Your Employees Have Side Hustles? Good For Them—And You

CEOs who support their employees as they work and thrive will build loyalty and boost retention.

The relationship between management and workers in America is both sensitive and dynamic. Flexible work for millions of employees is here to stay. Yet it’s also plausible to suggest that our current period of experimentation with virtual work is not yielding the most engaged, productive workforce possible.

In this type of environment, it’s tempting for executives and managers to go old school and come down hard on those they think aren’t giving sufficient levels of energy and time to the company. It’s also increasingly likely for employees to respond in kind, loudly insisting on their right to a life outside of their job—a life that may include a side hustle (or even two).

I’d suggest an idea that hopefully lowers the temperature on this heated debate: Your business is only your business.

As long as employees are getting their jobs done, understand your company’s code of conduct and aren’t using the organization’s time or resources, then why shouldn’t they go for it? An additional gig that helps to provide satisfaction in a new realm? Perhaps stokes a passion that lays dormant and unfulfilled in the day job? Tell them to go for it.

Work has two primary purpose vectors: To survive and to thrive. Every individual has a different definition for both. And each person’s view of surviving and thriving evolves throughout their lifetime.

Some people are just fine with predictable consistency in their job if it means they can leave at the same time every day, whether to raise kids, care for a loved one or tend to other life priorities. Some people thrive on a high degree of change and uncertainty, and in these situations, routine and consistency may not bring out the best in them.

What each of us as individuals ideally would like is to have work satisfy both vectors. But we, and the leaders and managers who employ us, are naive if we think everyone is going to find deep meaning through their job. Their main job may not be their life’s purpose or calling, but it may be absolutely vital to their ability to accomplish what they need to. Hence, the potential for side hustle(s).

This potential has always existed, but it’s just getting a lot more attention now that not every employee is under the watchful eye (literally and figuratively) of a manager all day long, five (or more) days a week. Once again, the reasons behind the side hustle are as varied as the people themselves.

Maybe someone who is in a more traditionally individual contributor job like a software engineer derives energy from collaborating with other people and has an idea they want to develop unrelated to their main job. Maybe someone else is doing great work as a product manager or marketing professional at their day job at a big corporation but secretly wants to be a serial entrepreneur. They purposely reject management’s repeated attempts to get them on a management track so they’ll have time to explore their entrepreneurial interests. I know many people who fit both of these descriptions.

Then there are others—like me, fortunate to have significant portions of our careers filled with work that enables us to both survive and thrive. But things change and, at various points in my journey, I too began to look elsewhere, trying to find where my business skills could be used for maximum impact in order to give my life and work greater meaning. It was during this time when I pursued nonprofit board service. Over the years, these board roles helped me develop a different lens on purpose, contribution and impact. There’s no doubt that these extracurricular activities helped me become a better leader in my day job and, in a way, those side hustles helped me develop in ways that my corporate positions could not.

Beyond managers not asking too many questions and employees not offering too much explanation, there’s a smart way to align the interests of employers and those who work for them who may be seeking something more.

Time and time again it’s been shown that companies that put purpose over profits actually benefit in the long run. At the same time, the costs of not creating an environment where employees feel like they can thrive is just as obvious: One-in-five Americans have left their jobs in the past five years because of suffocating workplace culture, leading to some $223 billion in turnover costs. This trendline will surely continue, with 65% of Gen Zers admitting recently they planned on leaving their job within the next year, with one of the top reasons given being “values.”

The simple act of building in some non-vacation paid time off days for volunteerism is one way to combat this persistent idea that work is a place where many people can only satisfy one of the two purpose vectors. I still vividly remember the day my co-workers and I selected how we were going to spend our community service day – and we bonded deeply over our mutual support of a local animal shelter. No one got additional pay, but the feeling of community, camaraderie and sustainable contribution lingered far longer than the time it took to clean, organize and restock the shelter.

From my point of view, if employees aren’t violating company rules and they’re getting their job done satisfactorily, they are under no obligation to tell their managers what else they’re doing outside of work in order to survive and thrive. However, this doesn’t discount what a wise move it would be for those same managers to expand their employees’ opportunities for contribution at the place where they most want them to be engaged, happy and productive. Purpose, passion, productivity and the flexibility to choose how this is achieved should be vital components of every person’s career.


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