if my wife works for a competitor, is that a conflict of interest?

A reader writes:

My wife works in the advertising business. I’m also seeking a job in the ad business, which means that I’ll likely be interviewing with competitors. The two of us have already spoken at length about the potential conflicts of interest that could result from this kind of situation, and are prepared to maintain 100% confidentiality in the event that we work for competing firms.

I’m wondering, though, what to do in interview situations. Do companies I interview with have a right to know that my spouse works for one of their competitors? Do they have the right to reject my application on this basis alone? And, in any case, should I mention my wife’s line of work in interview situations? I wouldn’t want to mention it too late and make people think that I was hiding something, but at the same time I wouldn’t want to mention it too early and be unfairly disqualified from consideration for a job that’s perfect for me.

Do they have a right to reject your application on that basis alone? Sure. As I am frequently repeating, companies can reject you for any reason they want as long as it’s not based on your membership in a legally protected class (race, religion, nationality, sex, marital status, disability, and so forth). That doesn’t mean they should or will, just that they’re allowed to.

Do they have a right to know about your wife’s job? I don’t think they have a “right” to know, but practically speaking, (a) it may come out after you start working for them, and they might understandably think it was an error in judgment that you never mentioned it, and (b) some companies have employees sign conflict-of-interest agreements that cover close family members, and it may come out that way.

However, the time to bring this up if after they’ve made you a job offer. There’s just no reason to give them pause about you when they haven’t even made up their mind about you yet. Wait until they’ve already made the decision that you’re the candidate they want, because at that point, they’re more committed to closing the deal with you and are more likely to want to work something out.

At that point, though, I’d disclose it. If it’s going to be a problem, it’s better to find out now instead of a month into the job. But you might find out that they don’t care at all, or that they can just keep you off certain accounts. Regardless, you’ll show integrity by asking about it.

Update: I’m now questioning my own advice. See the comment section for more..

{ 12 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    As much as I hate to disagree with AAM on this one, I do. It would give me pause about someone if they waited until the last minute to put their cards on the table. I'd imagine we (our team) would have discussions around rescinding the offer since it came out at the last minute and it might be an issue.

    My advice would be to wait until a face to face interview. This way, no one has invested much in it and there's no question about if you're hiding something purposefully. I'd phrase it with "what is your stance on family members at competing firms?" Get their input and then say you brought it up because your wife works at x. This way you get some info from them and can get a sense of how they'd handle it and you've also been open and forthright.

  2. Ask a Manager*

    You know, as much as I hate to be wrong, that is pretty compelling and reasonable-sounding. I think I may have called this one wrong. Crap. I may have to take this post down!

  3. Maggie*

    AAM or Anonymous's advice may make sense for most businesses, but not for advertising. Advertising has such high turnover and so many in-agency romances that this is totally common in this field. Without trying very hard, I can think of five friends who have significant others that work at other agencies. Now, if you're talking about one of you working in marketing at Coca-Cola and the other working in marketing at Pepsi, that's a totally different thing, but within the agency world, no one would bat an eye.

  4. Anonymous*

    I disagree on any disclosure of this.

    Unless you are going to offered a partnership at an advertising firm, they don't need to know what your wife does for a living. Period. You would be an employee, and you abide by their confidentiality rules.

    I repeat – you would be an employee. It's a business transaction, and your employer doesn't have a right to know about your personal life.

  5. Anonymous*

    I guess I disagree all around. I don't see how this is relevant unless the employer has a strict policy on that specific situation. I can't even fathom that type of policy being enforcable as the employer would be taking non-compete and conflict of interest outside the employer/employee relationship.

    OP ~ jmho There's no good time (nor need, really), for the interviewee to disclose they know, slept with, bred or wed someone working for the competition. The interview is about what you bring to the job, not who you know, or where they work.

  6. Mike*

    If this is such an issue, why wouldn't it be on the application or otherwise part of the initial screening? Or at least a question in the interview?

    After all, conflict of interest policies are really dependent on the firm and the exact position being offered here. It seems to me that if it's an issue the firm would make it known and allow the perspective employee a chance to come clean.

    Anything hidden after that point would be where I would think about firing or rescinding offers.

  7. Clobbered*

    I think AAM called it right the first time. In the absence of any specific known-in-advance restrictions, the right time for any "just so you know" conversations is at the job offer stage.

    Otherwise I would lean towards not mentioning it at all unless it is a direct issue (like your new boss suggests you work on the Pepsi account when your wife has the Coca Cola account).

  8. Anonymous*

    Sure, if they have a policy in place, you need to deal with it. But there is ABSOLUTELY no reason to tell the employer otherwise. It is simply none of their business.

    If you tell the employer, you are in essence giving them the power to control you and your wife, without putting a policy in place.

    There are all sorts of things which are relevant to an employer and which they might like to know. "I get drunk and pass out every Friday night. But I'm always fine by Monday. Just FYI."

    But just because they'd want to know doesn't mean you should tell them.

  9. Anonymous*

    I had a similar situation a few years ago. My husband worked for one staffing firm, and I was interviewing for another. To make matters worse, I didn't know until after I interviewed that it was a position working on an account that his company just lost to the company I was speaking with. I met with all the agency people, and then with the client. Although the client knew my husband, they never picked up on my last name being the same. I wanted to get the job (or not) on my own merits and I disclosed my husband's employer when my boss made me the offer. She was fine with it, as was the client. I lucked out, I guess.

  10. Charles*

    I don't work in the ad field (one of the few fields that I have NOT been a trainer in) so maybe things are a bit different; but, I would NOT mention what my spouse does for a living to my employer at anytime. Quite frankly, it is none of their business.

    Among the few fields where it might be a legal matter are: politics, government, and law offices. Sometimes in these situations the competition is really an adversary – that makes it a very different situation from what the OP is referring to.

    So, unless they ask (and they can if they want to) I would not volunteer such info. If it really is a big deal to them they would bring it up at sometime. Otherwise, one might be putting doubt into the interviewer's mind that doesn't belong there. Even after being hired it might be putting doubt in your boss's mind for promotions.

  11. Anonymous*

    I was the one who asked the question. Never thought it would create such debate!

    After seeing all the opinions flying back and forth, I come down on the side of disclosure at some point. Most ad agencies have an at-will employment policy, which, if I understand it correctly, means that you can effectively be hired for any reason. So, better to bring it up ahead of time rather than take a job and be fired for something that comes out later.

    For the record, I interviewed, it went well, and the interviewer said it was no issue where my wife worked. Maybe he was writing me off in his head, but it's better than leaving my current job and being fired two weeks later. We'll see.

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