Wipro moonlighting Rajeev
Domestic IT firms will need to engage with employees more intensely to solve rising attrition. File photo shows Wipro Chairman Rishad Premji (left), who is for strict action against moonlighting, with MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar, who is supportive of IT employees.

Techies may have grouses, but moonlighting can never be kosher

Wipro may be right to fire staffers caught moonlighting, but it may also have inadvertently created an atmosphere of fear among employees in all companies

The controversy over moonlighting received a response from unexpected quarters last week, when Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Union Minister of State for Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, defended employees engaging in such side hustles.

The term “moonlighting” stems from the assumption that it is done at night, after office hours. Rishad Premji, the chairman of IT services behemoth Wipro Ltd, recently brought it out of the closet and backed up his strong stance on the issue with decisive action.

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Wipro fired 300 employees last week on the suspicion of their working for other companies while in its employment. Twitterati, as expected, pounced on Premji, accusing him of being harsh. Many argued that Wipro should improve its working environment before issuing pink slips to “truant” employees.

Warning to WFH employees?

This begs the following question: now that the lake beds and rajakaluves — on which rest the residences of billionaires, including start-up founders and IT company heads — have dried up, are the moonlighting charges levelled against employees a result of the extended run of the work from home (WFH) option, which they do not want to give up anytime soon?

In some ways, firing employees may be a signal to them that they will always be suspected of making money on the side if they do not return to office as soon as possible. The suspicion stems from the employer’s belief that employees have enough free time working from home to indulge in such “vices.” The premise might seem far-fetched, but Wipro has proved that the practice of moonlighting is on the rise.

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Barring a few exceptions, no amount of persuasion has made employees return to work. Those forced to work from office have quit their jobs and joined companies that allow them to WFH. Premji, on his part, has simply read the Riot Act to errant employees and weeded them out of the system.

Wipro is right, but…

There is nothing wrong with what his company has done, despite concern from one of Narendra Modi’s ministers. Employees cannot complain that their employers were unjust because they willingly signed up for the job, with embedded clauses forbidding them from working for other companies. Several other companies may start wielding the axe on such “errant” employees sooner rather than later.

What Wipro may have inadvertently created with its recent decision is an atmosphere of fear and doom among employees in almost all companies. Extending this argument further, you may find promotions and raises being denied to employees based solely on suspicion. After all, proving otherwise is the responsibility of the HR department, which also provides incentives to employees.

The Indian IT services sector is facing several challenges it has never faced before. IT companies’ margins are shrinking, and employers are clueless about how they can arrest rising attrition. Employee incentives and promotions have had little impact so far. Several brokerage firms have kept an underweight position in Indian IT stocks. Domestic IT firms will need to engage with employees more intensely to solve rising attrition.

How side hustles hurt

Chandrasekhar, who stated that moonlighting is the “future of work,” but added a caveat that employees should never violate contractual obligations, ran a highly successful telecom company employing thousands in his early days. He still owns several businesses, including a few media outlets. Therefore, his current stance may be an attempt to dispel the notion that his government favours big business.

It is an admirable attempt, but it falls short. That several successful start-ups have emerged from such side hustles is no reason to defend employees who work two jobs. Such efforts to justify a wrong that may eventually lead to a positive outcome cannot be supported.

Full-time employees are paid to work full-time and be a part of a company’s success story. It may result in better benefits, such as foreign assignments, paid holidays, promotions, and eventually even the opportunity to lead them, as Satya Nadella and Sundar Pichai did after working for years in their respective organisations. A side hustle would have served as a distraction more than anything else.

While it is critical to weed out such moonlighting efforts when they reach the surface, it is also critical to carry out such acts without making them public. Moonlighting has always been a part of the corporate sector across continents, but highlighting it now demonstrates that the intent may have been different from what everyone assumed. If employers want their employees to return to offices, they will need to roll out better incentives — more innovative than the previous ones.

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