Spouses Don't Make Good Employees

A Twitter listener asks what Dave's thoughts are on hiring spouses. Dave says spouses don't do well as employees.

QUESTION: A Twitter listener asks what Dave’s thoughts are on hiring spouses. Dave says spouses don’t do well as employees.

ANSWER: My thoughts are if you think you’re going to hire your spouse, if you’re willing to write that sentence that way, you’re going to have trouble. I think the phrase would be more properly, “What are my thoughts on working with your spouse?” The chances of you hiring your spouse…right there, we’ve got a problem. Spouses don’t do well as employees. They don’t, because they get confused between being an employee and being a wife or a husband. It’s really hard for them to separate it. You can do better with grown children, cousins or in-laws. You can work with relatives. It’s possible, but it brings up potential problems.

Let’s pretend that maybe I misunderstood that tweet, which I might have, and you’re saying I’m going to hire one of my team members’ spouses. I wouldn’t do that. We do not hire family members. We don’t hire brothers and sisters, children or family members of team members with rare exceptions. The way we have actually phrased that in our written operating principles is we say almost never. We have, and I have people who have worked here and gotten married and both of them still work here. I don’t fire you. We’re not corporate about it. We’re not super hardcore. I think there are only two who work here that we hired that way. We hired them in knowing that they were relatives. We’ve turned away a bunch. Most of the time, we turn that away. If you reprimand one, you’ve reprimanded the other one. If you fire one of them, you got the other one. How hard is it for the other one to work? It’s almost disloyal to your spouse to stay with the place that fired them, because they can’t have good things to say. They can’t have good feelings. It’s impossible. We don’t hire relatives for that reason, because you will often lose one when you lose the other. I don’t blame them. If you fired Sharon and I worked there, I’d have a hard time staying even if she deserved it, because it’s just so much weirdness in the air. I avoid all that.

Now working with family, you have to divide the deal. My daughters work here. My son-in-law works here. But it is very clear—through lots of discussions with them—that they’re still my daughter while they’re here, but they’re going to be treated like a team member while they’re here. With very rare exceptions, they don’t get special treatment. As a matter of fact, they don’t work for me directly. In both cases, they work for different leaders inside the company who report to other leaders who report to me. If they come to me with issues, then what I end up doing is telling them to see their leaders. You’ve got to work with them on it. That’s not my deal. We hand off that way. They’ve taken to a great idea. We had a family business suggestion a while back, and some people aren’t comfortable with it and some are, but they’ve picked up the idea that they don’t call me Dad. They call me Dave like everyone else in the company does. Why is that? What’s the power of that? This guy’s suggestion was very powerful. He said that when your daughter walks up to you in a meeting and there’s a discussion going on in the meeting and she says Dad, it’s playing a trump card in the meeting and doesn’t even mean to. But what happens is everybody is reminded she’s got power here. She’s his daughter. But when she continually calls me Dave and refers to me as Dave, it disarms some of that. She does have that power, but it disarms some of it. It makes it much more doable.

The point is you have to separate these roles clearly, and people have to perform at levels of excellence even beyond other team members to be respected and to avoid all sense of nepotism, all sense of family favoritism. That has to be pushed back from the conversation. Working with your spouse might be the hardest one of those to do that with.