Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
Remote work has made lots of new things possible for those allowed to do it: We can do laundry while we work, excise commuting from our lives, and not worry about infecting colleagues when we have a cold. But it’s made something else possible too: a surge in people who are secretly working two or more full-time jobs without their employers’ knowledge.
If you don’t have to show up at an office every day, the thinking seems to go, what’s to stop you from accepting multiple remote jobs and trying to do them all at once, while you collect multiple salaries? One obvious answer to that question is the workload involved. If a job is supposed to take 40 hours a week or more to do satisfactorily, can you really perform well if you’re doing two simultaneously? And then there are the logistics. Many jobs are meeting-heavy or require you to jump on the phone without much advance notice, which can be tricky if you’re currently in a Zoom meeting for your other job.
And yet … some people are doing it. There’s even an entire subreddit devoted to it (called, amusingly, “Overemployed”). And some employers are finding it surprisingly hard to put a stop to.
One manager who wrote to me said he’s seen employees hiding a second job explain their poor performance or lack of responsiveness by making up excuses that play on their employer’s sympathies:
This is becoming surprisingly common, with some people working as many as four jobs at once. We have been burned by this several times, costing us key partnerships and customers due to lack of performance.
The worst of these types will claim sick children, dead relatives, and other similar excuses to play on your emotions and drag out the extra paycheck as long as they can.
Others don’t seem to try to hide what they’re doing at all. One person wrote this to me:
A good friend is facing a problem with one of his employees. Members of his team are convinced that a poor performing colleague, let’s call her Ariel, has a second full-time job. She joined the fully remote team late last year. Her colleagues have observed a pattern of her frequently looking at a second laptop (the company did not provide her with this equipment) while on video calls, dropping on and off camera constantly, and appearing to be speaking while on mute despite being alone, and she denies all of this behavior when asked about it. She also generally fails to remember the most basic of information about where team documents live. Her manager is working on documenting the issues and putting together a PIP for Ariel.
Ariel also does not list her role at the company on her LinkedIn or mention the company (despite being fairly active on the platform).
Here’s what I heard from an employee who’s exhausted from filling in for a colleague he’s pretty sure is working a second job:
We recently hired a new scrum master for our team. Until he was hired, I was filling in for a few months in addition to serving as a product owner for two teams. The person we hired interviewed really well, but has not been working out as expected. … He will regularly ask me to fill in at the last minute or will take off unexpectedly and not arrange for coverage. On two recent meetings, he has left his phone unmuted and we can hear another meeting unmuted in the background. Based on what is being said, I can tell it is another project-related meeting but does not include any participants from our team. It is highly unlikely that it is a simultaneous meeting for our company. … I am at the point where I am getting burned out.
But some people working multiple jobs insist they’re not harming anyone. Here’s what one person working two full-time director-level jobs (paying around $200,000 each) told me:
I just started doing this a month ago. I wasn’t happy at my old company, started job searching this summer, received two job offers relatively quickly, and accepted both. I now work remotely for two Silicon Valley–based companies. The companies are not competitors, suppliers, or customers of each other. …
I’m a very conscientious person, don’t accept mediocrity, and intend to do great work. … So far I’ve been able to handle competing responsibilities. Regarding time-sensitive conflicts—both jobs are strategic, and in general I don’t have tactical, concrete work products with due dates. I know what my goals are and can plan activities well in advance. If there are crises going on with different companies’ customers at once, I treat it no differently than if I had time conflicts at one job—I prioritize and do what I can. This means working whatever hours are needed to take care of business, but so far am averaging ~50 hours/week.
My leadership is flexible and supportive, and stays off my back as long as I’m accomplishing my goals. … I’m able to manage my own calendar and request new meeting times if there are conflicts. The hardest part is travel (both job postings stated about 25 percent travel each) but I communicate availability well in advance, and of course many people are open to Zoom meetings instead of face-to-face anymore. … I’m not listed on either company’s website (only C-levels are listed at both), and I deleted my LinkedIn account.
Nine months later, she updated me to say she was still working both jobs, had received positive performance reviews at both, and even received a performance-related raise at one of them. She asked me, “I feel like the worst thing I’m doing is taking away a job from someone else, but there’s not exactly a shortage of jobs right now. I understand this is a likely fireable offense, but why?”
That’s an interesting question. Aside from potential conflicts of interest (which can be serious), the obvious answer is that employers tend to believe they’ve purchased their employees’ full attention during work hours. Yes, you might take a personal call or watch a video on YouTube, but the assumption historically has been that you’re not doing an entire second job for a different company during your hours for the first one. And if you are working two jobs simultaneously, even if you’re getting all your work done, are you getting it done as well as you would be if your attention weren’t divided? In a lot of jobs, even if you were doing the minimum required in each position, there would be opportunity costs: You wouldn’t have the time to step back and examine the work more strategically, spot patterns, innovate, or otherwise go above and beyond.
It’s worth noting, too, that workers making the least money are probably least positioned to do this. It’s an option available only to remote workers with a decent amount of flexibility, who tend to be better paid to begin with. Sticking it to the man in this way is not going to upend social inequality.
However, those who defend “overemployment” point out that if it’s such a problem for employers, managers should be able to spot it. If someone is routinely distracted in meetings, unavailable when needed, or generally not performing at a high enough level, those are all things a manager should address, regardless of what’s causing it. Good managers should always be doing things like working closely with new hires so they can spot problems and course-correct early, setting clear goals and monitoring progress against them, and being direct about problems. Doing that will ferret out trouble, whether it’s caused by someone working two full-time jobs, playing online all day, or just not having the skills needed to do the work. In a lot of these cases, the root of the issue is that the manager isn’t paying enough attention or is being too passive.
When that’s not the case—when the employee is performing well, meeting goals, and available when needed—is it really such a problem? Managers have an instinctive horror at the thought of someone secretly working a second job during their work hours for the first, but if they can’t point to any problems resulting from it … why? Maybe it’s time to rethink that.
Perhaps, too, employers should ask themselves what would drive someone to lie about having multiple jobs. Maybe it has something to do with how many employers ignore inflation when they’re setting salaries and giving raises, and that the cost of living has increased so much in many areas that people are being priced out of places they’ve lived for years. Moreover, for years now, employers have been understaffing and expecting employees to do the work of multiple roles for no increase in pay. Perhaps it’s inevitable that some of them have decided that if they’re going to be overworked, they’re going to benefit from it.