is taking an internship on top of a job unethical?

A reader writes:

I received my BA this May, and after searching, got a job as an Administrative Assistant. I’m really very grateful to have gotten this position as it seems like getting an entry level position right now is a bit of a crapshoot: so many people could perform this job admirably, but they can only hire one.

However, it’s a tiny company (I’m one of five full time employees,) and it’s in a slightly random industry, one that I was not planning to go in to. I suppose I should have planned better, but I had bills and I was in a bit of a scramble to find work.

The people I work for seem to understand that it’s unlikely I’ll be at the company forever as there are really no opportunities for advancement, given the size.

My question is this: I recently received an offer for an unpaid internship for a completely separate industry that I’m more interested in. The internship would be in the evenings, but it would require that I leave my job twice a week about 15 minutes early. I would really like to take this internship, because I’m still not sure what career path I want to pursue and I’d like to learn about different options. I thought perhaps I could ask my employers if I could come in a half hour early and leave a 15 minutes early.

(Note: As an admin, part of my job description is to answer phones. This is true, but at this particular office protocol is that I handle the phones from 8:30 to one, and then it defers to another employee. I’m not sure why this is their practice, but that’s what I was told. Also, the office is rarely flooded with calls.)

My friends and parents say that I should refrain from telling my employers about the internship. They’ve mentioned that some companies have policies against employees working second jobs (although I reviewed the employee handbook and it made no mention of such a policy.) They’ve also mentioned hat my employers might worry this is me setting up to leave them and thus cut me loose before I do.

I commute about an hour to and from work every day – it should be less, but I live in LA, where traffic is attempting to stage a world takeover. Because of that commute, my friends and family are recommending that I tell my employers I want the time change because of traffic issues.

This feels sketchy to me. I don’t want to mislead my employers. But it’s tempting, because I can’t afford to be fired at the moment.

I’m not planning to leave anytime soon – I’m learning some good stuff here, but I would like to learn more about other industries. Should I forgot the internship and just keep working? It’s starting to feel like taking this internship would be like cheating or something.

Lying is rarely, if ever, a good idea. Here are some of the things could happen if you lie to your employer and say that you need to leave early because of traffic issues: Someone at your workplace could meet someone at your internship and realize they both work with the same person. A reporter could do a story about the place you’re interning with and you could end up in it. The internship could call your current employer for a reference before hiring you, without alerting you that they plan to do so. Your current employer could ask you to stay late one day and you’d have to explain why you couldn’t. And so forth.

And then you’re not just “the admin who we know will leave us eventually” (which they already know), but rather “the admin who lies.” A lot of managers would feel obligated to fire you at that point, even if they understood perfectly well why you wanted to take the internship — the lying part of this would be the problem.

Plus, there’s another consequence: You’re going to feel guilty about it. Every day that you leave early to “fight traffic,” you’re going to feel guilt that your coworkers accommodated your request when you lied to them. (If you wouldn’t feel guilty, you have a whole different problem, but I don’t get that sense from your letter.)

Talk to your boss and explain the situation. Make it clear that your first priority is your job and if this would cause a problem, you won’t do it. Say you don’t plan on leaving the company any time soon but that this would be a great educational opportunity for you. Offer to do other things to make up for it (such as coming in early or taking a shorter lunch on the days you leave early). Ask what she thinks.

She’ll probably say yes, although be prepared to be okay with it if she says no.

Openness is almost always better. Good luck!

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 9 comments… read them below }

  1. Claire*

    This is really great advice. I haven't ever been in this sort of situation, but honesty should always come first. I agree completely with everything AAM has said.

  2. Anonymous*

    I was in almost the exact same position right out of college: 22/w a degree but had to take a job as a receptionist at a radio station b/c my options were limited. I then was also offered an unpaid internship and was completely up front w/my bosses. They were encouraging and understanding. Hopefully yours will be as well. Good luck!

  3. Richard*

    The way I see it, they already know that you won't be around forever, so lying to them about this internship isn't going to help at all.

    Think about it this way:
    Before this, you were the admin who probably wouldn't stick around forever.
    If you lie to them, you're the admin who probably wouldn't stick around forever, who is also lying, ducking out of work early for somewhat sketchy reasons, and if you're ever found out, you get into trouble.
    If you tell them, then you're the admin who probably wouldn't stick around forever, who's also planning on doing a second internship that will barely affect her current job.

    Request that you can start 15 minutes early on days you'll be leaving early to make up for lost time, or that you can make up the additional time the next day. Unless they really need you around at the last 15 minutes of the day, or they can't leave someone to do work outside of normal hours, they shouldn't have an issue with this, assuming that they are reasonable.

  4. Anonymous*

    What if the OP said he or she was doing 'volunteer work'? It's an honest explanation but doesn't provoke nearly as many of the subconscious implications as 'internship'?

    (goes without saying that coming in early should be done in order to offset leaving early)

  5. Anonymous*

    I can understand both parties yet I think unltimately much depends on the employer's expectations. As you said, you were lucky to get this job when there are so many other people who could do it well. I'm sure when the employer made their final decision, given the equal skills and personality traits, they would prefer someone without extra complications (say, single mom needing to pick up her kids; someone attending to his sick parent, a student trying to balance shcool and work, etc) If you openly discussed your situation including traffic, etc during the interview and they finally have chosen you over everyone's else, this is once scenario. But you didn't. I think once the candidate accepts the job, no matter entry level or not, they are expected to keep their status quo as discussed during an interview. It's unfair to the employer to start requesting adjustments for this and that reasons, unless it's a matter of life and death.In a small office particularly, everyone's involvement and performance affects everyone else. Remember, they could have chosen someone else. Plus, there's also a probation period and that could end the whole thing if the employer feels things are not going the way the hoped.

  6. Ask a Manager*

    Anonymous, it's true that they selected her based on a certain set of assumptions about her schedule. But it's reasonable to at least ask — it could be that they don't care at all. She just needs to be okay with being told no.

  7. Anonymous*

    Is it naive to think that the only issue the OP's employer should have is that she is leaving work early? As far as I'm concerned, when she is off the clock her time is her own to spend as she chooses. She should certainly be honest and explain why, to be open and transparent. But I don't see any issue with it other than that she needs to leave early.

    I liken it to having any kind of second job, especially if the first one doesn't pay that well. Or really just having any other commitments (family, class, travel, etc.) that occasionally necessitate one's needing to leave early – as long as the time is made up in an arrangement the employer is okay with.

  8. jmkenrick*

    Hi – the questioner here.

    Thanks so much AAM for your quick response, and thanks everyone else for your feedback.

    I'm not very good at being sneaky, so I was disconcerted when friends were suggesting 'white lies.'

    I subsequently worried myself into a frenzy about whether my employers would disapprove of me pursuing interests outside of work, which, in retrospect, seems ridiculous.

    I'll have a talk with my employer.

    In response to third Anon: I think I see your point, but I wasn't misleading during the interview as I didn't plan on getting the internship offer while I interviewed.

    (In fact, I didn't even apply for the internship while I was working- they called me up because they still had my info on file from a prior application.)

    If I had hidden things during the interview process, that may well be unfair, but you can hardly expect employees to not change their circumstances at all after they're hired. For example – what if I had become pregnant? It would be my choice, and I don't know that I would deem that unfair to the employer.

    Thanks again everyone for the smart comments.

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