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What to Do When Your Spouse Doesn’t Like Your Employee

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In a recently posted comment to my March 26 blog (‘A Friendly Face”’) about hiring friends, Mark Johnson raised an equally thorny issue: “How do you deal with an out-of-office spouse that is interested in you firing a star performer?” The issues involving spouses not active in the business usually are only slightly easier to deal with than those involving spouses who work in the business. 

When it comes to out-of-business spouses, gender seems to play a larger role. In my experience, husbands tend to seek autonomy in their own business lives and,  consequently, are less likely to want to get involved in their wives’ businesses. Wives, on the other hand, especially non-working wives, seem to have a greater interest in their husbands’ firms. I suspect this stems from the considerable overlap between a small, closely held business and one’s private life. 

In either case, the simple answer is to gently, but firmly, tell your spouse that it’s your business and you need to run it your way. Of course, relationships are rarely that simple. Owning a small business involves decisions that affect one’s family life: time spent in the office; whether to grow larger; add partners; business risk; reinvesting in the business; financing to expand; buying your building, etc. In most marriages, you need and wants your spouse’s buy-in on these key decisions. 

So you have to pick your battles, and a “butt-out” conversation about one employee often just isn’t worth it.

For an employee who you feel strongly about keeping, I suggest the two-pronged strategy of introducing some objective criteria, and delaying the decision. First, try to determine why your spouse doesn’t like the employee: is it personal or is it a job-related problem? If it’s job-related, point out how well the employee gets along with the other employees, and that they work well together. Privately, set some performance or other objective criteria, so that the employee can ‘prove’ him or herself and overcome the spouse’s concerns. 

However, this is mostly to forestall a decision. Because, in this case, the spouse doesn’t actually work with the employee, it’s almost always a personal issue, although that may be hard to uncover. So your real goal here is to buy time for your spouse to get to know the employee better and, we hope, get over it—I mean, see them in a different light. You might even set up situations for that to happen: at office get-togethers, lunches, or even dinner out with two or three employees and their spouses or dates. (If the employee is of the opposite sex of the owner, getting to know her or him in a setting with their spouse or significant other can often calm their concerns.) 

If your spouse’s concern really is business related, hopefully the performance of your employee will prove them wrong, and save their job. If it’s personal, some face time will quite often do the trick, but it probably won’t happen overnight: just keep getting them together until something clicks, or it becomes clear that it never will.

The bottom line here is that if your spouse feels strongly that an employee should go, you’re probably going to have to lose the employee. Your best bet is to give them every reason—and lots of time—to change their mind.