should I become my sister-in-law’s manager?

A reader writes:

A senior manager job has come up in an organization I would like to work in and have been dreaming off for a whle, but I am having difficulty deciding whether to go for it or not. My sister-in-law, who is 8 years older than me, works within the department I am seeking to work in. If I get the job, I would be her direct line manager. We have the same surname, so if I were to get the job, others will be aware of our relationship soon if they don’t know before I join.

She is unable to apply, as she does not have the academic qualifications they need, but she is highly experienced and could do the job were it not for them insisting on the qualifications. Of course, there is no guarantee I would get it, and also the decision may be taken out of my hands if the company deems it too close an appointment in that regard (as they might ask, owing to the same surnames).

It would be a great promotion if I got it. I asked her briefly about it, and while she seemed surprised initially and it was awkward talking about it, she said, “If you feel you can do the job, go for it.”

My husband is happy for me to apply if I am happy working so closely with her, but wants me to remember that it could be very awkward at times, especially during appraisals, etc. and it is mixing work and family. He is also wondering if his wife managing his older sister is a step too far and whether he could be caught in any potential tensions if they arise, although I say we are both professionals and would have to get on wth it. He realizes it is a good opportunity for me to get a promotion and so said he will support me if I apply.

My view is yes to all those issues he has raised, but here is an opportunity for me to attain a substantial promotion as I am experienced and have the required qualifications. Should I allow this awkward set of circumstances stop me from even applying? Am I being too insensitive? I mean of all the jobs, must I go for the one that puts me in a situation where were I to be successful I would be line managing my sister-in-law?

Well, first, don’t wait and see if the company figures out the relationship on their own. You need to disclose it up front, or at least by the time you get to an interview. Not only is it the professional thing to do, but it’s also in your best interest. Otherwise you could be two weeks into the job and get fired because you didn’t disclose it and they consider it a conflict of interest. (Which would be reasonable, because they shouldn’t let you manage a family member.)

Now, as for whether or not you should even apply:  No.

Okay, fine, we’ll talk it through:

Could you fire your sister-in-law if you needed to? How would that impact your relationship with her and others in your family? How would it impact your husband’s relationship with her?

And don’t assume that it would never come to that. First of all, you never know how good an employee really is until you’re managing them, or at least working with them. (But really, I’m going to say managing them — managers are often in a position to see issues that peers wouldn’t see.) And even if she’s great now, there’s no guarantee she’ll stay that way. People’s performances can and do change over time, for all kinds of reasons (personal distractions, skills stagnating, etc.).

Next question: Could you lay her off if her position were eliminated?  If you have to make cuts in your department, would you be able to impartially consider whether or not to cut her position? Would other people on your team believe that you were being impartial?  And if you did eliminate her position, how would that impact your and your husband’s relationship with her and other family members?  What if they knew it had been your decision, and you weren’t just the messenger?

How about giving her feedback? Will you be able to impartially assess her performance without bias and tell her straightforwardly where she needs to improve?  Will you be able to address it professionally with her if she’s routinely late, or missing too much work? What if you know she’s missing all that work due to a sick child — your niece or nephew — but it’s still having too much of an impact on the business? What if it’s because she’s having marital problems? Are you going to be able to treat her exactly the same as you would any other employee? And if you do, how is that going to impact your relationship with her?

What’s Christmas going to be like if you’ve just recently given her a highly critical performance evaluation?

And are other employees really going to believe that she doesn’t get special treatment or consideration from you, whether or not she really does?

Basically, the only way you should even consider applying for this job is if you don’t value your relationship with your sister-in-law or her entire side of the family, if your husband feels the same way, and if you don’t value your ability to effectively manage her and others. So no, you probably shouldn’t apply.

{ 21 comments… read them below }

  1. Kelly O*

    I will add an additional “no.”

    My husband and I worked together in the office in which I currently work. We were not in the same areas and I will even do the trite “it really didn’t affect us individually” thing.

    However, I will say that when he was let go, it created a very, very strange situation for me. And as much as you might like to think it won’t ever happen, listening to someone trash a person you love because that just happens to be the predecessor and they don’t know the relationship and are just shooting the breeze… that’s hard to listen to. It’s even harder when people DO know the relationship and are quick to express their joy that your family member no longer has a job, because “I never liked X.”

    Yeah, it pretty much sucks. So even if your SIL is okay with having you for a boss (which may not be entirely true) she will probably not be okay when any of the things AAM mentions come to pass, because trust me, at least one of them WILL come to pass.

    It’s really easy to say “it’s just business” but it’s not. It really, truly isn’t and I believe that now in ways I did not before.

    1. Natalie*

      Also a good reminder not to trash your predecessors! Aside from it being a bad thing ethically, you never know what the person you’re talking to thinks.

    2. Jenn*

      I agree it’s tough. My mother and I worked as contract laborers for a small business managed by my father; all of the employees were either friends or family of the business owner, so this wasn’t unusual. A couple of years ago, the business owner needed to cut the contract laborer positions due to the economy and my father was the one who had to tell us the bad news. While we didn’t blame him for having to do it, it was still very awkward for a few months.

  2. Anonymous*

    Why not go to the hiring manager and say something like, “I really like to throw my hat into the ring for the senior manager job, but it would mean that I would have to be my sister-in-law’s direct line manager. Although we get along well and are both professionals, it seems like a conflict of both business and personal interests. Hypothetically speaking, if I was hired for this position, would it be possible for my sister-in-law to report to someone else?”

    If the answer is no, don’t apply for all the reasons AAM mentions. If the answer is yes, apply!

    1. X2*

      This. The OP has the distinct advantage of already working for the company. It should be much easier for the OP as an insider to ascertain this info than it would if you didn’t already work there.

      I mean, OP if you don’t ask, you’ll never know. Actually, I’m surprised AAM didn’t bring this up herself. AAM, you’re all about getting clear on the tradeoffs and making fair decisions based on appropriate information and consideration of the consequences. It seems like asking the hiring manager about possibly changing reporting lines is in line with that…

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        The OP doesn’t already work for the company, but she could still definitely ask.

        That said, I edited a couple of lines out of her letter to try to make it shorter, including this one: “I would be her direct line manager, as the job would be managing the unit she works in as a deputy director currently.” Which makes me think that it would be really hard for the sister-in-law, as deputy director, to report to someone else.

  3. Shannon Terry*

    I like AAM’s input (as usual!), as well as the Anonymous comment above, because it communicates to the powers that be that you are someone looking to move up (ambitious, capable, etc.) as well as committed/capable/professional enough to think things through in this situation. It puts you in their minds for other opportunities if this one doesn’t work out.

    Good luck!

  4. Kim Stiens*

    I would have to agree with AAM… simply because in a situation like that, you’d pretty much be forced to treat her WORSE than you normally would, since you would have the burden of not only preventing impropriety, but preventing the appearance of such. Unless she’s actually being treated badly, people will assume she’s being treated better. There’s no winning in this situation.

  5. human*

    It also sounds like the sister-in-law and husband are both telling the LW, in essence, “I am not going to tell you what to do because I am not the boss of you, but this makes me uncomfortable.” Either they are not being direct enough about it or the LW isn’t getting it because it’s not the answer s/he wants — or maybe both. People should be direct. But the LW should also realize that if s/he is reporting these conversations at all accurately, it really doesn’t sound like her husband and sister-in-law want her to apply for this job.

    1. hmm*

      This is the exact impression I got. I bet the sister-in-law is secretly praying the LW doesn’t get the job.

  6. Under Stand*

    This goes hand in hand with the earlier post about dating someone with whom you work, but multiple times worse. How do you divorce your sister in law. Wow, you fire her and your family never forgives you! Too many negatives, regardless of the ‘great promotion’. Not worth the risk.

  7. Riki*

    “I asked her briefly about it, and while she seemed surprised initially and it was awkward talking about it…”

    If it was awkward just talking about the possibility of you applying for the job, how awkward is it going to be if you got it? Something to think about.

  8. Anonymous*

    Thank you all for your sound advice, it has really helped. Much appreciate it. Sometimes when one is too close to a situation it really helps to hear some objective feedback from people who do not know the individuals. Regards.

  9. Anonymous*

    Thank you AAM for your answer it has really focussed my mind on some aspects I had not even considered before and a great help to the answer I find myself in. I also noticed that after reading all the comments, no one has said it is a good idea apart from the suggestion to find out from the organisation if my sister-in-law could report to some one else. Not sure if that will be possible in this situation. Thank you AAM and all contributors.

    1. Long Time Admin*

      OP, we have this situation at my company, which is a family company. There are loads of married couples working here, and when one of them gets laid off or is discontented, it’s not only awkward for them – it affects everyone.

      There will be other opportunities for you in the future, I’m sure. This one is just not worth all the risks to your family relationships.

      1. Mike C.*

        I hate working for family companies for this reason. My former boss had to argue over Thanksgiving dinner just to get some much needed lab equipment. Ugh.

  10. That HR Girl*

    If I were the recruiter/hiring manager in this organization, I wouldn’t even entertain the idea of this situation.

    Like Long Time Admin said… there will be other opportunities in the future, but there is substantial risk to your family.

    The one thing that bothers me about OP is that she seems mostly concerned that going for the promotion would hurt her sister-in-law’s feelings, and possibly cause some awkward moments if she were hired – rather than thinking about all of the big-picture problems that could arise (mainly, lack of respect/trust from other direct reports, accusations of favoritism, being able to manage effectively with this always top of mind).

  11. Sandrine*

    While I completely understand the points of view presented, I hope the OP has the luxury to be able not to apply and miss the opportunity :( …

  12. Emily*

    I agree with AAM’s advice, especially asking yourself, “Could you fire your sister in law?” I mean, could you?

    I just imagined me firing my sister-in-law and I’m pretty sure I’d rather chew off my own arms. I love my sister in law and she’s the breadwinner for my wonderful young nephews, and I could never, ever fire her. So I could not be her manager.

    How does that scenario play out for you? I think it’s worth thinking hard on this.

  13. Random*

    This is probably too late to help, But I was wondering what the possibilities of the sister in law seeking a promotion or lateral move simultaneously.

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