Can HR prevent employees from taking up a second job?

Despite the ongoing row over whether MPs should be allowed to hold second jobs, the activity is actually not as unusual across the wider economy as many people think.

The heated debate which went on in in Parliament last month (November) was sparked off by the Owen Paterson scandal, in which he was found to have broken House of Commons lobbying rules while undertaking private-sector work valued at £110,000. 

After a backlash over plans to override the standard committee’s initial findings and change the way it worked, the government was forced to perform a u-turn and Paterson resigned. But the matter has generated a wider discussion on the kind of work MPs should or should not be allowed to do in addition to serving their constituents.

The Owen Paterson affair: key dates

  • Pre-2010 - Then Shadow Secretary for Northern Ireland, Paterson started working with healthcare company Randox

  • 2015 - Paterson became a part-time consultant for Randox, and his role was flagged as potentially involving discussions with ministers
  • March 2020 - Randox was awarded a £133 million contract from the Department of Health and Social Care to produce coronavirus testing kits without any other firms being given the opportunity to bid for the work

  • October 2021 - The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards found Paterson had breached MPs’ paid advocacy rules in several approaches to different government departments in relation to Randox and Lynn’s Country Foods, another company he had been working with. Paterson was suspended from the Commons for 30 days as a result

  • November 2021 Government initially withdrew Paterson’s suspension in favour of reviewing MPs’ disciplinary process, but when they u-turned on a vote for his suspension he resigned. A majority vote by MPs has since confirmed that government will reform the rules on second jobs in parliament and make it harder for them take on extra work

According to Steven Kirkpatrick, chief executive of digital recruitment agency GoJob, the idea of employees taking on second jobs elsewhere is actually quite common.

For instance, the latest Employment Survey conducted by the Royal College of Nursing before the pandemic in 2019 revealed that 23% of nurses were working second jobs. Some 55% undertook bank nursing on top of the day job, 23% worked through an agency and 17% did overtime, mainly to generate additional income.

Kirkpatrick believes the figures are likely to be similar with warehouse and production workers, the market his agency caters to. But the practice also exists at the other end of the employment spectrum, particularly among those in the creative industries and sectors, such as software development. 

Here the motivation is more often about pursuing a sideline or passion, keeping skills up-to-date or gaining relevant experience to set up their own business. Since the pandemic struck and working from home took hold among knowledge workers however, a weaker connection and loyalty to employers is also playing a role, Kirkpatrick says. 

“It’s things like conversations with colleagues over the water cooler that traditionally bound people in, but that’s greatly reduced when they spend more time at home and the same emotional ties don’t exist,” he explains.

“So yes, we’re definitely seeing second jobs on the up as the hybrid working model creates an easier environment for people to do it.”

He believes effectively dealing with this situation will require employers to change their traditional mindset from one of ‘talent-hoarding’ to ‘talent-sharing’.

“Talent-sharing is being driven by employees and we’re only at the start of it,” he says. “I potentially see it leading to an environment where employers have no choice but to share talent with others as working from home models won’t generate the same loyalty, which will be a bitter pill for many. So we’re at a watch-this-space moment.”

Isaac Price, founder of, a website for people working in more than one job, believes that employers would actually be misguided to prevent staff from taking second jobs, pointing out that it is currently an employees’ market.

“If you want to win the talent wars, you better start thinking progressively like Jack Dorsey [co-founder and chief executive of Twitter] and other tech founders,” he says. “They’re out to eat your lunch. You don’t ‘own’ anyone in the knowledge economy.”

"Talent-sharing is being driven by employees and we're only at the start of it"

Liz Sebag-Montefiore, director and co-founder of HR consultancy 10Eighty, takes a more nuanced approach. In the case of employees on full-time, permanent contracts, she understands why employers might wish to restrict them from taking on other work and require that permission is sought to do so.

“You can see why they’d want their employees to give their best efforts and be available for overtime, if necessary,” Sebag-Montefiore points out. “That said, if the second role doesn’t impact on performance in their main role, a smart employer would probably not object.”

The same is not true in the case of more insecure contracts though.

“If you haven’t committed to people, don’t offer them opportunities to develop and a secure job, you shouldn’t be surprised if they explore the options,” she says.

Nicola Pease, founder of Ignite Coaching & Consulting, believes employers can actually benefit from allowing people to follow their passions in terms of innovation and skills development, particularly in today’s world where single careers are rare. 

But she also believes it is important that HR policies should spell out acceptable or unacceptable behaviour relating to three key areas: conflict of interest, confidentiality and performance management. 

Clear boundaries should also be set. “There needs to be clearly defined parameters around conflicts of interest, measurable outcomes and hours/times of work,” she says.

“It should be declared and I’d worry if it wasn’t as it could indicate a larger issue – either of trust between the employee and employer, or it could be indicative of a wage issue.”

"There needs to be clearly defined boundaries"

In legal terms, meanwhile, says Beverley Sunderland, managing director at Crossland Employment Solicitors, there are a number of things to think about.

“In every contract of employment, there’s an implied obligation of fidelity, which means employees must act honestly, not compete with their employer, solicit clients or secretly profit from their position,” she explains. “However, this generally does not prevent them having a second job outside of working hours.”

What it does mean though is that employers should write any exclusions, such as working for a competitor business, into the employment contract. 

“A requirement to get permission before undertaking a second job would be reasonable to allow an employer to ascertain if it will impact on the employee’s ability to do their job or create a conflict of interest,” Sunderland says.

This means that if employers find a staff member has taken on a second role without permission or their performance suffers as a result but they refuse to give it up, there could be grounds for dismissal. If working for a rival, employees could also be sacked for gross misconduct, often without notice, as it would be in breach of the implied fidelity obligation. 

But Kirkpatrick believes that before going down the disciplinary route, it is generally better for line managers to talk to the team member concerned to better understand the context.

“It should be a line management issue in the first instance, but if there’s a problem, it becomes an HR issue,” he says. “HR and line managers have to work hand-in-hand here and, while that’s not the case in many organisations, it ultimately leads to
a more harmonious organisation in my experience.


The piece above appears in the November/December 2021 print issue of HR magazine. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.