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TLDR;

My wife got a 1 month trial as a product manager and tester for a new product I'm directly designing and developing. HR hates the fact that we're married and is trying to seat her separate from me, despite our work being directly involved. Not only does this slow us down, but it's decreasing her impact. What can we do?

Background Story:

I work as the lead software engineer at a media company. The company recently decided to start working on a new product, separate from our main. It is still in the initial conceptual phase, and we need guidance on what potential clients need as well as optimal designs and prioritization.

I was able to convince my boss, the COO, to let my wife join for one month as a product manager, 3 days a week. Being a small company, he assigned me as her direct manager and said she's free to sit where she likes. Because I directly work (design + code) on the product she's managing, I felt it best to place my wife on a separate desk in my office room.

I've already brought my wife to work various times throughout the year so people are already familiar with her and she is with the office. She's usually just sitting next to me watching me work. Sometimes other employees do the same, so it's not abnormal for us.

I share my office room with another developer and can easily fit 2 more people in the same room. We asked my coworker who shares the same room if it's okay. I also have a whiteboard and access to 2 desktop computers I use for work there, as my laptop no longer functions. Basically, everything in there is ready for our frequent brainstorming sessions.

However, our head of HR (who's also our CFO), dislikes that idea and assigned my wife to sit in the (large) hallway where we usually place contractors. She said it was due to her being my wife.

This is very detrimental to our productivity. We gave it a try for a day and it was difficult having to walk back and forth many times per hour. We got significantly more done when we were in the same room, as I was able to quickly answer questions she had about the company and/or possibilities. Not to mention her being able to provide feedback on whiteboard designs.

My wife is here for one month so she can prove herself. If her work is good enough, my boss said she could have an extended employment there. I feel like our head of HR is purposely trying to sabotage us just because we're married. Is there something we could do?

10 Answers 10

242

Is there something we could do?

Having your wife report to you directly and sit in the same office (regardless of the size) is highly irregular in my experience and, sadly for you, a legit spot for HR to be concerned.

I have worked with my wife in the past, but she was in a separate department and had a separate reporting structure. Also, my current boss's wife works in the same company with us, but again separate department and reporting structure.

One thing you could do right now is have your wife sit somewhere else, and change her boss to be someone other than yourself. ( maybe she could report to your boss instead, and even create a product department too )

Long story short it is not irregular for HR to be concerned about this scenario.

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    In fact most companies I've seen have strict rules to prevent this (having one's relatives as subordinates) and moving people to other teams (in the same pay grade / capacity) is mandatory. If there's something irregular in this situation is that the COO lacked that foresight and company's HR doesn't have that straight or they are skirting around the bush. – Mindwin Nov 5 at 12:25
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    This one. She tests OPs code, so it is detrimental for the product that she reports to him. For her to have the neutral state of mind needed to test a product without unconscious bias she shouldn't a) report to him and b) should have someone backing her up if something is amiss that OPs doesn't think is. Without someone between them, this may seriously strain their relationship. It would be better if she would work on another project though. – Rhayene Nov 5 at 15:08
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    My -1 is because this answer seems to be mostly a wordy way of saying "Don't do it." and without any real reasons (editing in "it could possibly cause..." won't help much either if it is not causing any problems). It essentially suggests OP do what OP is asking how to avoid. The only thing I can get behind here is the "change her boss" part. – Aaron Nov 5 at 18:19
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    @Aaron There are multiple potential problems with having an employee reporting directly to their spouse. If you are unfamiliar with them, please ask a separate question. – DJClayworth Nov 5 at 18:58
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    @Aaron First sentence, "product manager and tester for a new product I'm directly designing and developing". – user3067860 Nov 5 at 19:09
196

Lord forgive me, but I am actually on HR's side this time.

Your arrangement is an HR office's worst nightmare....

  • Nepotism
  • Fraternization
  • Liability for lawsuits...
  • Having a spouse be a direct report to her manager....

They are not engaging in sabotage, they are engaging in self-preservation.

The myriad of lawsuits to which this makes the company vulnerable are legion.

  • If anyone is terminated, they can cite nepotism and favoritism to your wife.
  • If your wife is promoted past anyone, another employee can, correctly, assert that she is sleeping with the boss.
  • People will fear addressing any issues regarding your wife, due to the possibility of reprisals.
  • If you two ever break up, or even have marital issues, the performance of both of you, and anyone dealing with either of you, will take a hit.

Go with HR on this one, it's not sabatoge. In the end, it will serve both your interests, and the company's

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    Those are some excellent point. Having close friends or family members in the workspace is only asking for trouble with anyone involved. – reg Nov 4 at 19:11
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    @reg companies will make exceptions if the people's jobs don't overlap, or if they are at different locations, or are not in the same chain of command. This one is a perfect storm of legal liability – Richard Says Reinstate Monica Nov 4 at 19:14
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    "Lord forgive me, but I am actually on HR's side this time." you've gone to the dark side ;) – cdkMoose Nov 4 at 21:52
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    "another employee can, correctly, assert that she is sleeping with the boss" Not always true? Consider some of the more negative "married couple" stereotypes. – nick012000 Nov 5 at 13:38
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    "They are not engaging in sabotage..." honestly expected that sentence to end "...you are!" – RyanfaeScotland Nov 5 at 14:22
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It sounds like you already used your position to give someone you're married to a position at the company she may not have gotten otherwise, and now HR wants to make sure you two are physically separated to ensure she's working properly by herself.

HR is protecting the company's interests. It is very nepotistic to have a husband convince a manager to hire his wife for a project they'll both work on then placing the wife's desk in the same office as the husband. That does not look good from the outside looking in.

If she has questions about the company, she should be directing it to a manager. If she has questions about the project, she should should be communicating that with you.

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    " If she has questions about the project, she should should be communicating that with you." And this is exactly the reason she should be seated close to him. Not because she is his wife, but because she is an employee who needs to communicate very often with him. – FooTheBar Nov 5 at 9:38
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    @O.F. HR is trying to prevent the appearance of impropriety. They want to make sure that not only is everything legal and above-board, but so obviously so that no one will attempt to sue or claim nepotism/discrimination. It's less about how things actually are, and more about how they could look to an outside observer. In other words, CYA – Chronocidal Nov 5 at 12:43
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    A husband convinced his manager to hire his wife as his direct report and put them in the same office. What about that does look good? – JRodge01 Nov 5 at 18:36
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    @Aaron Nepotism, by definition, is "the practice among those with power or influence of favoring relatives or friends, especially by giving them jobs". It's a conflict of interest because the husband has other incentives to hire the wife outside of what's best for the company. It doesn't matter if the wife is indeed the best hire, as it's impossible for anyone else to discern whether she was hired because she's the wife, or hired for her qualifications. Possible nepotism never looks good, it's a misuse of power. – Nuclear Wang Nov 5 at 19:24
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    @Aaron Not clear what you're trying to show with the example - a half-pay, double-output employee in practice isn't a good choice because they'll quit or burn out, so they're usually not the best option in the long term. You don't refuse to hire that person out of kindness to them, you make that decision based on what's best for the company. Companies can make sub-optimal decisions for altruistic, environmental, social, or other reasons, but for one employee to make a decision that benefits himself over the company is just bad business. – Nuclear Wang Nov 6 at 19:00
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I don't know if HR is sabotaging your wife's chances at getting the permanent position or not, I do know this whole situation should have never seen the light of day, to begin with!

You got your wife the position, not in an "I'll pass your CV around and hope something sticks", but literally, got her the position. And on a new product, none the less, which must be the envy of all other folks at the company.

You managed it so you're her direct manager and, to top things up, you managed it so your sitting in the same room.

You really don't see anything wrong with this?!

Of course HR is unhappy. Even if no laws, the only thing that matters, right?, were broken and no legal action can be taken in the future (which other answers have already proved a wrong assumption), the optics of this are horrible!

Be happy that your wife got the one-month gig, see if other folks in the company that worked with her would write her glowing recommendations (her direct manager's opinion is, in your case, meaningless, for obvious reasons) and put her back on the market.

What were you even thinking to begin with?!

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    Would -2 if I could. On top of asserting opinions as facts, this is also rude. Only mildly though, otherwise I'd flag and request deletion. "should have never seen the light of day" The only part that might apply to is arguably him managing her. "You really don't see anything wrong with this?!" Again, possibly only the management part; other than that, no, I see absolutely nothing wrong with it. "the optics of this are horrible!" How? No "what ifs" please, take OP at their word. How? "What were you even thinking to begin with?!" Probably "Yay! We're so happy and productive now! Everyone wins!" – Aaron Nov 5 at 18:36
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    @Aaron sadly, you're fighting a losing battle on this one. I agree with you that this could potentially be an excellent thing both for the married couple and for the company. However, as has been mentioned to you in many comments it looks bad to all the other employees. How would you feel if your manager brought in his/her spouse to head up design/testing of a cool new product that you would have liked to do. You'd feel cheated. You'd feel that spouse was only there due to relationship w/boss. You'd be screaming "unfair nepotism" from the roof tops. – FreeMan Nov 6 at 15:13
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    @FreeMan I have seen so many times where the wrong person gets a position that I'm quite cynical in that regard. As many people say all the time, it's who you know. In this case, it just happens to be a wife instead of a "friend of a friend". I would not be screaming anything, especially if the wife could do her job. – Aaron Nov 6 at 17:36
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    @FreeMan One of my past employers was a big name, a billion-dollar tech place you've heard of. What you describe was normal there. So much that anyone with the same last name was assumed to be related: husbands/wives and parents/children were normal. Some worked in the same room with desks near each other on same projects. They just were not in management roles over each other. I thought it seemed great. When I left there it was for other reasons; I was not screaming "unfair nepotism". Unfair was when I couldn't get a friend who's a great engineer in just because he didn't have a degree. – Aaron Nov 6 at 17:44
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    @Aaron I'm glad to hear it's going well for said tech giant. Sadly, your attitude is not one held by the majority of people. Many, if not most, people would look at this situation and wonder. They would be very quick to jump on any perceived mistake as an opportunity to say, "I told you so". Unfortunately, in this litigious society we live in, it's reasonable for HR to want to avoid expensive "appearances". – FreeMan Nov 6 at 18:40
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I'm going to take a slightly different tack than the other answers here, but arrive at a similar conclusion.

First of all, getting a job for your friend or relative is not "highly irregular" especially if your company isn't one of those with really formal and strict rules and regulations. Often jobs are obtained because the boss is looking for someone with certain skills and someone knows someone with those skills. It saves the hassle of the search and possibly having to pay a recruitment agent, or hire an unknown.

But it is quite unusual for your wife to report directly to you. These sorts of restrictions carry an assumption of a lack of trust - i.e. HR don't know if they can trust you and her to be professional and impartial in spite of this situation. (especially if you are involved in employee reviews / promotions, in fact that would be a big no-no).

So, in conclusion, first of all, you need to be more understanding of HR and their concerns. Give it some time, you kind of need to prove yourself in their eyes, but you're still only in the first month of her employment. Once you've shown they have nothing to worry about they might be more open to you two working in the same office.

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    Even the relationship can be strained by the stress at work. I will echo the fact, it is extremely unusual, for your wife to report directly to you, even if it makes sense from a workflow perspective. – Donald Nov 5 at 18:14
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    This is a great point. Maybe suggest they schedule a meeting with the COO and HR to talk through their concerns and how they can be addressed over the short-medium term – Fred Stark Nov 6 at 4:32
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I'd just go to your boss (the COO) and tell him your concern. Do realize however that this is a highly unusual arrangement: it's usually considered extremely inappropriate and grounds for immediate termination if a manager is in a romantic relationship with a subordinate.

And while it isn't impermissible fraternization as you were married prior to her being employed, HR certainly sees this as nepotism, which is equally bad for any organization. The most appropriate thing in this circumstance would be for your wife to be on a completely different team, so as to avoid concerns regarding nepotism.

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In theory, your wife is competing with other employees for this job.

This is very detrimental to our productivity.

Imagine if you had a different product manager working on the same project, let's call that person Julie or Bret. Would you have Julie or Bret sit in your office all the time?

If that is indeed the case, my apologies, but let me ask you a second question.

When did you figure out you needed a Product Manager? Did you create this position solely for your wife? How many other internal employees were allowed to compete for this position? How many outsiders were made aware of it?

I suppose no one really cares about the outsiders (unless it's for legal reasons), but the internal employees, some of them may really be upset about the lost opportunity.

Because I directly work (design + code) on the product she's managing,

Shouldn't you be the one reporting to her since she's the product manager (and not the other way around)? Or is she just your intern at this point?

Being a small company, he assigned me as her direct manager

Your boss should never have done that.

Should I be your investor, before the next round of funding, I'd demand that he be fired, or that he be demoted to a non-management position.

She's usually just sitting next to me watching me work. Sometimes other employees do the same, so it's not abnormal for us.

This is completely normal if you bring a child at work, a child will often watch you work.

But an adult, a fully-grown one, I've never seen that. Most adults who wait for their partners usually have their own independent lives to worry about, and so you'll often see them fiddling with their phones, or impatiently reading magazines, or messing about on Facebook.

Is that the real issue, that your wife doesn't have her own social life, or that she is not qualified or able to get a job on her own?

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    I think the issue is precisely that they would have any product manager sitting near them (I certainly work very closely with my product managers). But HR is saying that this usual arrangement is not allowed in this case. – Nico Burns Nov 5 at 14:38
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    Sitting next to eachother and working at the same time is not that uncommon. Pair programming being one example, QA helping out software developers after tests are finished being another one. There are plenty of places where two people work at one thing in the same time. – Rachey Nov 5 at 15:02
  • @Rachey It's probably a process smell if one person is always the one typing and the other is always the one observing, though... (I personally also think it's a process smell if it's always the same pair, yes some people mesh better but if one of the goals is to spread knowledge then having always the same pairs seems detrimental.) – user3067860 Nov 5 at 16:40
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    @NicoBurns, Rachey, Ok, I've altered my answer. – Stephan Branczyk Nov 5 at 18:28
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Is there something we could do?

Talk to your manager about having a phone installed at your wife's desk (and your desk if you don't already have one). This will eliminate the need for constantly having to walk back and forth to communicate with each other. If your company already has a preferred messaging application you can use that or suggest one to use. E-mail communication can also be utilized.

As for the brainstorming and whiteboard sessions, you can always schedule meetings when these are necessary. Even though she is your wife, you need to treat her as an employee. This is usually HR's stance as well. They are looking out for the company's interests and do not want any further inappropriate behavior.

3

Like colmde, I'm going to take a different perspective than some of the ones posted before, but also slightly different from colmde's.

Yes, there are some red flags here from an HR and management standpoint:

  • You "[convinced] [your] boss, the COO, to let [your] wife join for one month as a product manager" - this is slightly less than ideal, but at most a yellow flag. Recommending friends and even family for positions isn't all that unusual.

  • Your boss assigned you as her direct manager. That was a major error on his part and I can see why it's a red flag for HR.

  • You have your wife sitting in a different place than previous contractors you've had in the past, which apparently seems suspect to HR.

You've said this could lead to a long-term position, so HR isn't turning a blind eye as they might if it were for one month only.

Is there something we could do?

Yes, here's what I'd suggest:

  1. Go to your boss and say that you can see why there's an issue with your wife being your direct report and ask him to assign someone else as her manager (perhaps him, perhaps the coworker you said shares the office, perhaps someone else). Behave according to that change (it would be easy to accidentally keep acting like her manager even after the change, but that's counterproductive so you need to actively avoid doing it).

    This is also a good time to just discuss this with your boss generally. Keep it constructive.

  2. Provided your boss agrees, write a brief but clear email to the head of HR, CC'ing your boss and your wife's new manager:

    • Saying that you (and your boss!) understand that making her a direct report was an error and that your boss (on your suggestion) has corrected it by having her report to X.

    • Explaining the specific reason for her being in the same office, and saying that you'd want anyone else doing the same job to also sit in the same office (provided you can truthfully say that, which from your question I think you can but only you know for sure). Note that this means that if your wife doesn't secure the position long-term, but someone else does, the expectation is that they will share your office.

    • Asking that if they have any concerns with the new arrangement that they arrange a meeting with your boss and your wife's new boss to work things out (let them know you'd be happy to be there to provide context for the work being done, but don't expect that you'll be in the meeting).

Keep the email short, make sure it's clear, polite, and above all constructive and understanding of the fact there were initial issues, and that your goal is to correct the issues to ensure everyone's happy with the new arrangement, including HR.

0

This may seem a little rough but... dude, if you don't own the place, nor are you in the position high enough to make these types of decisions, I suggest you grow up and focus on your work. You're lucky enough they hired her. The company isn't about you and your wife and worrying about these issues has as you said impacted your productivity. Secondly your boss should be let go for even making a decision like this. It was a poor call on his part and unprofessional for you to even ask.

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