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I work for a small (15 person) niche IT consulting company. I have become regularly requested by our clients and I am a top performer at my company, which in turn has brought in healthy profits for the owner. My wife also works for the same company. She has off-and-on health problems and has had difficulty holding a traditional job. Shortly after my joining, my boss offered her very flexible employment to manage the back end of the company (HR, managing clients, answering phone calls/emails, running the day-to-day stuff) and she has really enjoying having this role and it has fit perfectly with her health needs.

Our 15 consultants are scattered across North America and we just fly to our clients. And the boss has practically moved from Phoenix to LA because he can interface (golf) with clients more easily there. So it really has become a nebulous, virtual company. My wife sees the boss maybe one day a month and I see him briefly every 6-8 months, like most of the consultants. There isn't much of a workplace environment to speak of.

My job also requires an extreme amount of travel and I have become burned out. Recently, a client offered me a very competitive job offer and I decided to take it. When I broke the news to my current boss, he was very dismayed and threatened that if I left he would also unceremoniously fire my wife. He said he expects me on a plane to my next client on Sunday or my wife will be unemployed on Monday. (The implication being I have until Sunday to decide and getting on the plane means I gave in to his threat, otherwise we are both fired on Monday)

I feel my relationship is irrevocably destroyed between my current boss and his company and I might as well help my wife start looking for something new. She has suffered from long unemployment bouts and this has just been so perfect for her and had given her a new self-worth. I am now feeling a hesitation to leave just for her sake. I am also slightly skeptical of my boss's threat, since the company has been doing so well recently he has really ramped his lifestyle up and according to my wife, he spends most of his days playing golf with prospective new clients and she does ALL the business management. He would really have no clue what was going on if it was just dumped in his lap.

I have yet to tell my wife about the encounter and I wondering if there is a best course here. Right now I am feeling inclined to entirely divorce myself from the company and help my wife prepare for another 8 year job search.

It may take 8 years because my wife suffers from unpredictable extreme headaches after an epilepsy surgery she had when she was 22. Every previous employer could not deal with her inability to guarantee her presence on a given schedule. She always works her 40, making up missed time in the evenings or weekends. The virtual nature of our company helps too because she can put off an email or returning a phone call for a couple of hours. Larger companies have rigid HR policies that don't allow for such random absences. She is smart (suma cum laude) and capable, she just can't guarantee her availability at any given time. What can I do to reconcile this situation? Ideally, my wife will keep her job and I will take the new job offer.

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What does your wife think? This seems like a place where you should be talking to each other rather than interweb pundits. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Aug 13 at 13:36
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Hi MaxChris, I edited your question slightly so that it's more on topic here and clear - if I changed the intent too much feel free to edit it. Great question, crappy situation... –  enderland Aug 13 at 13:46
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Your potential new employer is a customer of your current employer. Can the current boss undermine your new emplyment? –  greenfingers Aug 13 at 14:23
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What the wife thinks about it is obviously very important. There's a small chance that the new company would have a position for your wife - if your current boss is willing to fire your wife because you are leaving, the new boss might be willing to hire her because the old boss is a scumbag. And of course because she seems to be doing a good job if one takes her health into account, so she seems to be a good employee, just needing a bit of flexibility. –  gnasher729 Aug 13 at 14:36
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I edited this again to remove the legal implications that got the question closed. I believe this is now very on topic here, hopefully others agree and vote to reopen! –  enderland Aug 13 at 14:40

6 Answers 6

up vote 132 down vote accepted

First and foremost so you don't miss this - your boss is a complete douchebag. Threatening your wife's employment after you indicate you are taking a new job is childish at best.


How should you approach your boss?

Honestly, anyone who is willing to make threats like that is unlikely to be willing to have a constructive conversation about such things. The best outcome probably is something like, "hey sorry, it was a joke, lighten up."

Right now I am feeling inclined to entirely divorce myself from the company and help my wife prepare for another 8 year job search. Any perspective would be much appreciated.

Nothing your boss says is going to:

  1. Make you enjoy your work more
  2. Let you forget your boss tried to blackmail you by threatening to fire your wife

No conversation will fix these issues.

How should you approach your wife?

This is important. Talk with her.

She might love her job but I would be shocked if she was excited to keep working there in a situation where her spouse was being manipulated by her job being threatened. Either way you two need to be on the same page about this - it sounds like you are not at all right now.

Is your wife employable?

Let's address this too. If your wife is really running your business, and has been for any meaningful amount of time, she now has a ton of good skills to put on a resume.

The perspective you've portrayed makes her quite employable. Running all logistics and HR for an entire startup is no small task.

It should not take her 8 years to find similar employment if she has been doing what you describe.

Don't let the past results trap you into a really crappy situation.

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Trust me, his douchebag status has not been lost on me –  MaxChris Aug 13 at 13:53

He is also fast and loose with his personal/business expenses and would probably be ripe for an IRS audit. Should I counter his extortion?

The term "extortion" has legal implications in many contexts.

I don't think anyone here would advise you to take such a threatening route. Nor should they.

Right now I am feeling inclined to entirely divorce myself from the company and help my wife prepare for another 8 year job search. Any perspective would be much appreciated.

It sounds like an entirely unhealthy situation.

I think you should follow your inclinations. Give the appropriate notice period. Then, get out, and help your wife find employment elsewhere if that is actually needed.

You wouldn't want your wife to continue working for an employer who is an blackmailer/extortionist, who makes threats, and who is also fast and loose with his personal/business expenses, right?

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"You wouldn't want your wife to continue working for an employer who is an blackmailer/extortionist, who makes threats, and who is also fast and loose with his personal/business expenses, right?" this. –  Alex M. Aug 13 at 14:03
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And your wife might even get a nice sack of money for damages if you hire an employment lawyer after he 'fires' her. Though that depends a lot on local laws. But at least where I live that would be the case (for sure if you have some kind of recording of his threat). –  David Mulder Aug 13 at 14:32
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@DavidMulder => Make a recording of this threat –  Pierre Arlaud Aug 14 at 8:45

Since you're in the US, and in an at-will state, it's unlikely you have any legal recourse here. It might be worth talking to an employment lawyer just to see if the specific nature of the threat could be actionable in some form, but I doubt it; he's not discriminating based on any particular protected class, for example. You might potentially have recourse based on your wife's health condition, but since it sounds like that's not the reason he'd be letting her go, probably not.

You should consider the fact that he may be employing your wife in this nice, flexible position simply as an incentive to keep you on, as well. Not that he was right to be a jerk about it - sounds like he has anger issues - but it wouldn't be the first time I'd heard of someone's spouse (either one) being employed in flexible terms or in a job they're not as qualified for, for the purpose of retaining someone. lhis of course doesn't necessarily change the calculus for you - but consider it a fringe benefit, and think of it that way.

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My first thought was "this guy's wife is not a 'star' employee and the boss just hired her to keep him happy", in which case the boss is somewhat morally justified in terminating her if he leaves. –  Graham Aug 13 at 13:55
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@DavidMulder Generally, at-will employment is jaw-droppingly incomprensible to Europeans. –  AakashM Aug 13 at 14:44
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If this is legal... why don't employers make far more use of their 'powers' then? You could demand anything at all of your employees whilst threatening to fire either them or their closest friends... seems like an 'ideal' landscape for companies... –  David Mulder Aug 13 at 14:53
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First, because that would be an excellent way to ensure you don't get any more decent employees. Second, because in the rarer situations where there aren't many opportunities (Walmart in a small town, ie), you have social ramifications. You do have employers pushing things that might seem unreasonable- I left my last retail management job shortly prior to the managers being required to have booksellers upsell a certain number of a particular title or be fired, for example - but most employers have some understanding they aren't the only game in town. –  Joe Aug 13 at 14:57
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Note that there are two distinct issues here that some people seem to be confusing. Regardless of whether the boss has the right to fire the wife at will, he doesn't have the right to use that to threaten an employee and strong-arm them into staying. The (potentially) illegal part is the threat. The firing is simply the consequences that you'll have to live with if you want to call his bluff and then press charges or file suit. It can still be blackmail, even if the threat involves something that is perfectly legal. –  bta Aug 15 at 0:56

You should talk to your boss tactfully and see if you can't help him understand your situation, it sounds like he knows enough of your situation to threaten you with firing your wife.

It is never a good idea to cross the ethics line and do something that could be seen by other employers as deceitful or wrong.

If you do something that crosses the line of ethics someone will know about it and someone will say something (if something can go wrong it will [citation needed]).

First, tell your wife and talk to her about the possibilities, I am sure that she has already thought of this scenario anyway (speculation). Any decision that you make that would affect her should be made with her.

Second, talk to your boss with the ammo that you gathered from talking to your wife. Maybe you and your wife have decided to stay, let him know that and tell him why. or if you are leaving, let him know that his threat has no grip on you because both of you are resigning after your notice.

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Remember that employment is a two-way street. "At will" (most states) employment means the company must accept that there is nothing tying the employees to the company. If they don't like it, they need to implement employment contracts.*

That being said, NEVER negotiate with terrorists. Your boss is terrorizing you, so it is time to leave. There are plenty of jobs out there that pay more than you're making now, have better working conditions and so forth.

Of course, talk with your wife FIRST. Big decisions should never be made unilaterally.

Let's say that your boss is psychotic enough to follow through on his threat. Would your family be okay with your income alone for a while?

Yes

Leave now. Don't look back.

No

Two options here: either your new gig would be willing to spot you a loan, or you'll have to wait and save up (they might even be willing to wait a few months -- you have nothing to lose by asking!)

You need to start saving (do it anyway, no matter what your emp situation is!). The easiest way is to set up a savings account that automatically sweeps 10% of your paycheck into it every time you get paid. This is totally doable -- take it from someone who has +$10,000 in credit card bills, AND over 6 months of living expenses socked away!

Once you get close to having the necessary amount, get another job and leave. Whether you want to give 2 weeks or not is up to you (I wouldn't, as I don't give terrorists professional courtesy).

Your wife's employment

Right now I am feeling inclined to ... help my wife prepare for another 8 year job search.

That is a THINKING ERROR, my friend. If you can tell the future like that, then please send me the winning PowerBall lottery numbers (no one else look!).

Your wife will get a job when she gets a job. It may take 10 years...or it could be the day she starts looking. Stop worrying about the future and take care of today only.


*Never, ever sign a contract without a lawyer looking over it. Ever. Take it from one who knows from painful, first-hand experience.

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"Never negotiate with terrorists" - of course you do. To gain time until all your weapons are in place. –  gnasher729 Aug 31 at 19:10

if the difference in compensation with your new job is enough to offset your wife's compensation, make the move! If your wife is terminated as a result of your move, she will be eligible for unemployment while she searches for a new position. Also consider the fact that due to her ongoing medical issues, she may be eligible for social security disability compensation. Use the system for god sake! It is there for a reason.

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The issue here isn't compensation, it's working conditions. Also, it doesn't make sense to base this on whether he gets a raise that's more than what she makes now. Presumably she'll get a new job if she loses this one. –  Ben Crowell Aug 14 at 17:26

protected by enderland Aug 16 at 14:30

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