When your spouse is also your coworker

June 9, 2011, 4:52 PM UTC

When Tom Corwin is done with his workday, he knocks on the wall. That signals his wife Carol — who works in the

neighboring office at the U.S. Education Department’s budget office — that he’s ready to go home.

“We’ve been married 27 years now, and we’ve been working together longer than that. I can’t imagine not working with her,” says Corwin, 59, who met his wife on the job. “We always know what one another is going through professionally.”

The couple enjoys talking out work challenges during their commute home, and often will brainstorm a solution to an assignment that seemed pointless at first blush. They contribute to each other’s careers, and probably end up giving more time and energy to their employer than they would otherwise, he says.

With June kicking off the start of wedding season, newlyweds who work in the same office will embark on a delicate balancing act between their relationship at work and at home. Long-time married couples sharing an employer say it helps to have separate roles, respect your spouse’s contributions at home and work, shift into professional mode when needed and zealously guard your personal time.

“It can be challenging,” says Justin Lee, 38, who runs San Diego-based Internprofits.com with his wife Dreama. “You really have to be able to separate work and home. You can’t come home and stew about a dispute you had. You have to leave it at work.”

The first requirement to working with your spouse is to ensure it doesn’t violate any office rules. While some employers have policies against dating a co-worker or hiring a relative of an existing employee, most of the companies with policies simply restrict relatives from working in a direct reporting relationship.

Working at the same level — or in a different department — as your spouse is generally fair game. Done right, it can give you deeper respect for your spouse’s professional skills, and sharing a workplace can be enjoyable.

Wendy Harris, 52, who is a vice president at Tax Analysts in Falls Church, Va., relies on her wife Rachael’s knowledge of the staff at the non-profit tax publishing company when she needs to know who can accomplish a certain task.

“I just ask her who can get this done, and she tells me, which makes me look good,” says Harris. Working together “gives us a lot in common and we get to help each other with work problems.”

The pair, who met at work in 1998 and married in the District of Columbia a year ago, eat lunch together every day and commute together at least a couple of days a week.

Next, keep it professional at work and ensure that you have a level of separation that’s comfortable for both of you. That may mean having offices on opposite sides of the building and lunch together once a week, rather than back to back and daily.

“I don’t have my arm around her all day. You might not know we’re married,” Corwin says. “We interact like colleagues in that situation. I don’t call her pet names.”

And just as you leave the intimate side of your relationship at home, leave work debates at work — and personal arguments at home. “It does force me not to be a bitch at the office because I was mad at him last night,” says Jessy Rodgers, 52, who started a financial planning business in Lancaster, Pa., with her now-husband Rick.

Set clear boundaries on work discussions during personal hours, whether that’s not having any such talks on evenings and weekends, or abiding by a 20-minute limit. “It’s hard when you’re driving up the coast and your spouse wants to discuss next year’s strategic plan on the five-hour drive. I really didn’t sign up for this,” says Stephania Kaneda, 50, who works with her husband at IDeAs, their San Jose-based electrical engineering firm.

Kaneda could never handle reporting to her husband — or vice versa — so they are co-principals with distinct bailiwicks. “One key thing is our roles are very, very different,” says David Kaneda.

If you work for an employer that allows spouses to report to one another, be sensitive to whether co-workers might resent any promotions or special treatment. Your employer should make sure to communicate your individual accomplishments, so it’s clear there’s no nepotism or favoritism involved, says Sasha Galbraith, a partner at Galbraith Management Consultants in Breckenridge, Colo.

Of course, there are some factors simply beyond your control. One downside of working with your spouse is that all your eggs are in one basket. For the Kanedas, that means when business is slow, both of them suffer a drop in income. For other couples, one spouse’s layoff may end up affecting the other.

Consultant Michelle Reina of the Reina Trust Building Institute describes a scenario a client faced, where a husband’s position was eliminated during a reorganization. While the wife kept her job at the same company, her feelings about the employer changed.

“The way in which the downsizing was handled did not feel good to them. The person was given a very short period of time to clear out his desk and leave,” Reina says. “That has been a tough one, because the wife, who continues to work there, is deeply hurt and frustrated and it impacts her perception of the company.”

Another employer laid off both spouses simultaneously, and told them if they could find another job within the corporation, they could stay on. The subsequent competition and stress created a strain on the marriage, even though both did obtain new positions at the company. “The woman was able to work through the depth of betrayal she felt,” Reina says. “Her husband continues to hold the posture of the victim.”

Ultimately, many spouses who work together say the pros outweigh the cons. Sharing a professional life with your life partner can even cement your relationship as you come to know your partner better.

“It’s carried over into our family life in a good way,” says Dreama Lee.


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