In an employment contract or "handbook", what's the proper interpretation of wording such as - "not to engage in activities / must notify HR about activities that may be in conflict with the duties of the employment, including other employment, personal business ventures..."

This is something I've seen in many contracts/handbooks and doesn't seem to be company specific.

Does the wording imply that ANY outside interest is a potential conflict of interest so must be notified? Or only IF this is the case.

For the sake of an example - I develop (program) credit card processing software, my outside interest is knitting baby clothes which I sell on etsy. (I adapted this example from the one listed in the comment, it isn't my exact situation but is similar. I would be "selling" a particular product, but it's a more unusual one which may be identifiable)

To my mind that isn't potentially in conflict, as it's a totally unrelated business, with no potential to "poach" customers, done in my own time, etc. But it's that word "MAY" that gets me.

Edited to add: as a related question, can "precedent" (other employees already known to do outside etsy etc) be used if they get difficult about it?

I'm not already doing the side business, but about to start.

  • 2
    Surprisingly similar question, given the example you gave: Looking for a new job with a side business
    – David K
    Mar 7, 2016 at 16:59
  • I nicked the example from there and changed. It
    – user47059
    Mar 7, 2016 at 17:01
  • Should I include a link to that question in mine?
    – user47059
    Mar 7, 2016 at 17:03
  • 2
    That can be very one sided. In a large company you may not even know all the activities the company engages in. But still you see that language. You may need to get a legal interpretation.
    – paparazzo
    Mar 7, 2016 at 17:17
  • 1
    Is there any equivalent of the legal principle that "ambiguous" wording goes in the favour of the disadvantaged party if challenged?
    – user47059
    Mar 7, 2016 at 19:17

2 Answers 2


The wording is made deliberately vague so that if there is later found to be a conflict, the company wants it to be clear that you had a duty to clear the activity with them.

In almost all cases, companies are worried about conflicts in three areas:

  1. Impacting your ability to do your job. If you are spending your nights driving a taxi, and come in every day tired and doing poor work, they want to be told.
  2. Business or IP conflict. Developing a competitive product with the company obviously counts - and remember that in a big company a 'competitive product' might cover very many areas, not just the ones you work on. it also includes anything the company might want to be involved with in the future. Likewise using any confidential or proprietary information, even in a non-competing area, will be a conflict. If you are doing something that is anywhere close to your company's line of business, get permission.
  3. Affecting the company image. If you are known as a representative of the company, and you are involved with something that the company would not want to be associated with, then they will want to know about that too.

In reality it is unlikely that your example will be regarded as a conflict, and the company probably doesn't want to be bothered with it. But if you wish to play it safe, asking your boss takes very little time and gives you the chance to say you informed the company if for some reason it becomes an issue later

  • 1
    Additionally ensuring you are in full compliance with policy can be a shield if someone starts gunning for your job.
    – Myles
    Mar 7, 2016 at 17:53
  • Correct on all counts, I just take a more conservative take on it. +1 Mar 7, 2016 at 18:11
  • I agree with everything except the first sentence of the last paragraph. my employer's upfront that it's all about legal CYA; but that in order to get the needed CYA they need to know about it so they can issue a proforma "Nope. We don't care. Have fun with your knitting." signoff. Mar 7, 2016 at 20:48

It means notify HR regardless. "May" is a "Weasel-word" (actual term) that has a very inexact meaning and that is by design. For example, I "may" hit the lottery. Not much of a chance, but it "may" happen.

So, the only way to be safe is to inform HR about any activity you are thinking of undertaking and get express permission before doing anything, because they can and will enforce that clause.

Remember, even something as innocuous as taking a paper route will alter your availability and sleeping patterns which "may" affect your energy level on the job and ability to work required overtime.

Again, always talk to HR first and consider anything less than explicit permission to do something to be a denial of permission.

  • This feels like the same logic underlying a Work to Rules strike. Mar 7, 2016 at 22:23
  • @Lawtonfogle I participated in those in my youth. We called it "booking management". We did everything by the book, everything ground to a halt. Mar 8, 2016 at 13:18

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