why would an employer ban couples from working in the same department?

A reader writes:

Is it legal for a company to enforce a strict “no couples in the same department” policy?  My girlfriend and I are in the same industry and in the last 6 or so years of professional work we’ve never known of a company to not employ one or the other because of their personal relationships. But one certain company we’ve spoken to is very strict about employing both of us in the same department, which we find strange.

Yes, it’s legal. (And sometimes I wonder what laws people think exist that would prohibit something like this.)

From the employer’s side, there are all kinds of reasons not to want couples working in the same department (or even in the same company, for that matter). Will you two be able to work on projects together professionally?  Will you act in a way that makes others uncomfortable?  Will you cause drama or tension if you have a fight or break up?  If you have a fight and stop speaking to each other, how’s that going to play out at work, where you might need to interact with each other?  If your girlfriend doesn’t get along with her boss, is that going to impact your own relationship with that boss? What if she gets fired or treated in a way she feels is unfair?  Is that really not going to impact your own morale? Will her beefs become your beefs, and vice versa?

You answer to all of this might be, “No, we’re completely professional and would never bring the relationship into the office in any way” … but lots of people say that and it ends up not being the case.

It’s easy to understand why an employer would prefer to just not deal with it at all.

{ 47 comments… read them below }

  1. Nanani*

    Yes, it’s legal. (And sometimes I wonder what laws people think exist that would prohibit something like this.)

    Simple: laws against discriminating on the basis of personal relationships.

    It’s plausible, given that so many other types of discrimination are illegal, that people would think it’s also illegal to discriminate on the basis of who someone is dating.

    Of course, even if such a law existed, it would probably apply only to hiring and not to policies about who works in which department when two members of a couple already work for the company.

  2. Anonymous*

    Wrong. There are actually very few categories of illegal discrimination. Nine times out of ten, the answer to the question, “Is it legal for my employer to…?” will be yes.

  3. Anonymous*

    Yes, it’s legal. (And sometimes I wonder what laws people think exist that would prohibit something like this.)

    While we know there are specific classes in which laws do protect the employees (religion, sex, race, etc.), I think to some it seems ridiculous that employers are allowed to get away with anything – from who they choose to hire to who they want to fire for any reason whatsoever. In some cases, it gets to be so assine that employers can fire you if they dislike the color tie a man wears or kind of show the woman wears (all for example sakes). Of course we get the idea that life isn’t fair, but shouldn’t there another line drawn for instances like those?

    Now here, I can see where AAM is coming from. Many people do not know that boundary, sometimes referred to as “at the door.” Leave your personal life at the door when you go to work, and leave your work at the door when you go home. If you are dating someone who you might live with and you work with, then boundaries are going to be blurred. Now some companies would hire the two for two different departments so that might be the next best thing if these two so choose.

  4. Anonymous*

    AAM is exactly right even if a couple insist they will be professional, it’s impossible. We had this situation at work. Husband asked a manager if we could hire his wife. She’s been laid off for a year or more. Management wanted to be understanding and compassionate. They hired the wife and she was a real challenge. She was a difficult person to work with and didn’t like certain coworkers who she thought were not as smart as she was. She even criticized some of them and would have loud outbursts. Management fired her after a series of warnings and the husband was extremely upset causing him to have a loud outburst at work. Other people she befriended in the company (also her husband’s friends) criticized management for being unfair and for favoring other people. It was interesting to watch…

    1. JT*

      Impossible is a strong word, and extrapolating from one example is not a good way of determining what is possible and impossible.

      1. Karen*

        That sounds like a poor decision on the company’s part, in terms of hiring an employee’s wife ‘just to be compassionate.’ But the root of the trouble seems to be that the woman was difficult to work with…not that she happened to be someone’s wife.

        1. Anon*

          I completely agree. It sounds more like the wife was a difficult person to work with and that was that. I think it’s possible for couples to work together but there needs to be a discussion with the two beforehand. The two need to agree on certain boundaries on what’s OK and what’s not, and also agree on how they’ll handle certain situations. EG. if a fight erupts between the two before work, they need to be civil enough to keep it out of the office and then resolve it later. I think it can work, but both sides need to be responsible about it and ensure that they keep the other person in the loop at all times.

    2. Billie*

      It’s not impossible. I met my husband at work. We worked together on several projects for about four years and the only person who knew we were together was our HR manager after we told them of a change in address when we moved in together. Our coworkers didn’t find out we were together until we invited a few to our wedding. Honestly, it’s not hard to act like a normal human being while dating a coworker, especially if you have a healthy functional relationship.

      1. Kat*

        It sounds like she was fired for her conduct. NOT for being his wife. This doesnt have anything to do with being married. If she were not involved with anybody at work, she probably still would have gotten fired for her conduct.

  5. Anonymous*

    I have worked with many couples (and couple of all types; it was the norm at my former employer), and while each would insist they are completely professional at work, in fact they were not. It was uncomfortable to work with them, and if I could get a non-couple on my projects instead of them, I would always do so. Something for the OP to think about.

    1. JT*

      Where I work (25 to 30 people in the office) we had a married couple and it was not a problem. I’m not using that to argue that it’s a good thing, or never a bad thing, or even a good idea for employers to allow that. I’m simply popping the “impossible” or “can’t work” balloon.

      1. jmkenrick*

        I agree. I think the idea here is that it works for some & it doesn’t work for others,depending on many unpredictable factors.The people hiring have no idea what group the OP is in, so they’re hedging their bets to avoid the possibility of a problem.

        I also think it’s worth noting that company culture probably heavily pays a role in this. I bet a couple that works well together & has fun at one company, might find that there’s tension & stress at another. It’s sort of like an added variable. Not only is there the question of how you meld with the company culture, now there’s also the question of how your relationship does. Just a thought.

      2. Anonymous*

        Throwing all your money into the lottery can make you rich, too. Doesn’t mean it’s a good path to take.

  6. Cary*

    In certain part of Canada you can’t discriminate on the basis of family relations. So it may be illegal to refuse to employee a person’s spouse but I suspect that interpretation would need to be tested in court. .

    1. Long Time Admin*

      All the employer would need to say is that they hired someone else who more closely met their needs. That’s vague enough to cover their behinds, and would be very hard to prove otherwise.

  7. Cassie*

    I work at a state university and near-relatives must disclose their relationships when the 2nd person is hired into the same department. Now, I’m not entirely sure if the same applies if the two are working in different departments – we have over 25,000 employees total, so it’s possible that two relatives would never interact with each other or even see each other on campus (depending on which depts or offices they worked at).

    It’s not verboten for two employees to be related, but it would definitely depend on the situation. I think a supervisor-subordinate working relationship is not allowed, but if they are the same level and reporting to someone else, it is permissible. We had two researchers who were married and worked in the same research group (even on the same projects). They had met as students in the same group and gotten married, graduated, and then returned to the university as researchers. They had different last names so they could have gotten around reporting the relationship, except that she was on his insurance plan. (Not that I would have advocated NOT reporting the relationship – there wouldn’t be a good reason to not follow policy).

    Also, for some highly touted faculty candidates (especially when they are relocating from a top univ), the hiring committees will almost always take the spouse into consideration – in the sense that they might try to find the spouse (if qualified) a faculty position in the university as well in order to strengthen the possibility of the candidate accepting the job offer. I wouldn’t be surprised if this didn’t also happen with top management officials at our univ as well.

    If I was a supervisor, I wouldn’t want to deal with the possibility of a potentially bad situation. Unless the positions are highly specialized, and these two people are the only people qualified, I’d rather look elsewhere. At the company level, depending on how large the company is, maybe it would be okay. But there’s already so much to deal with in the workplace, why add in another (potential) problem?

  8. Beth*

    I work with my husband. We have different bosses. I love my job and I love my husband BUT I hate working together. It just brings up so many issues: I know things about work that I can’t share with ANY other employees so I can’t talk to him about what I’m doing. Other employees ask us where the other one is all the time (we have multiple locations for work) and get angry if we don’t know (like we GPS track each other). My husband, who is the nicest person on the face of the earth, I believe gets taken advantage of my his boss and it ticks me off. I can’t say anything or I’ll jeopardize my own position. It’s just royally awkward. When they originally wanted to hire my husband, I kept my mouth shut other than to say I wanted nothing to do with the hiring process and didn’t want him to have even a lose report to me. I really would have preferred he work elsewhere but he needed a job. I guess my point is that unless you are opening a business together, I don’t believe working with your significant other is much fun.

    1. J.B.*

      I am so there with you except my husband is a temporary employee but won’t be hired for a permanent position. Which we only found out after a case by case review. And I would have preferred to have the bright line of “no you can’t work in the same department period” upfront rather than go through months and months of discussion to be told no. As would the hiring managers.

    2. anon*

      >I guess my point is that unless you are opening a business together…

      My kids took lessons from two musicians who met while performing. These two started a band, got married, and opened a music school. It was pretty entertaining for a while. During lessons they’d tell funny and often risqué stories about something the other spouse did at last week’s performance.

      Then he met someone else/she threw him out. He was the finance guy, so the school fell into a shambles with her not billing students and not knowing what they owe. She also started telling really bitter stories about him during (the kids’) class and losing students that way.

      The band they were in broke up, but they should’ve named it No Boundaries.

      1. Anonymous*

        I’ve found that it’s more common for couples to work together in the arts. Perhaps this is because of the limited opportunities in some regionsor. I used to work for a theater company and this wasn’t uncommon at all. In some cases it was obvious that they were a couple, but a lot of times it wasn’t, (thanks in part to different last names and their sense of professionalism). I don’t think it’s a good idea for couples to work together — but if they are both artists, it’s sometimes happens.

  9. Helen*

    Or like where I worked, where the company laid off the wife in circumstances which were highly sketchy (she’d asked for various accommodations after discovering she had rheumatoid arthritis, none of which were expensive, but HR was suffering can’tbebothereditis). We are in the UK so she might have had some legal recourse but probably not without making her husband’s work life very hard

  10. Community Chica*

    I work with my boyfriend in the same larger organisation. I am glad he is not in my immediate team, or is part of the extended teams that I have to work with. I would not be comfortable working with him, and in wanting to be objective, I may go the other way and be too hard on my boyfriend and his ideas.

  11. Mike D.*

    I had always thought that, in addition to what was already said, it would be hard for small departments to have two people consistently out at the same time becaue they take vacation together.

  12. Long Time Admin*

    We have a lot of married couples at my company. We’ve also had 3 layoffs in the last 1-1/2 years. When one spouse gets laid off, the other spouse’s attitude became very sour. It affected the whole company (just over 300 people).

    This is just one example, but I’ve been around forever and I can tell you that it’s not a good idea on so many levels.

    1. Jamie*

      No. And if they also expect you to put in a full 8 hour day to earn your paycheck you have grounds for a lawsuit.

      1. A Current College Student*

        Well, if you’ve been hired for, and are being paid for, only four hours a day… ;)

        1. Jamie*

          Ahhh…you found a loophole. You should change your screen name from Current College Student to Future Employment Lawyer!

  13. Jamie*

    I have seen this work well – twice. Both times the couples in question owned the company and had completely different wheelhouses.

    It’s not just all the ways it can actively go bad, which have been mentioned, but perception is a really important issue, too.

    You can be the rare couple that completely drops their personal loyalties at the door when you get to work…but there is no way your co-workers will all believe that. If one of you has budget control, for example, or scheduling responsibilities people may assume you’re making decisions based less on what the business needs and more on what your SO wants. Even if it’s not true, it can be impossible to prove a negative.

    I just think it’s a really bad idea.

  14. Lesley*

    My old company had really strict anti-nepotism rules. So relatives and significant others were never hired. And if relationships formed, the couple was gently prodded until someone found a new position elsewhere.
    This company was a pretty great place to work–not because of perks and benefits or any of those things that get you on the “best places to work” lists, but because there was a strong environment of mutual respect and people really enjoyed their jobs. If these ridiculously strict rules were what management felt was necessary to maintain that environment, I’m totally in favor of it. The few times I experienced an awkward environment there were when the relationships were too personal.

  15. Anon*

    I have seen this go both ways. In the most successful situation, the husband and wife were in completely different departments, had completely different fields, and were downright insistent on work boundaries. You could not ever say, “Andrea, when you get a chance, can you ask Steve….” She would cut you right off and say, “You should probably just email him. I won’t see him till 5pm.” She eventually got laid off, but her spouse stayed exactly the same level of professionalism. He knew that layoffs were going on all around and it was just a fact of life at that company.

    And then there is the unsuccessful situation that I deal with daily in my current job. Wife was hired into a different department because hubby is a rock star in this field. Wife has a MS, but many more reports, a bigger nicer office, and many fewer responsibilities than the PhDs and more experienced folks at her level. If hubby is working from home (and he legitimately does work at home), she goes home with him and becomes unreachable by her reports. In which case, I get to do all the day-to-day management of them, on top of my own work. She has many other issues, but at this point our boss has decided that having her not around is actually better than having her there, creating problems hither and yon. Letting go of the rock star, due to the keystone-like nature of his job and him being truly quite good at it, is not going to happen.

    If it was that important that we get this one rock star guy, they should have just offered him 150% of the pay and said, “take it or leave it.” We could have used the remaining 50% to buy an entry-level person who would have accomplished more, or at least not caused daily havoc. At that point, he could have told the wife, “we will have enough money to relocate and you can search for work at your leisure,” because we are in a better location for jobs than where they previously lived.

    Sadly, I have seen the instances of the trailing spouse being the regrettable hire more often than not.

    1. KellyK*

      Ouch. It definitely would’ve been better to just pay him his salary plus what you’re paying his wife if she’s that bad.

      I wouldn’t be surprised if some trailing spouses, particularly of “rock stars,” are bad employees in part because they know they can be. If your spouse is so awesome that their mere presence at a company is worth hiring you too, you probably feel pretty much un-fireable.

  16. LovelyLibrarian*

    Perhaps this should go in a new category called “personal relationships + work” (with other romance-related posts, but also family, spouse, or children-related posts)?

    Yes, I am that crazy about organization – hence the name and the two cats ;)

  17. Rah*

    I wish my organization had this policy; this is a huge issue in our office. The executive director and her domestic partner are both employed there and they have an extremely dysfunctional relationship, which enters into and disrupts the workplace dynamics and even the organizational structure itself. Basically the director’s partner is extremely overbearing and controlling and makes all of the director’s decisions for her, including decisions for the organization, which is where it becomes a problem – this is completely inappropriate as it is beyond the scope of the partner’s responsibilities to make executive and financial decisions for the organization. There is an obvious conflict of interest here but the couple refuses to acknowledge it and they have fired people in the past who have confronted them about it, although of course they find other reasons to “let them go”. Turnover at the organization is very high because of this and the organization struggles to keep its best talent because these individuals eventually become fed up with the BS and don’t want to put up with it anymore. Nevertheless it’s an amazing organization, very well respected and the people are wonderful which is why I’m still there…but if this problem were resolved I am convinced that the organization would be *immensely* healthier and more stable and even more effective and successful. The board of directors has attempted to step in before but even they can’t (or won’t) do anything about it, and the problem persists. No one is willing to stand up to the director’s partner about the conflict of interest – clearly she not only controls the director but everyone else too. Anyway I suppose I am venting here; it’s nice to have a forum to do so because we can’t talk about this issue at work! I am curious if others can offer advice or perspective or if anyone else has had a similar situation…

  18. Rah*

    Well it’s tricky because the ED and her partner essentially started the organization together, but I would think that the board still has the responsibility to address this issue regardless of when the partner was hired. It seems to me like the partner feels some sense of entitlement because she’s been a part of the organization since the beginning. And everyone else seems to mistake her seniority for authority as well.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Ah, it’s definitely trickier with cofounders. There comes a time when cofounder issues need to be addressed, and it sounds like your organization might be at that time!

  19. Joe*

    I currently work in a Finance department with my manager and his wife. It’s only three of us in the department and the relationship has not been good as the wife tends to victimise me unnecessarily. It went to a point that I had to complain to one of our Directors. The husband has been very nice to me but he has given tasks in which I will never communicate with the wife. I’m currently not happy and need advice as I am working in a team were colleagues don’t talk to me.

  20. Student*

    This is a huge problem in my field, but in a slightly different respect than the difficulties other posters have run into with spousal hires. I’m in a very specialized field that is relatively small, requires graduate school, and only has jobs in a few select areas in the country (or around the world, for that matter). We also have very few women in the profession (think 1 woman per 10 men).

    So, in grad school, the handful of women have a tendency to date and marry another grad student in the same narrow field with few job locations. This leads to (1) pressing very hard for a spousal hire when one of the two gets a solid job offer or (2) the woman sacrificing her career and all those years getting a doctorate to stay with her man or (3) the married couple living apart for 1-5 years, until they finally arrange a job in the same city or the woman gives up her career aspirations or a divorce happens. I’m sure that there are, somewhere, men in my field who have given up their careers so that the wife could keep her career, but I’ve never heard of it. It overwhelmingly leads to one spouse being underemployed somewhere, having essentially wasted the years spent at grad school (no, our specialist skills really don’t translate well to similar fields, and certainly not to stay-at-home mother skills).

  21. Anonymous*

    I met my husband at my last job. I started to dislike working with him when it became more serious. He was an extreme grouch in the mornings when we would carpool. He was also super paranoid about people knowing about our relationship, though it was pretty obvious. We weren’t affectionate or anything inappropriate at work. But we had the same shift and carpooled and took breaks and lunch together. He would always complain to me later about how I had inadvertantly done something to make our relationship obvious when it was obvious already even if we weren’t verbally admitting it! I used to get so mad at him for complaining/berating me for the smallest little thing. I quit after 2 years because I hated that job anyways. Things got a lot better after that. We are both much happier not working together. Now that I’m not there he is ok openly admitting to being married to me and I don’t have to deal with his paranoia anymore.

  22. Dart*

    I’ve worked for company over 20 years. I’ve been married to a coworker and I was even his supervisor are upper management put him on my team. He never asked but they moved him. We never had one problem with insubordination. Then came another employee on are team he stared all kinds of lies. At this point we where no longer together but we always worked professional at work. Long story short they moved him back to the other shift. This other employee on my crew has been causing problems for me for many years now. I carpool to work with my neighbor who works for are company. Now he’s saying where living together I’m giving favoritism to him where in a relationship I just don’t understand the only reason I carpool with my neighbor is because this person has made threats at me he’s always insubordinate if he doesn’t like what he’s doing he reports me. I’m just in shock that someone can do this over 12 years and get away with it. now me an the other employee who I carpool with are on suspension for three days. Until there done investigation. I have so much documentation on this employee for his behavior it would make your head spin. He’s been on a final written warning. He was told if he has anymore insubordination against me he would be fired. We’ll he was and this was three months ago and upper management hasent done anything. Can someone give me some advice. Do I wait to see if they fire me or take some action. I’ve been so stressed the last 3months I made a dr. Appointment to go on stress leave. Can I do that if I’m on suspension Plus I’m the only girl who works in the warehouse I supervise all men. Ive been the only girl in the warehouse. Please help!!!!!

  23. Sall*

    Can you tell me if its legal for a man and wife to work in the same department when the man is a team leader?

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