Sunday, May 26, 2024

‘Unethical and misleading’: Tony was deceiving his bosses and raking in the cash

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When Tony* joined the meeting that ended his covert double life, it seemed like a brief, unremarkable video conference.

It was just one of many packed into his busy schedule.

But a few days later, when his bosses made an unusual request for an in-person meeting, his mind turned back to that seemingly innocuous interaction.

And when it did, there was one detail that gave him an inkling of what had been set in motion.

He recalled a worryingly familiar face on the call.

A seemingly unremarkable video call.()

Tony’s dual work life had started a few years earlier. Canberra was stuttering through repeated lockdowns and, stuck at home, he’d found himself with too much time on his hands.

After discussing the idea with his partner, he decided to secretly take on a second job.

“I was bored, really,” he says. “I wanted the challenge.”

“A good [software] developer who knows their business is often five to 10 times faster than a junior developer.”

Instead of slacking off, Tony often worked 50-hour weeks to do what was required of him at both jobs.

For years, he lived this double life – and pulled in two salaries – without his managers or coworkers having a clue.

It might sound too good to be true, but ABC News has seen Tony’s pay slips for a period of months while he was working the two jobs, and they confirm his lucrative story.

By the time Tony made the unfamiliar commute into the office to meet his superiors, he’d already connected the dots back to that earlier video call.

A colleague from his other job had been there, he realised.

So, when he arrived at the office and the company directors brought up their suspicions, he knew his deception couldn’t go on any longer.

By Tony’s recounting, his bosses were “absolutely flabbergasted” when he confessed. He’d been producing exemplary work, and become critical to the business – all while spending half his time working for another company.

He says they were furious, but in a professional way.

They weren’t “screaming or frothing at the mouth or anything”.

In the end, though they were conflicted about it, they decided they had to let him go.

shush
The ‘overemployed’ keep their deception quiet.()

The first rule of fight club

Despite the obvious need for secrecy, there is a whole online community of people who share information about how to engage in this type of deception.

They’ve dubbed themselves the “overemployed”.

According to their online discussion, their typical workdays involve stacking up meetings like it’s a game of Tetris, bouncing between back-to-back video calls, and working like crazy in the gaps to get everything done on time.

When I intruded on their chatroom to find out more, the reception was hostile, with one message attracting six “middle finger” emojis.

Jules: Hey everyone 👋, I’m a journalist with ABC News Digital.

If you’re interested in being featured in a story about overemployment, PM me – I’m happy to chat anonymously.

Member 1: Would rather not… dont want the good times to end

Member 2: Yep, ffs dont talk to journalist. less people know about it better it is for us

Nothing personal Jules

Member 3: @moderator throw this person out.

Their conversations reveal a culture of getting ahead. They trade tips on everything from avoiding detection to reducing their taxes and finding the right jobs to enable their lifestyle.

But it’s more than a resource. With secrecy key in their real-world lives, this is one place they can speak freely.

It’s a common joke that most of those who hang out in the community chatrooms are only pretending. And no doubt some of them are.

Member 4: I have 5 jobs that all pay between $130-$200/hr. It’s possible because all the managers are brain dead, and every task is automated by a few triggers from emails.

I spend my days at the pub and the beach depending on the weather, and get around in one of my 5 Maseratis between my mistress who manages my beach front mansion in St Kilda and my wife in Toorak

While this trope is played for laughs, the community is dead serious about keeping a low profile.

According to overemployed.com – the movement’s spiritual online home – there is one golden rule: “don’t talk about working two remote jobs”.

Only, this advice doesn’t appear to extend to interactions with the media. Isaac, the mysterious character who runs the website and claims to have two jobs of his own, responded promptly via email.

“We aren’t breaking any laws, just quietly disagreeing with lopsided employment contracts and policies without confrontation,” he wrote.

Isaac argues that the “overemployed” operate by the same “cold hard logic” that businesses do, and that their deception is no worse than the way companies treat their workers.

“Employers lie by omission to their internal staff when lay-offs are happening [and] to investors by cooking their books,” he wrote.

“Capitalism encourages profit maximisation – we’re simply playing the game without judgement.”

And he doesn’t have too many qualms about exploiting the loopholes opened up by the remote working revolution to do so.

Isaac acknowledges that only a select few white-collar workers enjoy this luxury, while others “will have to suffer the [workplace] policy that applies to the masses”.

For this, he is unapologetic.

“Welcome to how capitalism works.”

While the “overemployed” community emerged out of the United States, there is plenty of evidence that it’s reached Australia’s shores.

Rumours and whispers

“You always get these candidates coming to us asking for fully remote roles,” says Sydney-based recruiter Carl McDonald.

Certain job seekers would have excuses for why they couldn’t do meetings during work hours, and only be interested in jobs that didn’t require them to come into the office.

“You can usually read between the lines,” he says.

Mr McDonald has seen a few instances of technology workers getting caught taking on multiple jobs in secret – especially during COVID.

One engineer he encountered was caught working at an Australia Post outlet while also working remotely from behind the counter.

A human resources specialist in the tech industry told the ABC they were forced to fire an employee who was caught in a strikingly similar way to Tony.

But, by definition, these are the stories of the unsophisticated and the sloppy – there’s no way of knowing exactly how many people are managing to pull it off successfully.

“I think there’d have been a lot more than we realise,” Mr McDonald says. “You always hear whispers of it.”

Libby Sander, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at Bond University, believes that as remote work has become more common, so has the practice of exploiting it in this way.

“It’s hard to get exact figures but it is on the rise, particularly in technology jobs,” she says.

A new world of work

The pandemic has supercharged existing trends towards remote work, and thrown many elements of the traditional contract between employers and employees into disarray.

Boundaries between work and life have blurred like never before, with checking emails after hours becoming increasingly normalised.

Illustration of computer symbols falling into a warp
The pandemic brought a rapid shift to remote work.()

On the other hand, suspicious bosses aren’t able to glance over at their employees to keep an eye on them.

New concepts like “quiet quitting” emerged in 2022; older ones like “presenteeism” found new resonance in the remote-first era.

And, in Australia, the government has responded with newly passed, right-to-disconnect laws.

It was while navigating the changing terrain at the height of the pandemic that Tony adopted what he describes as a “Marxist” viewpoint to justify his choices.

He felt his employer was exploiting him by profiting off the excess value created through his hard work.

If an employer is happy with a worker’s output and signs off on their time sheets, Tony asks, “Is it unethical to do something else [on the side]?”

Fiona Macdonald from the Centre for Future Work says this is akin to saying “two wrongs make a right”.

Fiona Macdonald says it’s high-skilled workers who get away with working multiple jobs.()

“If you’re signing off the time sheet, saying that you’ve put in a number of hours that you haven’t, there’s more than harm,” she said via video call.

“It’s highly unethical and illegal.”

“Most jobs don’t have that enormous slack in them,” she explains, pointing out that it’s rarely highly skilled workers – such as those in the tech industry – who are exploited by their employers.

For everyone else, she says, “we’ve seen increased levels of unpaid overtime, work intensity, burnout and stress”.

This is the other side of the coin for remote work – and one that’s absent from Tony’s justification.

Just as new technologies have created loopholes that can be exploited by workers, they also offer employers new powers of surveillance.

“A lot of white-collar office administrative type work, for example, they are increasingly monitored by IT systems,” says Dr Macdonald.

A culture of surveillance

Australia’s largest insurance company IAG recently fired a long-time employee after remotely monitoring her keyboard activity.

Suzie Cheiko’s employment was terminated after she was absent and uncontactable at work, and missed an important deadline, according to her unsuccessful complaint to the Fair Work Commission.

Through its worker surveillance software, IAG had collected precise statistics to prove when she was working – and when she wasn’t.

The company’s data showed that out of 49 workdays, she started late 43 times.

On four of those days, she recorded no hours at all.

In an interview with Channel 7’s Sunrise, Ms Cheiko said she wasn’t aware that she was being tracked until the complaint had been raised with her – a claim disputed by IAG.

An IAG spokesperson said their employees are notified of the company’s “ability to monitor how its employees are using their IAG computers and communications devices” in their contracts.

They would not comment on whether all IAG employees, including managers and executives, are monitored using the same software.

This kind of “punitive culture” isn’t helping workers or their bosses, says Dr Sander.

Dr Sander, an expert on the future of work, outlined the issues with staff surveillance via video call, her location obscured by a Zoom background showing a loft-style office.

Libby Sander advocates for a more human-centric form of management.()

“[Workplaces that] run on fear and a lack of trust – that’s a race to the bottom,” she explains.

“If you’re communicating regularly with staff, you’ll know which employees are performing well and which ones aren’t. We don’t need a Big Brother approach to tell us that.

“We’re humans, not machines.”

According to Dr Sander, surveillance tools erode trust between employers and employees, fuel anxiety, and ultimately make staff miserable.

In some cases, their use can start what she calls a “downward cycle”.

Automated surveillance leads to workers feeling less loyal to their employers – and sometimes misbehaving – which justifies increased surveillance.

Could this lack of humanity in the workplace be behind the “overemployed” movement, or are they the ones forcing companies to take the punitive path?

According to Dr Sander, it doesn’t matter. We shouldn’t “punish an entire population” because of the actions of the few.

By some measures, however, this appears to be exactly what is happening.

The end of an era

In 2021, law firm Herbert Smith Freehills found that 91 per cent of Australian businesses surveyed were using software to monitor their employees when they work remotely.

And, at the same time, workers are slowly being clawed back into the office by their employers.

Even Zoom – the poster child of the remote-work revolution – is forcing staff to return to the office.

“Companies that are selling collaboration software are saying you have to be in the office to collaborate. I find that slightly ironic,” says Dom Price, work futurist at Australian software giant Atlassian.

Mr Price says forcing staff back into the office and using surveillance tools can feel like a “comfort blanket” for managers.

“When we incentivise the wrong thing, we shouldn’t be surprised when we get the wrong behaviour,” he says.

“If you treat a teenager like a child, eventually they’ll act like a child.”

And, sure enough, some on the “overemployed” chatroom are fuming about being forced back to the office.

Member 5: RTO [return to office] is so heavily pushed by middle managers who need to manage by walking around or justifying rent – it’s bollocks.

Member 6: My employer is also pushing for RTO. I can’t even find a desk it’s insane

For his part, Tony is in the market for a new job – remote only, of course.

Having been let go by the employer who found him out, he’s since picked up another part-time job as the chief operating officer at a start-up.

But that’s not enough – he says he’s still looking for another job to complement the two he’s currently working.

An illustration of faces on computer screens
The search continues.()

In the process, he’s observed how much harder it’s become to find jobs that don’t expect at least one day a week in the office.

He says the culture has “gone from being fully remote back to working in a hybrid fashion”.

“That’s what will kill it.”

He predicts it’s only a matter of time until the era of easily finding remote jobs is over.

Not that any of this has dampened his enthusiasm for “overemployment”.

Who knows, he laughs, maybe he’ll take a third job while he’s got the chance.

About this story

  • Tony and Isaac are not the actual names of the people involved in this story.
  • ABC News has seen Tony’s pay slips from both jobs over a period of a few months.
  • Isaac is the webmaster of overemployed.com and has not provided evidence of his employment.
  • The chat messages included in this story have been taken from the overemployed.com discord server, a chatroom that is open to the public.

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