Is it cheating to work on your side gig at the office?

Our advice columnist delves into the novel dilemmas created by the new ways we work

As the space between work and not-work becomes ever more blurred, questions about how to do this thing we plug away at for 30 or 40 or 70 hours a week become all the more expansive. In this column, Work Flow, we’ll delve into the novel dilemmas created by the new ways we work, as well as timeless questions about ethics, gender assumptions, and toxic work situations (and how to escape them). How we work is an important component of how we live—and we’re here to help you do better at both.

Something messing with your flow? Unload your work problems here, and you’ll not only feel heard, but you’ll also get unbiased, real-world advice. (That’s something your work sibling/spouse just can’t offer.) Tell us everything: ideasbywe@wework.com.

I love my full-time job. I work at least 10 hours a day. But I also have a side hustle, and inevitably, I spend some of my time at my full-time job responding to emails or doing a certain amount of work with regard to the side business—having an occasional phone call or even taking a meeting I couldn’t really do off-hours. Is this unethical? My bosses know, and they have been supportive so far, but I’m very sensitive about the ethical implications.
Before we get to ethics, let’s start with practice: You should double-check that you’re legally in the clear here. Look at your contract or employment agreement. Does it say anything about your employer’s rights to work you do on the premise or with their property? If you’re using your work computer or work email (avoid this!) to do other business, you may not technically own the rights to that other work at all, including any ideas or content—whatever it is—you develop while on the job. Take a look at all that, ask HR for a copy of the employee handbook (if there is one), and see where you stand. Change anything that might land you in hot water and try to create boundaries as much as possible, like doing a call on your cellphone outside instead of on an office conference line.

If you find out that the company indeed has a restrictive-rights clause, schedule a quick call with a lawyer to explain what’s going on and see what you might do to remedy the situation. Don’t freak. Because your bosses are aware and have been supportive of what you’re doing, it seems that you’re not doing anything that’s a serious problem—yet. You might be able to get some written permission from them that would cover you (I suggest talking to a lawyer about this before bringing it up to human resources and your bosses).

On to the ethics: Technically, sure, your time at work should be devoted purely to work, and home time to home, and so forth, but we live in times when the barriers between life and work are fading and fluctuating, and may not exist at all. There’s a very good chance that you’re doing work outside of the office—thinking, responding to emails, scheduling meetings, and so forth, maybe more—just as there is a very good (say 100 percent) chance that we’re all doing a certain amount of non-work business (doctor’s appointments, necessary phone calls, leaving early for kid’s pickup) during work time. The question, I think, is how to be human about it, and how to do the right thing.

If you’re being honest and direct with your bosses, and getting your work done on time and at the quality level expected of you—if your main priority is not sacrificed for the side hustle—I think it’s ethically OK to be doing what you’re doing.

To be safe, after consulting your contract and potentially a lawyer, have another conversation with HR and/or your bosses to set up any parameters that make you all feel better about what you’re doing when. (I find being direct is usually the best course of action, even when it’s scary.) Explain to them how your side hustle actually helps you at your job, or you’re learning stuff doing this new thing that will also be applicable to your full-time gig. Read up on how letting employees spend 20 percent of their time on side projects helps Google, for instance, and mention that, too. Companies tend to like a bottom line that helps them.

If, over time, your side hustle starts to become your priority—or if the arrangement ceases to work—that’s your cue to do things differently. Oh yeah, and don’t ever bill your employer for time spent on your side hustle, but you already knew that.

I’m a freelance writer and have been working on a piece that was supposed to take a month. Due to edits and revisions, it’s been four times that already. I’m ready to give up, but I don’t want to ruin things with my editor/client. How can I inquire about the size of a kill fee while maintaining the option of, “I’ll keep working on this?” I can’t even keep track of the back and forth anymore! And it would be really nice to get paid something soon.
The short answer is, you probably can’t. However, you can look at the contract you signed with this company, which likely says exactly what the kill fee will be (typically 25 percent of the full fee). And you can then decide what to do next based on what you know: Have you written for this place/person before? Are you on good terms? Have you always delivered, and is this particular piece just cursed for some reason and needs to die? (It happens!) Weigh the options—if you’ve never written for them before and want to do it again, keep working; if this is a regular client and you normally have a swell time of it, maybe this is an outlier that’s as hard for your editor as it is for you, and you’d both be relieved to walk away.

Before you talk killing, have a phone call with your editor. Recap the many rounds you’ve been through and explain that you’re still struggling. Then ask questions. Is there an example of what the editor is looking for that they can send for your reference? How do you get on the same page with what the goals are? How can your editor help you do your job? It’s not too late. Pick up the phone.

This question gets at one of the biggest challenges of freelancing: It’s not just about doing the work; you also have to manage your cashflow in uncertain times, when companies take 30 or 45 or even 90 days to pay you, and when that countdown clock doesn’t even start, sometimes, until an article runs. Killing a piece doesn’t actually mean you haven’t done the same work—or maybe more!— that you would do if it were to run.

So, instead of a kill fee, I’d ask for a partial payment. Explain, “This project has gone far beyond the original scope”—whether in terms of time or in terms of content, or both—and ask, “Would it be possible to pay me for a portion of it, and I’ll invoice for the rest when it runs?” There’s nothing wrong with an editor wanting more or asking you to revise—but at some point, if you haven’t gotten paid for something for months, you’re going to start accruing credit card debt and also deep resentments (along with wondering if this is the job for you in the first place). A little cash is incentive to keep going, and it commits both players to the task at hand: making it work.

If something truly is causing you undue pain, do not prolong it longer than is truly necessary. You have options, though they will have repercussions. Say “I’m so sorry, it’s just not working, I’m going to have to step aside from this project”—but know that you might be sacrificing future work from this editor, and possibly even the kill fee.

In a lot of ways, birthing a piece is like labor. Once you get there, you’ll forget about the pain and you can gaze upon your precious new family member in delight, and pretty soon you’ll want to have another baby. No one said any of this was supposed to be easy. But if you find a relationship with a particular editor or client is needlessly hard, it may be time to stop working with that person. There are others. Choose the ones that pay on time, and with whom the work is as enjoyable as possible… considering it’s still work.

How do you deal with someone who keeps humming in the office? It’s my co-worker, it happens constantly, and I have not yet said anything about it.
While it’s happening, in a friendly way: “Hey, do you mind not humming? I’m not sure if you know you’re doing it, but it’s really distracting to me. Thank you so much!” Follow up as necessary. And maybe invest in noise-canceling headphones?

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