Many employees have filled their days at home with more work, feeling pressure to prove themselves (iStock / iStock)
When the worker gets called on simultaneously in both meetings—it happens—he drops one call, answers the other’s query and then pops back onto the "dropped" call. Sorry, he had a network issue. What was the question again?
Even better: Evade the meeting altogether. He often tells colleagues he doesn’t think their issue requires a call, and he can help them faster on Slack.
"People love it because they’re like, ‘This guy just gets [stuff] done. He’s not wasting his time in these meetings,’ " he says.
One software engineer in Europe who has held down two jobs for most of the past few years says he was confused by the scene in his office when he first started working as a developer several years ago. Everyone looked so busy, but it didn’t seem like they were getting much done. Was he just a superfast, talented developer?
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"I think because I was new to the business I didn’t fully understand the unwritten rules," says the man, who gave up his most recent second job in June but plans to try for a second one again in September.
He took on his first double gig in 2018, telling his original company he would be attending a cybersecurity course in London. He moved there for several months, spent the hours he was supposedly at the nonexistent class at a new contract assignment, and earned an extra $350 a day. He has since cycled through several other remote double jobs, varying his use of video on calls so it won’t look weird if he needs to go audio-only and using two laptops, with the
speakers muted on one, to pull off double-booked meetings.
Once, he unmuted his speaker too quickly before turning off the sound on the other laptop. For five seconds, Meeting One could hear Meeting Two. He cringed. No one noticed.
Nearly giving the game away
Anybody who lives a double life for long enough will experience a close call. One worker was confused about his compensation and pulled up his pay stub to show his manager the discrepancy. To his horror, the paystub from his other job was listed on the same platform. He quickly stopped sharing his screen, telling his manager he didn’t feel comfortable showing his paycheck.
A data scientist in Richmond, Va., was surprised when his boss suddenly reached out for a video call—the team never did video calls—while he was teaching a coding class at his secret second job. He told the students to take a 10-minute break and jumped on his other computer. Overemployed has a list of possible moves and excuses for those in a pickle, like an imaginary call from a child’s school.
The data scientist had long been frustrated by the pace at his big bank.
"I just felt like I wasn’t doing anything," he says. He wanted to do contracting work on the side, but stuck in the office, it felt impossible. When the pandemic sent him home in March of 2020, he saw his chance, and began working for three other companies.
"I had nothing to do," he says of those early locked-down months. "It was the perfect time to try something."
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Soon he was working 100-hour weeks. Little of it was for his original job. Eventually, his manager confronted him, asking him to ramp up his effort.
"My initial reaction was like, ‘I’m working so hard. How would you even say that?’ " he says. "I guess from his perspective it looked like I wasn’t doing anything."
He eventually left his main job and took a full-time job, with benefits, at one of his other companies, negotiating an employment contract that gave him the ability to do work on the side.
"Now I feel totally free," he says.
Workers still playing the game say they worry constantly about someone catching on. Yet they simultaneously feel their experiments in double work have finally given them a sense of control. Even if companies start calling people back to the office—whether this fall, or further down the line—those with two jobs say the world of remote work has gotten big enough to give them options. One woman in Atlanta, who was working for an insurance company and a telecommunications company, scoffed when one of her employers sent an email outlining a tentative return-to-work plan. Then a colleague started encroaching on her projects.
handed in her notice and quickly landed another second job.
"I now have leverage," she says.
She recently hired a personal assistant, who sits in on calls when she is double-booked and alerts her if she is needed in a meeting.
"Am I trying to be, like, a five-star employee?" she says. "Not really. I’m just trying to do the job I need to not get fired."
How they get away with it
Holding two jobs isn’t illegal, says Richard Greenberg, an employment attorney with Jackson Lewis PC in New York.
"It’s more of a contract issue. You’re jeopardizing your employment. There’s very few things that rise to criminal violations," he says.
If a worker violates a noncompete agreement by working for another firm, the employer could sue him, says Claire Deason, a Minneapolis employment attorney with Littler Mendelson PC.
A company could also theoretically sue a duplicitous worker for things like disclosing confidential information or misrepresenting himself, Mr. Greenberg says.
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But that could mean public attention on the issue. Chances are the worker would just get fired, Mr. Greenberg says. Maybe not even that.
"Let’s be honest. You have to be pretty bad at being sly to get caught," he says.
Besides, managers sometimes see incentives to hang on to dead weight. Losing head count can amount to losing power in some organizations. No one wants to be caught short-staffed. And in the current tight labor market, workers often
have the upper hand.
Chris Hansen, a technology manager who lives on Cape Cod, was working for a startup last year when he noticed one of his coders engaging in odd behavior. The contractor had agreed to leave his role with a financial firm to help out Mr. Hansen’s team for a few months, per his deal with the staffing agency that hired him, Mr. Hansen says. But even after supposedly making the transition from his last role, the contractor wasn’t showing up to meetings. Work he turned in missed the mark.
It turned out the man hadn’t left his original job, Mr. Hansen says.
Mr. Hansen worried about hitting his own work goals. He felt frustrated and shortchanged. But he opted not to press the issue.
"I could have cut him loose, I suppose, but that would have been cutting off my own arm," he says. "It was better to have somebody than nobody."
Besides, the coder was a contractor: no benefits, no job security. Mr. Hansen says he can’t help but sympathize a little with contingent workers who game the system. "What incentive is there for people to be deliberately honest?" he says. "That loyalty between employer and employee is vacant."
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When Laurie Ruettimann, now a human-resources consultant in Raleigh, N.C., was an HR executive at a Fortune 500 company, she dealt with an employee with a secret side gig. After being exposed by peers, the IT worker admitted the ploy. Ms. Ruettimann and her colleagues put him on a performance-improvement plan. A few months later, he was laid off.
"That’s not a guy who’s built for longevity at an organization," she says.
One computer engineer put in long hours for years, climbing the ladder to become one of his company’s most senior engineers. Days were for meetings and strategy, nights and weekends for coding. He felt like he was performing free labor.
He took a second job last year, figuring he would tap paternity leave at both companies once his pregnant wife delivered their baby, and then return to one job. But, even with the baby born, he can’t seem to quit the game. He is earning nearly $500,000, and working as much as 100 hours a week.
"It’s 100% overwhelming, and my wife’s like, ‘How long can you do this?’ " he says. But "every other Friday, when those paychecks drop, I am reinvigorated."
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