Give Free-Lance a Chance

I read a story recently about the BBC giving its employees the chance to work in what they would consider their ideal job outside the corporation for up to six months. The purpose: to bring back new ideas to the company.

Employees have to convince BBC management that time spent at the outside job will, in fact, benefit the company. If they can do so - and approximately 150 have thus far - they get paid their regular BBC salary while working at the temporary job, even if the job itself pays less.

A storied fixture in the business, the British broadcaster is unusual in the amount of attention it focuses on training employees; this is only one example. If you propose a similar program to management at your company, chances are pretty good the answer you get will be "no."

However, there is a way your employees can accomplish much the same thing. But to tell you how, I'm going to have to say a bad word: free-lancing.

Somewhere within your company's corporate hierarchy, there's at least one official who could read you a long list of reasons why no employee should ever be allowed to free-lance. To the degree that individuals' arguments have carried the day, your company has a policy that ranges from "hell no!" to something that says free-lancing will be allowed, with conditions.

I'll give you suggestions about dealing with some of those "conditions" in a moment. First, let's talk about what's to be gained from an employee's free-lancing.


My view is that most jobs in television and video production are narrow, and they keep getting narrower. This can mean those who train new employees may only know the company way, which may not be the best way. Problem-solving starts with blinders on. And worst of all, when needs within a company change, such as when a show is canceled, those with narrow skills may not be qualified for positions on the program that takes its place.

There's not much you can do about this within the facility itself. You only have certain programs or projects to assign people to. As for rotating employees to different jobs within, there's likely a lot of pressure to keep the "best" newscast audio operator doing newscast audio, as just one example.

However, if that audio operator has an opportunity to work on an outside project, say a concert remote, he or she may pick up a number of skills. If it's his first concert, chances are he won't be lead audio operator, which should give him a chance to work with an experienced audio tech. He may come back knowing more about equalizing audio than what's been handed down, audio operator to audio operator, at your company over the years.

He's probably also going to get experience with different mics and a different audio console. When it's time to upgrade in either of those areas, he'll have more to contribute than someone without this outside experience.

Free-lancing can also benefit your station or facility when a special project comes along. Another photographer and I used to freelance for NFL Films during the football season. When the station needed to do a football special, they had the benefit of having a couple of shooters who could follow the ball on a level with the industry standard: NFL Films.

Our station also had a director who directed NFL games for NBC. When we did pre-season games, we got a network job out of our director. And because the company-owned remote company hired station engineers to staff positions on sports and other remotes, we could field an experienced crew for our own remotes.


Here's some advice on overcoming corporate objections:

First, I'll bet your company doesn't have a policy that says no employee can do outside work for another company. Why would that be? It's probably because your company president wants to serve on some other company's board of directors. So instead there's probably a restrictive and broadly defined policy on freelancing.

The way I view it, the fact that the policy is restrictive and broadly defined works to your benefit. At the individual department or station level, there needs to be a much more specific policy in place. It's been left to you to define that policy and get it cleared by the company.

First, determine who that person is - the one who would ban free-lancing altogether if it were up to him or her. You may never overcome that individual's objections to his or her own satisfaction, but if he or she considers those issues seriously and overcomes them to your own satisfaction, then you'll probably have a pretty good set of rules.

Should employees be allowed to use company equipment for free-lance projects? Probably not. Company gear can get stolen or broken or just worn out, or someone could be injured using it. Chances are the company's insurance won't cover any of those things. So, there's one point in your policy: no company equipment can be used on free-lance projects.

What about rearranging an employee's schedule to allow free-lance work? How is this different from the company's policy on taking time off for any other purpose? Outside projects don't qualify for sick leave. Employees only have so much vacation coming, and probably a structure for signing up for it. Your policy might spell out that free-lance work will not be done on company time, and that no special time off will be granted for such work.


The corporate policy likely contains the words "conflict of interest." This is where some definition is needed. What is a conflict of interest when it comes to free-lancing? Your sounding board up the corporate ladder may be of great help in defining this.

If an employee is doing a project that takes away a revenue-generating opportunity for the station, that sounds like a conflict of interest to me. I remember a commercial production shooter who went to a local business during a proposal session along with a station salesman and producer. The shooter gave the client a raft of reasons the station's production department couldn't handle the job (with the salesman and producer's jaws dropping to their chests), then slipped the client his free-lancer business card on the way out the door. (He didn't know the client was a close, personal friend of the sales manager.)

Now that's a conflict of interest! If you can write specifics for your policy that make it clear the example above is out of the question, you're well on your way to defining conflict of interest.

You might want to define it more broadly than merely station revenue opportunities, perhaps to prohibit any outside project that works against company interests.

I keep saying "you" can or should do this or that on the free-lancing policy. That's because if you don't take a leadership role in writing it, the policy either won't get done or won't be workable for your employees.

This is not to say you should work on the policy alone. If your human resources director has human resources training, he'll probably be an asset to you on the project. You'll want to run it past your boss, and the company will probably want a lawyer to look at it. But if you don't drive it, it won't get done.

Finally, the corporate policy may say that all free-lance work needs to be cleared with an employee's supervisor. Although this may seem to put you directly in the crosshairs, it's also there to protect you. Include clearance with the supervisor in the more specific policy you're writing.

You may want to have a form that you fill out when an employee checks with you on a free-lance project. It should have a checklist of points on the policy: "Company equipment is not being used for this project." Check. "No special time off will be granted." Check. Have the employee initial and date it. File it in the employee's folder.

This must all seem like a lot of work, and it is. But since you're not working for the BBC, it's the next best way to broaden your employees' training. And it can bring real benefits back to the company.