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Ask HN: What type of restrictions does your employer have on side gigs?
87 points by bedros on Aug 29, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 82 comments
whether it's monetized or just a hobby

should you disclose it if there's no conflict of interest?

I personally make it clear that side projects, monetized or not, are one of the best ways to learn new skills, ways of thinking, and improve productivity. I agree to sign non-compete and clauses stating that anything done outside of the business requirements (I don't work hours, I work results kind of thing) will not conflict with, impede, or otherwise negatively impact my position. I've only had one employer in the nearly two decades that had an issue with that, and ironically it was an organization that had pretty high turnover from the reviews I read.

Whomever is paying me is paying me to do a job. They don't own my life, my free time, or my hobbies. If they don't understand or support that, I wouldn't bother going forward with them as it's simply not the kind of culture I would want anything to do with.

Also, to the person who wrote about external income needing to be documented with a ton of paperwork... if you are in the US, what about US Reserve military members (which is a protected status)? Adjunct faculty positions? Seems like the employer should not have any say on that kind of income.

Have you ever worked at a big 5 US tech company?

Work in government, have to fill out a reasonable one-page form documenting other remunerative work I engage in. This specifically exists for conflict-of-interest compliance. Should I choose not to, and they find out, it becomes an ethics issue and I'm terminated.

Previously having worked in myriad startups and startup-like environments, you'll get anything from "What you do in your free time is your business" up to the classic "We own all IP created by you during employment." For the latter, I always start by asking if that includes open-source work as I do some from time-to-time. This is an easy way to engage them about the policy without coming off as overly combative, and one can work from there if there are concerns regarding side-projects.

A young me once inquired about open-source contributions, and was shocked with an angry email from the CTO blathering on about how he has grave doubts about my fit and dedication to the success of the company if I'm concerned about outside work. The hiring manager immediately jumped in and defused, clarifying that open-source is seen as a good thing at the company and it was a simple mixup. Suffice to say that was a red-flag I should've heeded.

Was interviewing with Automattic -- they asked me to sign a copy of their non-compete. It was utterly draconian. If you wanted to write a book in your free time it had to be approved by their legal department. I noped the fuck out of there and got a great job that encourages employees to improve their skills and develop their talents in their free time.

i think that was a great choice and the same one i would have made. i think a lot of these companies try to leverage their name on your resume for their "owning" you, but i don't think that trade is fair at all.

Thanks for sharing, sure as hell not going to apply there ever.

In my company, side projects are divided into two groups: products or toys. Both can be done during work hours without problem (if you continue to deliver your sprints, of course). Your work should always be deletable (you should keep version control somewhere non local) and your peers should always be able to see your code (asking or not, If it is in a company computer, everyone in the company has access to it). We also incentivize presentation on new technology or topics that emerged from the projects and usually people pitch each other their projects for new contributors. Projects considered products (that the programmer has started expecting profits at some point) should consider our non compete policy: if the product is in the same field as one of our products, our company has the right to be the first investor, with a minimum of 5% and cap of 15%. The valuation process is a bit dense to explain here, but several ex coworker are now partners with their own companies. The system works well but we have to watch out for talent retention. Usually the new companies are SaaS that replace part of our needed logic and cost us less to use than our ex coworker salary.

Thats a very cool model. And a really good point here:

> Usually the new companies are SaaS that replace part of our needed logic and cost us less to use than our ex coworker salary.

Its a win-win to have the company as the new founders first customer too.

I feel like this is the way to do it. It's hard enough to start a business as is, so not that many people are going to actually do it. People that want to do it are going to do it anyway eventually.

This is a very good model.

Large employers attempt to do this quite often, even in states that specifically forbid it in state statue. Some states have laws that prevent this behavior but it doesn't stop employers from trying to bully those without knowledge.

I personally would be highly suspicious of any startup that was trying this while simultaneously offering or paying you a below market wage. If a company wants your attention they should pay to hold it, not threaten your job because you take a side job to make more money or have a hobby.

Another similar policy to this is the "assignment of all inventions", related and unrelated to the company, done on or off company time and even done using personal equipment. Again, some states prevent this, and even in states that don't have specific laws preventing it, generally I have seen the legal system is remiss to allow employers these wide unfettered control over peoples private lives.

Also, this is a reason you should write down every thought, idea or actual stuff you have worked on as excluded works before signing any document about inventions, non-compete etc. While I 100% disagree with the concept of these policies, there are ways around them almost all the time if you plan ahead.

This is also always something up for negotiation when you are being hired. The companies first response is almost always well this is the only way we hire anyone, and your response to that is what matters. It is also your first look at what the company really thinks of employees, if they care they'll figure a way to work with you, assuming you aren't being unreasonable yourself. If they are there to use you as a cog then they'll say no to all reasonable requests and that should be your warning sign to walk. I had people tell me you can't get more vacation back in the day when 2 weeks was the norm in the U.S. for all new employees. And here I'd be hired and have 4 weeks the first year and people were pissed cause they didn't negotiate it. Those are policies written by people, not laws of nature, it is all on the table you just have to work a little and be brave enough to push a little.

*edit -- fixed a spelling mistake and a repetitive word

> "assignment of all inventions", related and unrelated to the company, done on or off company time and even done using personal equipment

This is such a big grab, I don't understand why they limit to inventions. Shouldn't they also demand assignment of all creative work so that if you write a novel on your own time and equipment they can collect all the royalties?

"inventions" is not used in the same context as you would use it when talking about an inventor, like Tesla or Edison.

It's legalize. It depends on the language in the contract, but it usually includes everything under the sun, including creative works like books.

Sometimes there is a clarification for anything that can be related to your work, my current employer does that, but I've seen others without that. Which basically says they own you and everything you do or even think while employed by them.

This has been my experience too. When I had my consulting practice we were very careful on the contracts and always had an attorney review any proposed changes to the MSA or SOW that had any material feel to it. It was not uncommon for startups and enterprises alike to send us things to add to our MSA or ask us to use their contract "for simplicity and speed" but when we would review their suggestions around assignment of IP/inventions it was rare to find one that wasn't overreaching. Most were pretty cool about changing it and I think didn't realize how far reaching their attorneys had made it, and that wasn't their intent. Others I think were fully aware and felt that was their right if we did any work for their company, so we never worked with those teams.

Sorry, I should have specified: This is in the United States. Here "inventions" is specifically patentable stuff. See https://www.uspto.gov/patents-getting-started/general-inform...

I'm in the US too.

Inventions is usually defined in the contract itself and does not necessarily apply to patentable things.

This is just my personal experience, so take it for what it's worth, though I do have a fair amount of experience with contracts and non-competes.

That seems weird to me, that a contract would redefine a term that already has a legal meaning, but there are weird things in law.

Shouldn't they also demand assignment of all creative work so that if you write a novel on your own time and equipment they can collect all the royalties?

Some places do. I once worked for a UK business that was taken over by a US one. The difference in mindset between the original management team and the new one was nowhere more evident than in the one-sided IP terms they tried to introduce into everyone's contract and the laughable defence of this made by the corporate VP who was effectively taking over the top job. IIRC it was something about how they nurture their staff and deliver pots of gold to the end of their personal rainbows by unicorn ferry and all they ask in return is everything you ever create and your mortal soul, though the memory is fuzzy and it's possible that I added a couple of those details later.

Some employers do lay claim to all IP. I guess restricting it to inventions is an attempt to seem reasonable. Not successfully though.

This is what I think has happened, some employers do ask for all IP still. But others use the term inventions to make it seem like they aren't as over reaching. But generally I have seen that they do define "invention" in the document to basically include all IP still.

This is one that drives me insane, and I just won't touch a company that is doing this as it is unreasonable and so evil to me. But sadly a lot of startup legal firms put this in their standard IP documents for employees to sign and if you don't catch it you can be screwed.

And get multiple offers for leverage ideally ;-)

When I have been an employer, my position is always that I pay you for about 40 hours a week. I don’t own you, nor do I want to. I know that if you had already solved the money problem you could do far better things than come work with me. If you want to work on side projects in your spare time, great. If you’re dedicated enough to your craft that you want to improve outside of work, that’s amazing! But also, if you’d rather jog, rock climb, smoke weed or what have you, it is your life. I’m glad I can help you live it. Thanks for helping me live mine.

As an employee, I’ve had everything from ‘we could care less’, to ‘don’t program when you’re not at work’, to ‘we own every single thing you do, dream or think about.’

I wouldn't treat it as anything more than a risk assessment, and telling people just implicates them and makes them responsible.

As a condition of investment, many investors require that companies have blanket IP ownership over their employees brains.

If there is value you generate that doesn't go into your job, that's an inefficiency managers would be obligated by their role to optimize out. The good ones would probably rather not know, the worst will using monitoring and surveillance to find out if there is some additional leverage they can use against you.

On your way into a job, redline the contract so that any IP ownership clauses are narrowly defined to the domain of the work so that if your fanfic novel or interpretive dance show becomes an international phenomenon, your employer doesn't get an option on the profits.

Be in a position to negotiate those contract clauses on your way into a job, which means, don't be unemployed, and always maintain a pipeline of opportunities when you have a job. Regarding the recruiters, you aren't wasting anyone's time, they can only waste their own with unappealing offers, so keep those conversations open.

In all the organizations I've been in, the approach to moonlighting was don't ask, don't tell.

> If there is value you generate that doesn't go into your job, that's an inefficiency managers would be obligated by their role to optimize out.

That is not a managers job, and it has 0 to do with the results they're going to achieve. I've seen this behavior & it's associated psychoses, but it's been rare and again, it is literally psychotic behavior that should not be normalized.

Manager's job is to focus on making their team members' 8 hours the most effective that they can be. Any manager that isn't focusing on that is basically choosing to have worse results with more animosity.

Of course it's psychotic, but that doesn't make it any less common.

I work as an IT consultant and a midsized consultancy in a European country with generally good workers rights and protection.

My understanding is they have full restriction. I have to ask for permission to do any paid work, even completely unrelated, like working a bar at a festival. They claim copyright on anything produced during my period of employment, which to me seems bordeline inhuman.

They encourage open source work, but I think they can ask to have the company name in the copyright / license section if they feel so inclined.

My impression is they don't really enforce it, it is more a blanket access for if I do completing work, they don't need a second opinion to be right.

I still think that it is completely insane, but my union says it is normal.

There are other relevant considerations in Europe. For example, the working time rules could make it reasonable for an employer to at least require disclosure of any other paid work and potentially a power to object if it would leave them in violation of the law through no fault of their own.

There's also an important distinction between work done during the period of someone's employment and work done in the course of someone's employment, if you're using the terminology common in the UK and I think various other English-speaking legal systems. The latter is, IME, commonly accepted as a reasonable standard, and roughly speaking means anything you do on work time or using work resources belongs to work. The former is a much broader claim and potentially includes anything independent of work as well, and is the red flag that should give any prospective employee pause.

> The former is a much broader claim and potentially includes anything independent of work as well, and is the red flag that should give any prospective employee pause.

I read it as the former, and it did give me pause, but my union said, that is to be expected and I pay them money to complain on my behalf, so ...

The thing you mention about potentially violating working hour regulations makes sense.

I should also note that I don't have a none-compete. When I quit I can immediately start at any competing consultancy or even client. It's not all bad

I'm curious: Could you tell which European country.

Form an LLC, use a registered agent, put everything in the companies name, don't tell your employer, profit. Nothing they can do about it. The odds of them finding out are nearly non-existent unless you go around putting your name on everything

Monetized: Management must approve. Doubt they do, haven't asked.

Hobby: Not allowed to do anything similar to what employer does. Got an official opinion from legal that employer programs, working on a videogame mod is programming (although employer does not program videogames), so therefore I'm not allowed to work on a videogame mod. I'm not certain the employee manual agrees with the official opinion from legal, but I'm not really in a position to be able to disagree.

So, well, no side gigs. It's just something you have to agree to for this job, and it's a good job, so such is life. Maybe you could do it and hope they don't find out, but they have clear documented grounds to fire you if they do, so why risk a good job?

At least there isn't any non-compete. If I don't like the rules, I can always quit and go work somewhere else. Before this west coast job, every prior programming job I had was on the east coast and involved some sort of non-compete agreement (they tended to be slightly limited, like you can't work at these 5 competitors or you can't leave to work for a client, but 'slightly limited' can actually be highly limiting when those 5 competitors are the best employers for your specific expertise).

> Got an official opinion from legal that employer programs, working on a videogame mod is programming

Don’t trust anything the company lawyer says. They work for the company, not you. They will lie to you to protect the company.

“Everything you do is property of company” has never held up in court and is just legal bullying. If you’re not actually stealing company IP and using it at a competitor it’s all BS.

video game mods? Unless the company is a video game studio that’s a croc of shit.

This actually isn't the "all your base are belong to us" situation. This is "we will stop employing you if you do [x]", not "we will own [x]". That's a much, much, much lower bar. They are legally not required to have cause to fire me, so being right doesn't help.

So, sure, I would own the videogame mod if I did it on my own time with my own resources. But I could also be out of a job. Being right but unemployed doesn't sound comforting - I like the job, and they've been up front about the terms, and I'd rather quit if I find them sufficiently unacceptable than risk being fired.

Edit: It actually looks like moonlighting is officially protected here, but conflicts are still disallowed, so I guess it's possible it could end up in court debating whether programming is a conflict. I already have the opinion of one side in writing (yes, it is a conflict, they claim), but at least it might be debatable.

Still, not particularly anxious to end up in court arguing that somebody should be forced to continue employing me after I did something they told me not to do on the grounds that they shouldn't have told me not to do it... complicated mess.

I had a coworker who for whatever reason asked legal department if he could write a novel. They, of course, said he can but most likely the company will own it.

Having friends who are business lawyers, I asked them how is this fair. They said 90% of the time people who ask these questions are time wasters, and legal departments are so used to it that they send generic canned response initially. If someone is serious they will continue conversation, hopefully, also get their own attorney. Or they will just do it like most of the founders we read about.

Why would you even ask if you can work on a video game mod if it has nothing to do with your employer's business? You can do what you want with your own brain, on your own time, with your own equipment.

I have an employment agreement which their lawyers believe says otherwise and I like my job.

That's fair, but I'd simply ignore it. You will likely not be discovered working on a hobby project. If you are, nobody will even care enough to follow up. If they do follow up, you will likely get a "talking to" and still keep your job: a slap on the wrist. However, because you bothered to talk to their lawyers, you've now brought attention to yourself...

My employer (aerospace conglomerate) lays claim to anything I do while employed. So if I had a side gig, they consider it theirs.

Amazon has basically a zero tolerance policy. Although I did know someone at Amazon who decided to challenge this by building a cam-girl site and waiting to see if Amazon would really want to try and take it from him.

Large employer, one of the oldest companies in Silicon Valley.

I can't:

* Be a competitor (in a big company, determining if you are one is harder than it seems, as they have so many projects)

* Use company time or resources in side gigs – even answering the cellphone to talk to a customer would qualify

* Also, the side job cannot negatively impact my position

There may be more things in the small print, but that's essentially what you have to follow. They do not care about other sources of income, side projects do not have to be disclosed.

None. We sign NDA's for specific clients. Other than that, we don't have a non-compete or similar clause prohibiting side work. In fact, it's encouraged. We talk about our side projects openly. Also, if you want to have some company backing on your project, you can get paid 50% of your effective hourly rate for every hour you work on your side project if you agree to split potential profits with the company. Kind of an in-house funding.

where do you work? this is one of the major deciding factors i have in a new employer

In our contracts we ask employees to explcitly declare anything they do i.e. OSS projects, side-projects etc so we can explicitly declare we have no interest in them. That protects everyone. We do of course have the restrictions about not competing with us but as our product is extremely niche anyway that's not been a problem.

Mine states that I shouldn't have any side gigs. It's absolutely forbidden. Exceptions may be and possible but must be explicitly told, agreed to, and written in paper.

The reasoning is that one 40 hour job is enough to depelt a worker - if you do a side gig you won't be able to put in the same quality work in your job.

Large multinational. They own everything I do even in spare time according to contract. I don't care and would fight in court if a problem arises with a future project - no time for projects now anyway. Contract is probably invalid in terms of these clauses in DK.

+1. I'm permalancing and told HR when I was hired that I would go with the flow for now, but this clause would prevent me from wanting to go full-time here.

Keep it to yourself. It is better to seek forgiveness. (You probably won't have to.)

It is better to seek forgiveness.

Not if your side project leads to a lucrative startup and your former employer's lawyers decide some tenuous connection to your former position makes it related work and claim the IP. In that case, it is definitely better not to have signed a bad contract in the first place.

Of all the aspects of employment contracts, IP rights might be the number one area where anyone working in a creative industry should have a real lawyer review their contract before signing. Companies sometimes do some really scummy things to their staff, and even if you're happy that the people you're joining today are fair and reasonable, you typically have absolutely no guarantee about who will buy the business out later and whether they will continue to view your contractual obligations the same way.

There is some risk, definitely. But the odds are it won't even come to their attention.

Before I signed, I was presented with a contract with one of those "you and all of your thoughts are our property" clauses. Those never hold up in court where I live, but I still had it changed to only include any work done during work hours and work that conflicts with the interests of the company. I don't have to report hobby projects that fall outside of that.

If I'd want to start monetizing a side project, I do have to report it, but as long as there's no conflict of interest they're fine with it.

Absolutely none for me. Newer employees have to sign something, I think it has more to do with building businesses using company resources.

Plenty of people are pretty open about moonlighting and side businesses and no one seems to have a problem with it. A number of people have left on good terms to work full time on their side businesses. It rubs people the wrong way when some of those side businesses started poaching employees, but doesn't seem like any legal action has ever been taken.

You can do whatever you want in your free time as long as you directly do not compete with the company.

If you do have a neat offer that would compete(or any good and realistic idea/offer), you can bring it to the company, get proper support and start a new project with you as project manager(or you can get a dedicated one if you feel like it).

For now i do work salaried, but i plan to swap to being paid by results, not time.

Also - whole of IT gets a some free time for personal projects on Fridays.

(Video game business) Allowed as long as it doesn't conflict. Was suggested by my superior to notify the company if I release something even if it's not a conflict, just to cover myself. There are people here who have released side projects no problem. One guy even quit and stated he was going to be a direct competitor. We wished him well...

No policy at my current company. I was at a company in the financial markets that made me report any side business I ran. They only required it, though, because they had to comply with FINRA. If I failed to report my side business and regulators found out I could have been suspended without pay for 6 months and fined a lot of money.

Its impossible to be compliant with legal BS of a large company. Less so to try to get their approval to do anything or breathe.

I typically ignore their crap and do things i want and feel i need and care about. Carefully threading the waters and knowing not to step on landmines.

Works wonders and serves me very well.

For the most part, none. The only thing any of my past employers have said about side gigs is that you shouldn't be using company hardware/computers for them. Other than that, no one cared one bit. Never came up in the contract or at work.

All of them.

Ok that was snarky...but generally there are a lot of restrictions on outside tech-related projects where I am (and in some cases even non-tech-related but tangentially related to our industry), both monetized and not.

Why would you disclose it? Why would you ever tell an employer what you do on your own time? Work two jobs, three jobs, whatever. You’re not a slave.

You’ve let people bully and manipulate you if you’re worried about what your employer will think.

My employer (a large multinational) has very far-reaching restrictions, but they are prefaced by "Except as limited by applicable law, ...", and most of it is unenforcable where I live.

Have to fill out an electronic form just stating the nature of the side project, regardless of whether it's a conflict of interest. I'm fine with this honestly.

None. I'm paid by the hour. If they wish to lay claim to work that I've done outside of the agreed contract, I'll bill them for all the hours worked.

Anybody have insight into Cloudflare's policy? I'm interviewing there but you can never see a company's employee contract until you get an offer.

None of my current employer.

CEO of startup 2 employers back was anal about it. Proved to be tard down the road in other ways too.

I freelance in NYC and have non-poach with all my employers. I don't have non-compete, I just can't steal clients.

they have complete ownership and redistribution rights to anything worked on hours. no restrictions on work done off hours, other than direct competion. general components that have been sectioned from the code base are usable for personal projects.

My company encourages me to dogfood our product with my content sites. Pretty cool!

I wonder what big tech comeanies policy are Like Apple, Google, Facebook, MS, etc

Google owns everything by default but you can file a request with info about what you'd like to work on outside of work. If it's granted, you get to keep the rights. It doesn't matter whether you're planning on making money from it or not.

They're usually very reasonable about it, despite what you would expect from a company that covers so much ground.

I have to fill out mounds of paperwork if I receive any external income

Dumb question...how would they know unless you told them? Define external income?

Well, I think you're right in that they probably wouldn't know unless I told them (assuming it doesn't directly or indirectly encroach on my job time)

I'm not sure exactly the definition of external income in my case, but I know external employment counts and I've also heard coworkers brush off 1-off side gigs because they'd have to fill out paperwork.

The age old question. I have a sneaky suspicion that most of the world runs on the "ask for forgiveness" model of things.

Until you get sued.

In this case it is a company policy, not a legal matter. Even if you signed a contract the contract has to be legal and valid under the state & federal laws governing it, the company and the person/people involved. Many companies put clauses in contracts which they know are unenforceable because lay people won't know the difference and are just fearful of being sued, hell many attorney's don't know.

The companies recourse here is to terminate you for violating company policy, which could open them up to a wrongful termination suit for trying to enforce a policy that may or may not be legal in that state. The company suing the person in this case has no value nor any outcome where it is a net positive for the company, and the company knows that and they just hope you don't.

To the IRS? Sure. To an employer? Why? It's none of their beeswax.

So that when you ask for a raise, they can point to all the side cash you earn and add it to your normal pay and say meaningless stuff like, "well, you're making a lot more money already than we pay people of your position."

Probably because they signed a contract where they promise that they won't do any side gigs without express permission of the employer.

> To an employer? Why? It's none of their beeswax.

I work for a municipal service. It's conflict-of-interest compliance.

In short, it absolutely is their beeswax.

"Have to"? What country are you in?

my previous employer was extremely tight with IP - so it pretty much barred any technical side projects or research

none, as long as i get my work done.

"should you disclose it if there's no conflict of interest?" I think this will vary very largely based on the employer.

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