I have plans to branch out into private consulting in the field I am currently employed in. Several exisiting clients have approached me expressing strong interest in working with me privately, based on the help I have been able to provide ... especially when concerned they have not received the same level of service from their assigned resources. As this area of consulting could (and often does) take place in the evenings and weekends, and to be open and fair, I previously approached the head of my division to discuss the option of providing this service to those dissatisfied clients - offering to do so after normal business hours. The response I received was that to do so would give my employers ammunition to fire me. I have worked here 12 years and have witnessed the evidence of the spiteful nature of my employers: black-listed in company and surrounding community; refusal to provide recommendations; delay or "creative processing" of exit pay, etc. However, there are several people at our company who have private businesses in the specific field they are working in.
I've considered restricting my consulting practice to those clients who can show they have no active business with the company where I work. Again, this consulting would take place outside my current work hours. I see this as a way around the "conflict of interest" issue, but am fearful my employers would still use this against me. Is this a subjective matter that can be handled according to the discretion of employers, or is there a legal line drawn here? What legal standing do I have in this situation?