Robin Hood and William Tell would have understood the concept. As would have Arjuna and Ekalavya. Having a second string to your bow is always a good idea. If one string breaks, you have a ‘stepney’ that ensures you can still send your arrows flying.
Concert violinists recognise the same reality. In fact, their bows have multiple strings. We can recall the greatest of them, from Yehudi Menuhin to L Shankar, gamely playing on, even as a string or two snapped.
Young professionals in India, particularly those in the technology sectors, have intuitively imbibed the lessons about a second string during the last 30 months or so, of Covid-induced work disruptions. This saw the emergence of work-from-home (WFH) as a widely practiced strategy.
Like the urumi or flexible sword used in the ancient Kerala martial arts of kalaripayattu, WFH turned out to be a double-edged weapon. It gave professionals the ability to continue doing their jobs, without having to go to an office or punch a time clock.
It had its technical challenges, but the pay kept coming — well almost: There are no statistics about how many employers effectively reduced the take-home pay of their staff by suspending many work-place related allowances and subsidies.
And with recession staring at many industries, there have been many months since 2020, when no one knew if he or she would still have a job after three or six or nine months.
Many, especially those with marketable skills in coding, decided to activate that ‘second string’, to do some low-key work for another employer, that brought in some extra money — a nest egg in case the main employment collapsed.
The name of the game was ‘moonlighting’, working a nine-to-five job, then staying up late — by the light of the moon, so to speak’ — to work for another outfit, usually in another time zone.
Mostly it worked; mostly no one knew or cared — till some greedy guys overdid it.
There is a story, possibly apocryphal, doing the rounds, of a Bengaluru professional whose moonlighting expanded to embrace seven different jobs. He was found out because he had multiple provident fund (PF) accounts.
It is this detail about PF that leads one to doubt the veracity of the story, because people who do more than one job don’t see this as a long-term career move and mostly, they just take the money and put it away for a bad day.
At any rate, a few cases like this, real or fabled, have suddenly brought moonlighting into the front and centre of the public discourse. It is good to have two sharp sides to your urumi, but if you don’t leap out of the way, you can end up cutting your own legs.
‘Cheating — Plain And Simple’
Revelations about the prevalent moonlighting practices have been accorded by the business media, the familiar breathless shock-and-awe treatment of all those round-the-clock ‘breaking news’ streamers on the more excitable television news channels ( and they can be treated likewise). But some have risen to the bait:
Wipro chairman Rishad Premji, son of founder and philanthropist Azim Premji, in a widely reported tweet wrote: "There is a lot of chatter about people moonlighting in the tech industry. This is cheating — plain and simple.”
Mr Premji Jr’s thundering words would not be out of place in one of those workhouse settings in a Dickensian novel.
Of course, he is legally correct.
But enough people observed that they came in the same week when Wipro announced it was going to withhold the variable component of pay for all its mid-to-senior staff starting from July 2022, because to quote a report in Business Standard on 26 August, which shared the internal e-mail Wipro sent to its employers, “Our Q1 margins were lower at 15%....Given our underperformance on margins this quarter, our variable pay, including sales incentives, takes a hit.”
To paraphrase, "We — or rather you — didn’t perform hard enough, so you get to take home less."
Wipro’s top leadership apparently doesn’t share the responsibility for “our underperformance”: A Hindu Businessline story just days three earlier, said Wipro’s chief executive officer Thierry Delaporte drew an annual Rs 79.8 crore — representing a 20 per cent hike in his emoluments.
A report in The (Sunday) New Indian Express on 28 August, highlighted that two other IT bellwethers, Infosys and TCS had also delayed or reduced the variable component of pay of some class of employees.
Infosys reduced the variable pay element by 30 per cent for the quarter from June 2022, though its shareholders found no irony earlier this year, in upping its CEO Salil Parekh's salary by a cool 43 per cent to Rs 73 lakh.
TCS, whose CEO Rajesh Gopinathan saw himself taking home Rs 25.77 crore or 27 per cent more this year, clarified later that it was not reducing the variable element of its staff’s pay after all.
We couldn’t say it better than the HBL headline: “IT firms defer variable payouts but CEOs get richer”.
There is no suggestion that they reduced staff salaries, but it is still worth noting that the highest paid professional CEO of an Indian tech company is C Vijaykumar of HCL Tech, whose last reported salary was Rs 123.13 crore, a hike of 74 per cent.
Tech Mahindra’s CP Gurnani saw the sharpest hike in salary in recent months — up 189 per cent to Rs 63.4 crore.
All CEOs are equal but some are clearly more equal than others. Did someone say the tech industry just came through very difficult Covid pandemic times?
There is some pardonable cynicism, when employers whose creme-de-la-creme are so generously compensated during so-called Hard Times, bleat about staff who try to sneak in a second income to make ends meet.
If You Can’t Fight ‘Em, Join ‘Em!
Ethics aside, some enterprises seem to have embraced that robust mantra: ‘If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.’
In a highly praised blog on 3 August, Swiggy announced that its “new policy enables employees to pick up gigs outside the company”.
They called moonlighting what it was and squarely faced up to it:
“What if we told you that you can do your full-time job at Swiggy and pick up additional projects outside work, and the company will support you to engage in them? Well, that’s exactly what Swiggy’s latest employee-first — ‘Moonlighting Policy’ — is all about….”
“Swiggy trusts that its employees can excel in their performance, while picking up interesting projects outside work. Which is why the team came up with the policy.”
“Over the last two years, we observed that some of our employees were getting opportunities to render gig services, leveraging their professional skills outside work. Some even discovered new hobbies during the lockdown and have been keen to pursue them now because they find time due to remote-first ways of working.”
We quote this statement at some length, because it brings to the discussion, some common sense, even charm — not a chabook. And it even allows for the possibility that an employee moonlighting may not even be about money but a volunteering of one’s time for some societal tasks.
Workforce Hopes And Fears
Such positive thinking by at least one corporate entity has somewhat cooled tempers all around. It has also focussed attention on some of the motivations for techies to consider doing double duty: two truths stand out:
As early as May 2022, a survey by PwC ( formerly PricewaterhouseCoopers) titled Global Workforce Hopes and Fears Survey 2022, warned an industry that was already facing very high attrition and a wave of resignations by employees when asked to re-join duty:
“If the ‘great resignation’ has taught employers anything, it’s to not take their workers for granted. Yet many companies risk doing exactly that—whether it’s by not paying close enough attention to skilled workers who are at elevated risk of quitting, by failing to support workers who seek personal fulfillment and meaning at work…”
The survey found the following, with specific reference to India:
— A significantly higher proportion of Indian employees (71 per cent) are concerned about being overlooked for career advancement as compared to their global peers (21 per cent).
— More than half of the respondents in the survey are concerned about the lack of opportunities to work with or learn technological skills.
— Twenty-nine per cent of respondents said their country lacks people with the skills needed to perform their job. Countries with the biggest perceived gap in skills include Thailand, India and Brazil.
— Further, 32 per cent say they plan to leave the workforce. Millennials (age 26-41) are the most likely to seek new employment, with 37 per cent indicating that they are likely to switch employers in the next 12 months. Gen Z (18-25 years old) employees are less likely to quit, but 33 per cent of them are extremely or very likely to ask for a reduction in work hours.
These numbers should serve as an amber sign for employers: Staff are telling them: "You are not training us to upskill; we are worried about not getting timely promotions; we know our skills are in short supply; if things don’t improve, we will leave."
Moonlighting can be looked upon as a disease that should somehow be rooted out. Or it can be viewed as an early indicator of widespread staff disaffection and restlessness.
Their doing a second job may have a simple explanation: they are insecure in their present job and want to ensure they have a fallback option if the chop comes.
Employers can catch and discipline the ‘cheaters’ — or they can read the message ‘blowin’ in the wind’ and provide the job security and career paths that make it unnecessary to cheat in the first place.
In another classic call to the ruler-employee class, Bob Dylan warned : The Times, they are a-changin. Almost sixty years ago, he foresaw a time when the young set the rules — and the old ignored them at their peril.
Today a 'new normal' is evolving, where the very idea of work has assumed a new hybrid avatar.
Some industry watchers like ex-Infosys director Mohandas Pai, recognise the angst and the aspirations of the new workforce and the challenge it poses to traditionally moulded employers. In a recent interview in Business Today, he said:
“The IT industry has been exploiting freshers for the last ten years. There has been no increase in compensation, freshers are being paid the same Rs 3.5-3.8 lakh which the companies were paying in 2008-09… If any sacrifices need to be made, senior people should make them... How can a senior person take a hike in salary when you aren't paying juniors more? Treat them like human beings, not like midgets.”
Dylan put it more eloquently: “Don't criticize/ What you can't understand/Your sons and your daughters/Are beyond your command/ Your old road is rapidly aging'.”
Moonlighting may sound like a minor misdemeanour today. As Swiggy had the prescience to see, it could well end up as part and parcel of a 'New Work Normal' tomorrow.
Anand Parthasarathy is managing director at Online India Tech Pvt Ltd and a veteran IT journalist who has written about the Indian technology landscape for more than 15 years for The Hindu.
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