Should you hire an employee’s significant other?A client asked for my help thinking through a decision to hire a current employee’s significant other. (I led my reply with “don’t do it!“)

This article will go over why it’s a bad idea to hire your employees’ partners (beyond what you’re already thinking)… and how to mitigate risk if you decide to do it anyway.

Why hiring a significant other rarely works

Nepotism might work out fine. But if something goes poorly with either party (in their romantic relationship or in your professional relationship with each as employees), it’ll likely hurt your agency.

If one doesn’t deliver what you need at work, you won’t feel free and clear about firing them, because it may lead the other to quit.

What if they break up?

What’s work going to be like for them and for the rest of their team if their romantic relationship ends? I have a client with two people who refuse to work together (no prior dating), and he feels pressure to move everyone else around to avoid confronting the real problem. This means some significant compromises on staffing.

A former client hired his wife part-time to do operations. She was bad at the job (she didn’t pay bills on time; she let the company credit cards expire), and then she wanted to go full-time. He didn’t feel comfortable holding her accountable or telling her “no.” This did not go well.

Don’t give up your power as a manager

When you hire someone who’s dating or married to current employee, you’re giving up one of your most vital powers as a manager—the power to freely fire a poor performer.

Often, significant others working together are owners both working on the business, or an owner and their non-owner spouse. I give that a little more leeway, because they know so much about each other. That doesn’t guarantee they’ll work well together (see the example above about not paying bills on time), but at least they have all the data.

Think about others’ morale

However, if you hire an employee’s partner, even if the two of them get along, you risk hurting other employees’ morale. Is the partner getting better work assignments, nicer clients, or other preferential treatment? Even if this isn’t the case, others may still perceive it.

It can even come down to commuting snags. “Oh, I was late for the meeting because Pat wasn’t ready to go.” Or “I can’t stay late because Sara has to let the dog out and she’s my ride.”

If you have an agency with fewer than 100 people and are considering hiring an employee’s significant other, you’re risking your agency’s financial future in an unnecessary, completely avoidable way. Your agency is likely your biggest financial asset; is it worth the risk?

What if you decide to hire a significant other?

I once worked at a company where the two owners were married but had different last names. You’d never have guessed it; they were extremely professional. In fact, six months after a coworker started, he asked me, “Hey… are Bob and Sally married?”

If both parties are boringly stable, it could work. If they aren’t directly (or even indirectly) supervising each other, it could work. If they’re working hard to make it look like there’s no preferential treatment (even, perhaps, giving their partner less-desirable assignments), it could work.

How to mitigate risk

If you’re considering hiring an employee’s partner, talk to them and other employees. Communicate your hiring rationale to the team, instead of their assuming the job was given because of an existing relationship.

Not sure you’re getting good data? Do an anonymous survey of the employees to see if they’re comfortable, and how to make the new team dynamic work smoothly. And, pre-decide what you’ll do if X number of people say “no” or “ehh…”

If you’re planning to proceed (but want to do a survey anyway), consider that this isn’t the best approach. I suggest open-ended questions focused on solutions. You can frame what you’re considering and why, and then ask things like “what risks do you foresee?” In general, don’t ask questions when you can’t or won’t act on the answer.

Another option is to hire your employee’s partner on a contract basis. This isn’t ideal for those looking for full-time work, but it protects your agency by adding an extra layer of distance.

Finally, don’t forget to update your employee handbook and company policies to reflect your hiring decisions. You can affirm that your agency doesn’t hire significant others, or indicate that leadership has discretion to waive the “no related employees” clause; you want to be sure policy and practice match.

And then… good luck!

Question: What’s your experience with a couple working at the same company?

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