Using work resources on outside consulting


Dear Professor Mean, I am looking at a post-retirement business venture as a solo statistical consultant. I would wind down the hours at my current job while I build up my solo consulting practice. Would this get messy? What are the implications of using work resources (talking on the phone, answering an email, or writing code) for outside consulting?

I work at an academic job and also do consulting on the side. My philosophy is that if I spend my weekends grading papers for my University job, I don’t see any problem with doing some part-time consulting at my office during normal work hours.

Working at a consulting gig while at my office might be frowned upon if I were an hourly employee, but I’m salaried. If you do keep a time sheet, just clock out before doing any consulting work or limit your consulting to lunch and/or outside of normal business hours.

A good rule of thumb is to think about what could be done at the job that is of a personal nature and apply something similar to your consulting setting. So for example, most jobs allow you to take phone calls of a “personal” nature as long as they are not excessive.

Use of a computer for “personal” reasons is probably okay, but don’t use any software licensed to your employer that you don’t have access to outside of work. So Microsoft Word is okay, but SAS is not. Don’t print anything more than a trivial amount of paper on the office printer.

If you like, you can bring your laptop to work. Then the only thing you are borrowing from the University is a few electrons plus a wifi signal.

You have an advantage in that most university jobs encourage consulting as long as it is not excessive. Where I work (University of Missouri-Kansas City), they say

“Consultation is a significant means of professional improvement as well as a form of community service.” Then they lay out what you can and can’t do (no use of UMKC letterhead, for example, in a consulting gig). You have to fill out a conflict of interest statement every year and get it approved by your boss. See 330.015 Policy on Conflict of Interest for all the details. I bet your University has a similar page. Also look at your initial letter of hire for anything like a non-compete clause that might be a problem.

Now outside of the academic sphere, the roles are different. At one potential job I interviewed at, they said that they would require me to quit my consulting job if they hired me. I couldn’t even consult on weekends! I never got an offer, so I didn’t have to make a choice.

If you are unclear on what is or is not allowed, talk to your boss. But keep in mind the old adage that it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.

The key thing in any setting, of course, is appearances. Take great pains to avoid the impression that your consulting job is in any way interfering with your regular work responsibilities. It helps a lot if you are part-time and it also helps if you can shut the door to your office for the few hours that you do consulting. Back off on consulting when everyone else at your the workplace is all abuzz trying to meet an important internal deadline.

In addition to what your employer might think, you have to decide for yourself what you are comfortable with. Our University is affiliated with several hospitals. I do not charge for consulting for anyone at those hospitals if they have a joint appointment at UMKC. It doesn’t matter if the hospital is paying 100% of their salary. I tell anyone in those positions that I give them my advice for free, but that if they weren’t affiliated with UMKC, I’d have to charge them $180 per hour.