea, but it has become mainstream only after the pandemic.

SIMPLY PUT: Moonlighting is wrong... but is it really?
Moonlighting has become mainstream only after the pandemicTenor

Why is the workforce disengaged?

Before vilifying their employees, threatening them or by throwing the employee code at them, industry captains need to smell the coffee and ask themselves if they are in any way responsible for the disengagement that most of the IT workforce feels. Work from home may have enabled more people to explore moonlighting compared but the real cause is not that.

At the start of the pandemic, WFH seemed like a very good idea to the bosses of IT companies as it led to enormous savings for them from the September quarter of FY2021. As costs declined, margins jumped and stocks rallied.

Not surprisingly, the companies were willing to make this a permanent feature and were looking to repurpose their large tech parks and real estate. Two years down the line, they are taking to Twitter and calling their employees unethical and in doing so have put the spotlight on their “people problem” yet again.

The pandemic has only accentuated the problem of disgruntled employees and their cry for better wages. While many of my friends who head human resource functions tell me that moonlighting is a breach of contract, people practices of India’s large IT companies can surely improve from where they are right now.

Time on Floor

Scratch beneath the surface or better still visit Glassdoor or Quora and search for “Time on Floor” and you will find horrifying stories of how India’s IT companies are run. One employee from a leading IT services company in Bangalore told me that he had to clock a number of hours on his seat while he was on a project, which had to add up to eight hours or more and to achieve his target he curtailed his toilet breaks and even time eating his lunch.

In 2017, one tech services major sacked women who had returned from maternity leave and another one in Kolkata stopped providing women employees transport to and from the campus.

The “chatter around moonlighting” has only come as the latest pain point for an industry that has found it hard to manage its people or keep them happy, which is perhaps why they rely so heavily on freshers.

Moonlighting is a problem that may have surfaced after the pandemic started in 2020 and work-from-home gave people the latitude to explore other avenues of income since they were not sitting in office and saving on time.

There is a deeper malaise that tech companies in India need to address upfront as the Big Techs are doing in Silicon Valley.

Problem of disgruntled employees is not new

From times immemorial, the IT industry in India has been battling high attrition levels and margin pressure due to wage hikes. Given the sheer number of employees that each of these companies have, it is hard to create a sense of ownership, loyalty and engagement.

Nearly two decades ago, at a town hall of a large IT company, the much respected founder was asked why the variable pay was not paid out despite the very high growth trajectory of the company – those days some IT companies were growing by 100% year-on-year. The venerated founder told him that the company had its own internal goals, which were not met, therefore, the variable pay was not given.

Wages at IT services companies are a lever to manage margins and to keep costs under check, thousands of freshers are hired each year. Any industry that treats employees like labour and not capital are bound to see low engagement and commitment levels.

SIMPLY PUT: Moonlighting is wrong... but is it really?
Tech CEO salaries zoomed in a decade while fresher salaries remained stableBI India

One only needs to compare the wage growth of senior management with that of freshers to see the disparity. Between 2012 and 2022 the salary of the CEO of Infosys grew from ₹80 lakh to ₹79.75 crore, while that of freshers rose from ₹2.75 lakh to ₹3.6 lakh. The story is no different for the other big IT services players (see table). Town Halls, Quora and Glassdoor are a testimony of this trend.

Are employee unions the answer?

In a bid to improve the working conditions of the IT and ITES sectors and make these companies adopt better human resource policies, employees came together to form a union in November 2017. The labour department in Karnataka certified the formation of the Karnataka State IT/ITES Employees Union (KITU) under the Trade Union Act 1926 and Karnataka Trade Unions Regulations 1958.

The first such trade union was born in the midst of large scale retrenchment by the industry in 2017. The trade unions never took off as few employees were willing to join the union. But it does not take away the problem people have with their employers.

One would wonder why would white collar workers want to come together and fight for their rights considering they are already privileged and enjoy “higher salaries” and free lunches?

There is a reason as tech workers across the globe are pushing back practices of their employers be it on their business practices or treatment of outspoken employees. Tech workers across Silicon Valley too are looking at organising themselves to push their employers to adopt policies that are more inclusive.

An article by The Washington Post in April 2021 says, “Union advocates say discrimination faced by women and people of colour at the tech companies proves the need for stronger worker protections. Unions can also be a way for workers to have their voices heard about the issues they have with decisions executives are making, such as — which politicians to give money to or whether to sell software to the military and police.” Unlike the industrial age, the white collar unions are today seeking answers to bigger questions on equity, treatment of employees and broader company policies.