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When your spouse is also your employee

3 min read

Small Business

It’s usually a good management rule of thumb not to get too friendly with your employees or to sleep with them. However, according to the 2007 Census Bureau survey of business owners, there are 3.7 million businesses that are run by couples.

There are all kinds of tax and financial benefits to hiring your spouse as an employee. Plus, there’s no need to go through an extensive interview process and background check — you know what you’re getting. There is already a sense of built in loyalty and trust (assuming that’s already present in the marriage).

However, I’ve talked to enough small business owners that tell me they would never hire their spouse, and quite a few that have tried it and it was a disaster.

For the ones where it does work, here are some tips that seem to help make them successful (and to stay happily married):

1. Hire to add complementary skills to the business. For example, your spouse may be great with the numbers, or perhaps is great at dealing with clients or sales. Hiring a spouse just to give them something to do isn’t usually a good reason. And if your spouse has the same skills as you do, why hire? You’re most likely end up stepping on each other’s toes.

2. Have a clear division of labor. Be clear to each other, employees, customers and suppliers as to who does what. You may even want to write up and agree on formal job descriptions. Also, be realistic about qualifications. Of course, this can be a sensitive area to discuss, but better to work through it sooner rather than later.

3. Set clear boundaries around work and personal time. No one wants to be at the beach on a weekend discussing next year’s strategic plan. Establish a time — 6 p,m,, or weekends or vacations — where there are no work discussions, just enjoying each other’s company.

4. Set a time limit on the employment relationship, and agree to revisit it at that time. It’s better to sit down and agree to dissolve the business relationship before it gets to the point where the marriage is in trouble.

5. If your spouse isn’t your only employee, do your best to avoid favoritism or taking advantage of your spouse.

6. Agree to give each other periodic feedback. But first, set ground rules for feedback, and learn the skills of giving and receiving feedback.

Dan McCarthy is the director of Executive Development Programs at the University of New Hampshire. He writes the award-winning leadership-development blog Great Leadership and is consistently ranked as one of the top digital influencers in leadership and talent management. He’s a regular contributor to SmartBlog on Leadership. E-mail McCarthy.