In a serious blow to an already fractious UK government, Witham MP Priti Patel resigned from the post of international development secretary on 8 November, citing controversy over her off-the-books meetings with a number of Israeli political heavyweights – discussions that were carried out on her own time.

In her resignation letter to Prime Minister Theresa May, Patel wrote: “As you know from our discussions, I accept that in meeting with organisations and politicians during a private holiday in Israel my actions fell below the high standards that are expected of a secretary of state. While my actions were meant with the best of intentions, [they] also fell below the standards of openness and transparency that I have promoted and advocated.”

Media reports of the Patel furore noted how the MP’s secretive approach flagged up the dangers of hushed, back-corridor diplomacy – with many noting that Patel created a crisis for her government and party through ‘freelancing’. In other words, she had pursued a side-line that ended up at odds with the overall aims and tone of her department and, indeed, political front bench.

The story chimes with the experience of employees in the private sector – many of whom have developed jobs on the side of their main commitments in order to supplement their earnings, or have an extra lifeline of security amid the demise of jobs for life. How should leaders negotiate with their staff about the nature and effects of their out-of-hours work activities?

The Institute of Leadership and Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “In our flexible-working research and our Untapped Talent report on over-50s in the workforce, one of the biggest themes that comes through is that people love having control over their working days. In many cases, it’s a non-financial benefit that can represent a significant lifestyle boost, and some would be prepared to take a lower salary in order to have the scope to work flexibly.

“Flexible working isn’t just about caring for young children, or encouraging new mothers to stay in the workforce – although they are indeed important. On a wider scale, it’s about autonomy and control. Plus, it’s digitally driven. So when you have this enablement of flexible working via digital capabilities, whereby leaders can track costs and project phases – as well as form and disperse virtual teams – that’s going to impact not only upon how people work, but how they perceive work, too.”

Cooper explains: “Even though Uber recently lost its appeal against a landmark tribunal in which it was trying to demonstrate that its drivers weren’t bona-fide employees, the wave of change rippling through people’s working styles and habits is not going to stop. It won’t be a case of everyone suddenly saying, ‘That’s it – we’re permanent employees,’ and be rooted to the spot from that point on. There are simply too many forces weighing in favour of the work styles that have come to define the gig economy. So people are bound to do jobs for multiple hirers anyway.

“For individuals who provide services to multiple hirers, the onus is on them to be professional, maintain high standards and respect confidentiality. We have various people working on a freelance basis for the Institute, and whenever I hear that one of them is hugely busy with a whole range of different commitments, my view is that it’s not just great for them – it’s good for me, too, because it’s telling me that their services are in demand.”

She adds: “Transparency is key, here – and so is communication. Leaders must create a climate of openness in which they can set out their expectations – for example, requiring staffers not to work with competitors, and making any other conflicts-of-interest stipulations. Be really clear upfront about your terms.”

For further thoughts on how to create a climate of trust, check out this learning item from the Institute

Image of Priti Patel courtesy of Twocoms, via Shutterstock