In Whose Best Interest? Wearing Two Hats

How many hats do you wear? By day you work hard serving your customers, solving problems, and being a part of your company’s team. By night you may change character into an entrepreneur or part-time worker somewhere else. Maybe you sell vitamins, kitchen utensils, wire homes on the weekends, or pull an extra night shift. Whether out of necessity or a hobby, you shuffle from job to job keeping the two worlds apart trading one hat for another. When they collide, you have a conflict of interest.

A conflict of interest occurs when your personal interests influence your ability to act in the best interest of the company. In this case, your personal interest creates a conflict as you use your employment skills in some other capacity to increase your income (i.e. a second job). A conflict occurs when these resources mingle. It comes when your time, energy, or influence while wearing one hat conflicts with another.

Most companies don’t mind employees working outside jobs. For most of us, it’s a matter of survival to have more than one income. A conflict of interest dilemma occurs when we cross the ethical line that our company establishes to keep the two apart.

Before you sail off into the “moonlight,” consider the following areas of conflict:

Conflict of Competition: Over the years you may have acquired certain skills on the job that can be utilized elsewhere to provide a little extra income on the side. You’ve learned how to fix something or understand a topic in a way others don’t. You must be very careful that your side job does not compete with your employer or aid a competitor.

For example, if you work for a phone company then you shouldn’t install phone systems on the weekends. If you sell securities by day for one company, you should not sell them for another company at night. Ask yourself, “If I did not provide the service on the side, would they go to my employer?” If the answer is “yes” in any stretch of the imagination, then you have a conflict of interest. The consequences can be harsh, including termination, costly lawsuits and repayment of lost income by your employer.

Conflict of Time: Remember the deal you made with your employer? They pay you a certain amount of money in exchange for your valuable time. Now, many people invent a loophole that says any “extra” or “down” time during the day is theirs to keep. The key is to remember who owns that “free time” during your day (not you but the employer).

The fact is, you would get in as much trouble for running your side-job in the slow times as in the busy times. If your second job is so successful that you must devote more time than your breaks, lunches, and off-work time allows, then you should consider taking the plunge and heading out on your own full-time.

Conflict of Resources: Whether or not you have a competition or time conflict, there’s always the temptation for using company resources for personal gain. Often, it’s not the big stuff that gets you into trouble, but the many little things that add up to a conflict of interest. Your busy side-business may require you to use the company computer, small office supplies, telephone, copier or postage meter. However tempting and minute the cost, you should have a strict personal ethical policy to never use company property for your business no matter what the size.

Company resources might include use of tools, equipment, or facilities. It might be convenient to have a van full of tools at your service to fix your clogged bathroom drain, but plumbing your neighbor’s house would be stepping over the line. You need to use common sense and do your homework about what is appropriate or not.

Conflict of Intelligence: Every employee has access to some kind of proprietary information. Unlike physical property, the information you carry inside your head follows you everywhere. In some cases this information can be profitable in your side-business. Remember that you should not use or disclose company information while working on your second-job. This means that customer lists, databases, sales data, procedures, formulas, or any other proprietary information must stay with the company. Again, the consequences can be quite costly.

There’s nothing wrong with diversifying your life by pursuing outside interests. Not only does it provide extra income but it allows you independence, an outlet for creativity, and room for personal growth. You need to stay informed and be aware of where the ethical boundaries lie. When you change hats at the end of the day, remember that you shouldn’t have to worry about a conflict of interest as long as that hat you’re wearing is your own.