After Wipro terminated the services of 300 employees over them working for its competitors while being on the company’s payroll, there were conversations around the ‘legality’ and ‘ethics’ of moonlighting in India.
When the news came to light on 22 September, Wipro's executive chairman Rishad Premji said that moonlighting is a “complete violation of integrity in its deepest form,” to explain why the company had taken such a drastic move.
That's not all. Last month, he took to Twitter to say: “There is a lot of chatter about people moonlighting in the tech industry. This is cheating - plain and simple."
While the ethics of moonlighting continue to occupy centre stage especially in the tech and IT industry, speculation around how the IT giant found out that these 300 odd employees were working other jobs, have been rife.
The Quint spoke to experts to understand the different ways companies can keep track of their employees' employment records, how ethical that is, and the need for evolving conversations around dual employment in an ever-evolving work landscape.
How Could Wipro Have Found Out?
One of the possible ways that Wipro could have found out that their employees were working elsewhere, human resources and legal experts concurred, is through accessing the Universal Account Number (UAN) from the employers’ portal of the Employees’ Provident Fund.
The UAN, a 12-digit, unique number assigned to an employee in the organised sector, could have revealed that they were working at other IT firms at the same time.
However, for the details to be linked to the employee provident fund portal, the employees would have had to be employed full-time at both places.
An alternate way for Wipro to have come across the reality of their employees moonlighting is through keeping track of the laptops and smartphones given to their employees solely for office work.
“If you are using company devices for other work, it leaves traces in the company’s server. After that, the details can be tracked using those records," Arindam Mukherjee, an independent advocate specialising in labour disputes at the Supreme Court, told The Quint.
And, How Ethical Is That?
“If the data was reflected on the EPF website, employees have not been wise about it. And, in this case, the company was well within their rights to do what they did,” Mukherjee said.
He further explained that if you are a full-time employee somewhere you have access to exclusive benefits, and through this you are getting access to those benefits at both places.
"That is unethical and unacceptable," he added.
What needs to be considered here, is if the information that Wipro analysed to figure out what their employees were doing was publicly available. If not, then the termination can be questioned, Neha Yadav, an advocate specialising in labour disputes at the Delhi High Court, said.
Managing Partner at SimplyHR Solutions LLP Rajneesh Singh, who has worked with several multinationals, added that even if WIPRO tracked the devices it allotted to its employees, it would not really be considered a major violation in India.
"While this could be seen as a major violation in the US or Europe where they are fairly stringent about such things, in the Indian context, this, although unethical, wouldn’t really be frowned upon," he said.
Why Did WIPRO Choose To Take Cognisance of This Now?
Either a confidentiality breach or a drop in productivity, might have tipped the scales this time, Neha Yadav explained.
Although companies treat dual employment as an ‘open secret’ across most industries, a drastic move like this indicates a large-scale, organisation-wide problem.
“It must have been necessary for them to put out a deterrent. Maybe a lot of people started doing it recently and this was a way for them to send a message to their employees that this was unacceptable,” she said.
Further, Rajneesh Singh said that the pandemic might have changed the game for IT industries.
“Pre-pandemic, employees might have been doing it at a low-scale but ever since employees started working from home, the problem might have become rampant,” he said.
Human Resources Vice President at ST Telemedia Global Sanjeev Verma, brought up the issue of employer ‘distrust’ since the pandemic.
“Ever since work from home models started gaining traction, employer distrust has been on the rise. Employers can no longer ‘see’ what you are doing, where you are investing your time. That could have led to paranoia which ultimately led them to keep a closer eye on their employees,” he said.
'For Wipro, Data Is Sacrosanct'
Besides Wipro, major IT firms like IBM and Infosys have also been vocal critics of moonlighting.
Sandip Patel, managing director for IBM India/South Asia has said:
"At the time of joining, the company’s employees sign an agreement saying they will be working only for IBM. Notwithstanding that people can choose what to do in the rest of their time, it is not ethically right to do that [moonlighting]."
Meanwhile, Infosys shot off a missive to its employees, emphasising that dual employment is not permitted, and warned that any violation of contract clauses will trigger disciplinary action “which could even lead to termination of employment".
“No two-timing - no moonlighting!" Infosys, India’s second-largest IT services company, had said in a strong and firm message to employees last week.
But, not all companies have joined the naysayers bandwagon.
Tech Mahindra CEO C P Gurnani tweeted recently that it is necessary to keep changing with the times and added, “I welcome disruption in the ways we work."
“If you go by my word, if someone is meeting the efficiency and productivity norms, and he wants to make some extra money as long as he is not committing fraud, he is not doing something against the values and ethics of his company, I have no problem. I would like to make it a policy. So, if you want to do it, cheers to that, but be open about it," he said further, at an event last month.
In August, Swiggy announced a new "moonlighting" policy for its delivery personnel, which allows them to take up gigs or projects outside of their regular employment at the company.
While employees across the world cited Swiggy’s example to support moonlighting, RPG Group chairman Harsh Goenka pointed out that there was a fundamental difference between the two companies.
“Wipro vs Swiggy - they just can’t be compared. Wipro deals with Fortune 500 clients for whom data secrecy is sacrosanct. If the customer finds even a remote chance of data compromise, it will not be tolerated,” he said on Twitter.
What Does The Future of Moonlighting Look Like?
“Working for competitors, especially in the IT industry, is a clear violation of employment terms since it involves data and privacy breaches,” Rajneesh Singh said.
“But there are ways to work around this – Employers should have an open house discussion about this with their teams and explore which roles can be allowed moonlighting with a few conditions attached to it," he said.
"There is no straight answer to this but it is an idea that has the potential to be a win-win for both, employees and employers, if handled with transparency," he added.
The Indian IT industry body NASSCOM said something similar in a statement after the WIPRO fiasco.
NASSCOM President Debjani Ghosh pointed out that the disagreements about moonlighting arise from a lack of transparency from employees, as it breaks down the trust with their employer.
"The problem happens when you are a full time worker and you decide to pursue other opportunities without informing your current employer about your decision. That's where the trust between employer and employees breaks down. That's the problem that we have to figure out how to fix," Ghosh said.
She added that companies should upgrade with changing employee engagement models in the post pandemic time.
"The pandemic has made us rethink many things. We have to completely reimagine our employee engagement model for hybrid working," she explained.
"We have to embrace two models, one is having full time employees onboard and other is engaging with gig workers. Doing multiple jobs is not the problem but its about how you do it. If the employer is willing to keep gig workers on board, knowing fully that you are working with other companies, that should not be a problem," Ghosh added.
‘Moonlighting Is Not The Problem, Something Far More Fundamental Is'
Meanwhile, netizens on Twitter reacted strongly to WIPRO sacking its employees. Conversations around the ‘need for moonlighting’ in the first place gained ground.
“Pay people better, they won’t moonlight or leave,” Akshat Shrivastava said.
The debate shouldn't even be around better laws on moonlighting but something far more fundamental, Arindam Mukherjee concurred.
“Instead of looking at new legislation around moonlighting, I think it is necessary to frame better laws around improved wages, flexible work timings and a healthier work atmosphere,” he told The Quint.