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I am managing a technical team and a woman in QA has gotten engaged to one of my male developers.

The CEO phoned to ask me to terminate the woman working in QA (providing two months of salary required for legal termination. As this termination is considered as Arbitrary Termination and illegal in our law) because her fiancée is a hard-working professional developer. I do not agree that she has done anything meriting her being fired, and we have no written policy against getting engaged/marrying other employees within the company.

I feel strongly enough about this that I am willing to leave my job for the sake of justice and to take the right action.

How can I get the CEO to change his mind about this decision?

UPDATE
I have told him clearly that I am totally against micromanagement. And it is my responsibility to manage my team, and nobody is allowed to even contact any member of my team directly (I know I was super tough), but this made him retreating and withdraw his request :) ... Who knows...he might be looking for a replacement for me now, but I feel that I did what my conscience and ethics have ordered me to do :D

  • 23
    This is not answerable here. It depends entirely on the labor and anti-discrimination laws in your jurisdiction. In the US employment is usually 'at will', meaning that you can be fired for any reason or no reason at all. There are exceptions for certain protected classes. This particular instance may be legally complex, because if your company has a history of always firing the woman in such cases it could be evidence of gender discrimination, which is one of the protected classes. To get a real answer this question you'd have to consult a lawyer. – Charles E. Grant Feb 22 '15 at 19:44
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    Vote to reopen. "What to do in this situation" is bread and butter to this site, as long as the situation isn't too specific, which this one isn't. – DJClayworth Feb 23 '15 at 16:08
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    So, the CEO thinks he can hold onto the 'hard-working professional developer' after mistreating his fiancee? – James Adam Feb 23 '15 at 18:12
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    The first step I would suggest is to ask the CEO to send the request to you in writing; rather than over the phone. – Burhan Khalid Feb 24 '15 at 5:05
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    +100 You officially rock for standing up for your staff! – user9158 Feb 25 '15 at 0:34
137

It's not a universal standard that related employees should not work together, but it is a very common standard, and with good reasons behind it. Even if the couple treat each other entirely professionally, there will always be the suspicion of favouritism. But there are degrees of problem here. If neither is in a supervisory role over the other it's less of a problem. (Usually the standard includes people "in a relationship", so if the firing was going to happen it probably should have happened before.)

If you've been given a direct order, then you are in a very difficult situation. However if the company culture allows for a little pushback, I would maybe recommend some alternative approaches.

  1. Point out to the CEO that if the company arbitrarily and suddenly fires one of the couple, it is highly likely that the other one will quit too. Then you will lose both of them. The effect on the morale of the rest of the team will be nothing but bad in any case.
  2. If the company is big enough, suggest that one of the couple is moved to a different place in the organization, so they don't work together - and especially so that one doesn't report to the other. That way you keep two good workers and there is no suggestion of favouritism.
  3. If that is not possible, see if you can bring the couple into the discussion. State the problem, and see if they have an alternative way of solving it. Maybe one of them was intending to quit anyway. Maybe they were planning a baby and one was going to become a stay-at-home parent (Don't ask about that directly!!!!). Or maybe, now that they see the problem, one is prepared to go and look for another job. The situation isn't a problem immediately, just over the long term, so if it takes months to be resoled it won't hurt the company. And it is going to be much better for the company to solve this amicably, rather than dictatorially. However don't have that conversation without getting your CEO's OK first.
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    +1 for "if the company arbitrarily and suddenly fires one of the couple, it is highly likely that the other one will quit too. Then you will lose both of them". If even the manager is thinking of resigning over this, then it's very, very likely the fiance would! – user56reinstatemonica8 Feb 22 '15 at 23:31
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    Wow, sometimes the solution is worse than the problem! If the manager resigns over the issue, the CEO will probably ask the new manager to fire the woman employee, and by then, the hard-working developer would have probably also resigned. In effect, the company has lost three employees over a relatively trivial matter. (and who knows, how many more employees would leave due to the "Avalanche Effect"). – Masked Man Feb 23 '15 at 4:04
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    @Happy this is why you don't fire good people. When someone respected in your staff is fired it almost always snow balls. When someone who's underperforming, constantly tardy, disruptive, etc it's a lot less likely others will follow. – RualStorge Feb 23 '15 at 14:50
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    I can't believe getting engaged/married to a co-worker is not allowed in countries. If my fiancee got fired (or moved into a different place) after our engagement, I would surely rethink about continuing in that company. Personal life shouldn't influence professional decisions. – Krishnabhadra Feb 24 '15 at 5:51
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    Btw, in our places companies is happy when couples work together, because there is less chance of one of them resigning. – Krishnabhadra Feb 24 '15 at 5:55
109

First of all, your unease with your CEO's request is admirable. I am of the opinion that he is acting unethically, and support your decision to resist this.

However, a person willing to fire someone over a personal matter such as this, would be very quick to turn their power elsewhere, like you.

Now, at work your first action should be to cover your butt, then the companies butt then any other butts you see fit. So how can you help the QA, while protecting yourself, and the company?

Unfortunately, you haven't stated where you work, which means we don't know the exact labour laws where you are, but I'd wager neither you or the CEO are aware of this either.

State very clearly you need the CEO to get it in writing why you want the employee fired, and ask if there are other options, such as redeployment within the company, or even just a declaration of a conflict-of-interest. Often just stating that a conflict exists, and how you will aim to work with impartiality and making this a public document is enough to make the conflict-of-interest issue disappear. Then...

Lawyer up!1

If the CEO still wants to pursue a termination, state very clearly that you think that there might be legal issues for the company. Ignore the fact that you think the CEO is acting unethically, your job isn't to be his moral compass, it's to protect the company. And firing a female employee for getting married is a good way to get sued and dragged through the media.

So just ask, have you cleared this with legal? Are they ok with this decision and have they checked the labour laws?

At the end of the day saying no to the CEO is tough, so don't say no. Stall, delay, muddy the waters with legalese. Do everything you can to make sure this is 100% above board, because it very likely isn't and being made aware of that will make the CEO look elsewhere, you'll protect the company, you'll protect your star-crossed lovers, and you might even come out looking good by looking out for the company!

[1]: By "lawyer up", I mean engage your company's legal and HR departments, stall, ask for everything in writing, in triplicate, yell "objection" whenever anyone asks you anything. Getting an actual, external lawyer is probably not a great idea.

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    Amen. You'd be begging for a discrimination lawsuit. And without the CEO's signature on it, the liability is likely to be yours. – keshlam Feb 22 '15 at 23:57
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    Saying "no" is perfectly fine, and far more honorable than stalling. Going through the proper process and associated delays should not be equated to intentional stalling – Ben Voigt Feb 23 '15 at 1:28
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    Lego is right. @reirab, two employees of the company got married. The female employee was fired, because her betrothed was a "hard-working professional". The male employee was not fired, although his betrothed is also a "hard-working professional" at the same company! That differential treatment is itself gender discrimination. If they had both been fired, it would still have been unethical, but perhaps not illegal. IANAL, but with only the woman being fired, it certainly seems illegal. – Matthew Flaschen Feb 23 '15 at 5:18
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    @MatthewFlaschen The original wording of the question (before Lego edited) made it sound like the dev was the harder working and more valuable of the employees. It is most certainly not illegal in the U.S. for a company to terminate the employee it considers less valuable if a conflict of interest arises between two employees. Lego may be right that any lawyer would argue she was terminated because she was a woman, but the original post didn't make it sound at all like that's the actual reason. Any jury worth its salt would likely see through that argument and dismiss. – reirab Feb 23 '15 at 5:23
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    In what world is it the "right cause" to fire someone for getting engaged? If there is a conflict of interest, which is a highly dubious claim, then the couple can declare it and manage it accordingly as adults. The CEOs actions are unethical at the best and out right illegal in some jurisdictions. – user9158 Feb 23 '15 at 12:17
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It certainly is not a general policy for all companies around the world. The last company I worked for, a startup with 20 employees, the CEO had his wife working as an executive assistant.

But it is a policy at some companies. I have worked for companies that had a rule that spouses could not work at all for the company, others where spouses could not work at the same location, and others where spouses could not work in the same department. But in each case, this should be a rule that is either in the company handbook or a written rule that is made clear before a person is hired. It should not be applied retroactively.

Furthermore, these two people are currently engaged, not yet married. It should not apply to them until they are actually married. I doubt if the company in question actually has a written rule prohibiting fiances from working in the same company. I have never run into that.

Note: this situation doesn't just apply to spouses, but any family members. I once worked at a company where the a father and daughter were working at the same location; she was an intern during summer break from college.

  • +1 for employee handbook - although, it is the CEO's (or the board's) prerogative to update that document – HorusKol Feb 22 '15 at 22:55
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    It's also worth mentioning that (in many countries) engagement is not even an official legal status the way marriage is. I'd expect that such a "no fiances" policy would have to define what constitutes engagement. – user56reinstatemonica8 Feb 22 '15 at 23:37
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    Ironically, the kind of "conflict of interest" that such policies are designed to address can occur just as easily with any significant-other or even platonic relationship. – teego1967 Feb 22 '15 at 23:57
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    Another +1 for reading the employee handbook. At the company I work for, there is a clearly-stated company policy that a supervisor can not be in a romantic relationship of any sort with a subordinate. The policy states that, should such a relationship arise, either one of them must quit or be transferred or the supervisor will be terminated. I suppose this is a little heavy-handed, but, at the same time, I can see the conflict-of-interest rationale for it, too. It does seem a little excessive for a QA and dev, though, unless the QA is responsible for reporting on the dev's performance. – reirab Feb 23 '15 at 4:48
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    I have worked where two partners were together, and no-one was happy about it. The better option is to offer one partner a similar position in another department. Once a guy got promoted from group leader to department leader, and his wife had to change departments because otherwise he would have been her boss. This is how management should work. – RedSonja Feb 23 '15 at 12:05
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Some people are willing to just follow directions regardless of whether or not these directions are ethical or in good taste. However, since you're considering resignation as a possible reaction to this matter, I don't think it will sit well with you to just comply.

If you do fire this person, you risk damaging your conscience and that can be worse than any punishment a petty tyrant CEO can deliver.

You absolutely should tell the CEO that he is making a mistake and give him an opportunity to reconsider or perhaps work out some alternative compromise. If he persists, then you should tell him to do it himself-- and be ready to resign or be fired (or at best you'll need to start updating the resume).

  • Damaging a conscience?. Sheesh. A workplace is not a school. You should know the social rules or face to be fired. In this case, it is THE STANDARD of the business, the CEO isn't asking anything special. Sheesh!. – magallanes Feb 23 '15 at 12:22
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    @magallanes, Immediate dismissal upon engagement is clearly is not any kind of "standard", it is merely a capricious decision made by a CEO for reasons rational people can only guess at. And anyway, the OP is well aware that resignation or firing is "on the table" here. Some people have enough backbone to not appease 'holes like this CEO. – teego1967 Feb 23 '15 at 12:30
  • @magallanes — Fortunately, this CEO is not the standard, he is the exception. – Nicolas Barbulesco Feb 24 '15 at 3:08
8

The CEO makes decisions based on the information he is working with. One statement here is that the fiancé is a hard-working professional. As a programmer, chances are that he is hard-working not so much because of economic pressure but rather because of work ethics and identification with company and product.

Fire his fiancée, and it's a good bet that this will not improve his work morale. He would be well advised to look for a different employer even if he does not find employment at the same company as his fiancée.

Your job is to manage employee relations, and you look like you are willing to quit over this. Obviously, you are not left in a situation of doing your job if the CEO does decisions like that over your head.

So basically, we are talking about having three persons stop working productively for the company in order to satisfy a rule that is nowhere to be found apart from the CEO's head.

In the extreme case, it might boil down to you having to choose between doing your job and keeping your job. Not just for you, but effectively also for the programmer in question.

For better or worse, if you take your job seriously, it would be better to make the CEO aware of the scope his decision means for the personnel: it clearly does not stop at the woman he wants to see fired.

I am not saying this is going to work out well. But I don't see that sticking your head in the sand is going to work out well for you either. I'd start by trying to schedule a one-on-one talk with the CEO so that there is no "loss of face" involved for any change in course.

Good luck!

6

I know of companies where couples or close relatives are not allowed to work together with good reasons (for example at a bank, where there is lots of money to be stolen and two people working together can get around security much easier than one. Still no restriction against couples working for the same employer). In the case of a software developer and a QA, seriously what does the CEO expect? That she doesn't report bugs that her husband is responsible for? That's plain stupid. Obviously not something you should tell the CEO to his face, but it is.

As always the advice: Don't quit about this. If you want to quit about it, find a new job first, then quit. Don't use quitting as a threat. That CEO is stupid and doesn't care for any employees as he has demonstrated, so he won't care about you.

The best you can do is to tell him that this dick move (don't use the word dick when you tell him) will be very bad for the morale of all employees, and that you will most likely lose the other half of the couple as well soon.

You could suggest that instead of firing the fiancee you could ask her to find a new job, with a generous amount of time for that. It's still stupid, but the consequences for the company will be much less bad.

You could suggest that instead of you firing that person, which you totally disagree with, the CEO should personally come down and do the evil deed, face to face. There's a chance that he wimps out. There's a chance that it costs you your job. If you were willing to quit over it...

3

I would suggest arranging a meeting between everyone involved -- the CEO, the developer, the QA person and yourself -- with the goal of resolving the situation without anyone leaving.

First off, this isn't a universal custom. Although there are legitmate concerns in some cases, I wouldn't want my internal auditor to be married to the accountant for instance, this particular case doesn't seem to raise a conflict of interest to me.

Secondly, if this is an official policy, and you aren't firing them both, you need to be careful of descrimination lawsuits.

Finally, I'm not sure it's a good idea to give the CEO an ultimatum in this meeting, but if the meeting doesn't come to a successful conclusion, I think you should let the couple know your plans -- whether that is to simply let the CEO do his own dirty work, or to quit if he fires one or both of them. Letting them know that someone at the company cares is perhaps the last thing you can do to for both them and the company.

Whatever you do, and however it comes out, good luck.

-1

Depending on where you live I would check the legality of this. This might be discrimination according to the Civil rights act.

see http://topics.hrhero.com/title-vii-of-the-civil-rights-act-of-1964/# and http://www.eeoc.gov/facts/qanda.html

which seems to indicate it also covers peoples marital status

  • 5
    On the other hand, don't automatically assume that this falls under the category of "marital status". There is big difference between "married or not" vs "married to another employee". Professional legal advice would be in order before taking such an action (OP, who is not taking the action, has much less to be concerned about in that direction) – Ben Voigt Feb 23 '15 at 1:25
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    I agree with Ben, they are not protected this way. – Loren Pechtel Feb 23 '15 at 1:47
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    I also agree that this is not protected by the CRA. The CRA says you can't be terminated due to whether or not you're married. It doesn't say you can't be terminated for a potential conflict of interest (though I would question whether a QA and a dev is really a serious conflict of interest... a supervisor and a subordinate is another matter, though.) – reirab Feb 23 '15 at 4:54
  • @BenVoigt: It doesn't matter what happens to other women. What matters is what happens to that woman. If she wasn't married, she wouldn't be fired. It doesn't matter that it depends on the person she married, fact is that the CEO wants to fire her because she is getting married and wouldn't want to fire her if she didn't get married. – gnasher729 Feb 24 '15 at 14:45
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Do it

Several people already mentioned that it is common to have official or unofficial guidelines against colleagues becoming partners. And in general this is for good reasons, regardless of how applicable the reasons are to this specific situation.

If no action is taken now, later a couple might form that would be very problematic and should be stopped. But of course they cannot be stopped because that would easily be viewed as unfair and discriminating, given that this couple was allowed to go on.

So, considering that there may be some (yet unexposed) reasons for stopping this workplace relatinoship, and that it seems to be only consistent with how other colleagues will be treated, it may actually be the right thing to do.


But do it properly

That being said, letting this person go is a bit different than letting someone else go, as you don't want to upset the partner too much. As such I would try to part in a decent way and try to show that you wish her the best. Perhaps a bit more money, a bit more time or a glowing recommendation when she applies somewhere else can soothe the pain.

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    "later a couple might form that would be very problematic" - then they should be dealt with for being problematic, not for being a couple. The problem would be the problematic behaviour, not the fact they are a couple. – user56reinstatemonica8 Feb 24 '15 at 11:45
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    It absolutely is NOT a given that a couple will be problematic. One doesn't have to dismiss anyone without first evaluating the situation for real conflicts of interest, not what might happen someday. It is totally natural that in workplaces where people spend a lot of their time that couples will form. Dealing with these relationships by firing is a ham-fisted approach that harms everyone involved. – teego1967 Feb 24 '15 at 12:59
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    This is a bad way to do business. I would argue that my significant other and I were more productive than our peers. We worked together in the same department for years (we were dating for years before we worked together). I don't think it's that shocking that you can be more productive working with someone you really get along with. – MiniRagnarok Feb 24 '15 at 19:02
  • This advice is craven, immoral and rightly illegal in many places. – mikeagg Nov 16 '15 at 13:19

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