should we tell dating employees one of them has to quit?

A reader writes:

In our organization of 25 employees, there are two sets of couples. Having couples on such a small staff is really counterproductive. The couples are always looking out for each other by way of trying to ensure they don’t have to take on extra work and having a counterproductive attitude to other staff.

Could our organization adopt a “no relationship” policy and require one person from each couple to leave the organization? All the employees and relationships have been in place for well over 10 years.

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 97 comments… read them below }

  1. A Simple Narwhal*

    Wonderful response from Alison. Because sure, you could blanket ban dating, but the problems it’s causing could just as easily come from coworkers being good friends or possibly siblings, and then what? Ban friendships or family members? You’re much better off addressing the problems themselves, not the relationships they stem from.

    1. Lissa*

      Yeah, the worst examples of people covering for each other/favouring each other has come from people who are related to each other, in my own anecdotal experience. Still remember the nightmare of Mom-Manager, Daughter-Shift Supervisor, Other Daughter-Employee. And what happened when the shift supervisor-daughter ended up being terrible. Spoiler alert: nothing good, and a bunch of unrelated employees getting caught in the middle.

      1. Dave*

        Working in a family business – the family relationships can suck. The amount of stuff the adult son has his mom due that everyone else in the company does for themselves is ridiculous. Not the mention when there is family drama or my brother walks on water feelings.

    2. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      I was thinking the exact same thing. You may have people treating others differently at work based on their relationship and/or if they like/dislike someone, and the bottom line is to manage the behavior, not tell people who can date/be friends/etc.

    3. Just A Zebra*

      I was thinking this, as well. It feels like a case of “persons A and B do this behavior, so I’m going to ban it for all of my employees instead of addressing it directly with A and B”.

      This was kind of mentioned downthread, but you also run the risk of this unfairly targeting certain demographics, specifically women and lgbt+ couples.

    4. gbca*

      I once worked for a medium sized company (about 1,000 employees) that had a strict anti-nepotism policy. No family members of any existing employee could be hired. Dating coworkers was frowned upon, and if you got married one of the employees had to leave. It seemed a little extreme to me, especially since, to your point, you can’t exactly ban friendships which can also have similar issues.

    5. Giant Squid*

      Interestingly, it’s actually illegal in some states to fire people for having coworkers as family.

    6. The Grey Lady*

      I once worked in a restaurant where one of the managers had a daughter on the wait staff. She would frequently bypass the other servers to make sure her daughter got the biggest parties and the best tips.

    7. tangerineRose*

      I’ve worked with a sibling (same team), and it worked well, but we’re both hard workers who get along with others and we worked in a reasonable environment. It can work, but yeah, it can be a risk.

    8. allathian*

      I work in a government agency in the Nordics with about 2,000 employees. Some of them are literally lifers, last year there was a retirement party for a guy who had started working for the same agency as an intern when he was 18, so he had been there just short of 50 years (we have a mandatory retirement age at 68).

      There are also lots of couples, but they’re strict about not allowing one spouse to manage the other, even indirectly.

  2. voyager1*

    An easier way to deal with the dating situation is to have a policy that immediate family members can not be employed on the same team or management structure. I worked somewhere that was the policy and it kept a lot of the nepotism/favoritism out. Granted that company had 300 employees.

    I do agree with AAM that bigger problem here is the attitude of these dating/married couples not that they are together.

    1. Andy N.*

      +1. I have worked in places where family members or couples worked together and policies like the one you are talking about saved lots of trouble / drama.

    2. Fake Old Converse Shoes (not in the US)*

      This happened with my grandboss and her husband. It was OK while they were collegues, but as soon he got promoted to Department Head, she was transferred to a project outside his managment. They are so professional that I couldn’t believe they’re married!

      1. pandop*

        It’s the same at my work – we have a married couple in our department, but they are on different teams (teapot buying and teapot describing), and some people haven’t even realised they are married.

        On the other hand, a former team leader managed a ‘best bud’ (not a romantic relationship) of his and let her get away with blue murder, and once he had left for another job, his successor had a terrible time trying to manage the ‘best bud’ into actually doing her job properly.

    3. Summersun*

      There is a big company near me (15,000+ employees) that takes this type of policy so far that family members are permanently banned from hire. So, my best friend cannot apply to that company at all, because her grandfather retired from there before she even graduated from college.

      1. allathian*

        Whoah, that does sound excessive. Sure, if they have the same reasonably uncommon family name, it’s easy enough to check if they’re related. I can sort of understand that they don’t hire the children of current workers, but the grandchildren of former workers is a bit much…

        How do they check on family relationships anyway at such a big company? Do job applicants have to provide a family tree going back four generations so HR can check that none of them are, or have ever been, employed there?

        That said, this weird policy makes me think that they possibly have other weird stuff going on there, so maybe being barred from even applying is a blessing in disguise for your friend?

        1. Helena1*

          Agree – how do the applicants even know? I couldn’t tell you everywhere all of my grandparents have worked in the past (they are all long dead), let alone aunts and uncles. I’m not even sure where half of my cousins live, let alone where they worked five years ago.

      2. TardyTardis*

        On the other hand, I worked in a company that was rife with nepotism, and aside from the First Family getting all kinds of special treatment, it generally worked out ok, as relatives were generally assigned to different departments.

    4. The Starsong Princess*

      My large company has many couples who work here. On my five person team, 3 including my boss had a spouse who worked for the company and many people have relatives who work here. It’s not because anyone intentionally hires relatives, it’s just we are one of the best places to work in the area.

      But we are large and spouses and relatives aren’t allowed to work together. Relatives of senior leaders cannot get hired but they can be grandfathered in if they are here before the person becomes senior.

      Overall, it all works out fine. There’s a culture of not crossing the streams and people aren’t spending time with their spouses. My friend whose husband works here claims she hasn’t had lunch with him at work once in 8 years. They even drive in separately- or they did, now they are working at home. It can work but it is difficult in a small company.

    5. Bedtime*

      ++on the attitude front. It’s pretty common to come across couples at my (massive) organization, but 99% of the time you would have no idea unless they told you (typically it only comes up when someone brings their spouse to a Christmas party… even then there have been times where I just think they were just an invite outside the regular team). As I’m thinking about it now, I easily know at least 6 or 7 couples in my department and I would not know about a single one unless someone had not told me directly (and one where I definitely wondered why they invited a random admin from another team to a party the whole night and only figured it out weeks later).

  3. hbc*

    A major way to get me worked up is rules/policies/etc that are essentially “X sometimes leads to Y, and Y is bad, so X is forbidden” when it’s pretty simple to just ban Y. It’s especially nuts in a situation like this, when Y (favoritism) can come from a lot of different sources other than X (dating relationships.)

    This is the kind of policy that would keep me from joining a company or would have me leaving, even though I’ve never once dated at work. It’s a sign that management doesn’t know how to deal with issues. I would just be waiting for more asinine stuff like a rolling chair ban because those two guys had a chair race down the hall and someone got injured.

    1. Littorally*

      I mean, “X can lead to Y, Y is very bad, ban X” can be a reasonable stance depending on the level of overlap and just how bad Y is. It’s not a substitute for banning Y, but in terms of conflict of interest, it’s reasonable for companies to avoid things that can create COI, even if it doesn’t always.

      1. Susana*

        I have seen bosses show stunning favoritism to friends… who aren’t banned. The idea that sex is such a special thing that makes two people protect/favor each other like no one in any other relationship is absurd. I’ve had lifelong friends I’d do anything for. Not so with former lovers – and would not have been either, at the time. In fact, I think if I worked at the same place as a romantic partner I’d go out of my way to keep professional distance.

        Anyway, Allison is right – ban dating and it will just go underground. I’m amazed anyway that an employer can legally get away with interfering with First Amendment right to assemble. What are they going to do – have you followed to make sure you’re just going to the movies (not holding hands!) and not having sex?

        1. New Jack Karyn*

          The 1st Amendment doesn’t apply to private companies. They can fire you for saying, writing, and broadcasting things which are perfectly legal.

        2. WellRed*

          This seems a bit dramatic and also incorrect. First Amendment is freedom from government interfering in your right to assemble.

    2. Traffic_Spiral*

      I think you have to consider whether “Y” is something that you can reasonably ban, or if it’s more like a naturally-occurring possible consequence of X. For instance, you can ban dating more easily than you can ban cheating on Linda from accounting with Bob from HR, or ban the angry/icy feelings that will permeate the office once that comes out.

    3. hbc*

      I agree with both of you that it’s not always a simple matter of banning Y. It’s where they’ve obviously only half addressed Y or picked a dumb X. I’m flashing back to a high school teacher declaring that a ban on women firefighters is logical because most women can’t carry all that equipment. It told me one week in that he was illogical (in addition to sexist.) 100% indicator of lazy thinking.

  4. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    The problem here is that you’ve let this get out of hand and allowed people to act poorly for 10 years!

    Most likely if you said “one of you has to go” they both are going to leave. You have 25 people, do you really want to be short 4 people because you decided 10 years into this to try to manage the issue by going nuclear? O.o

    I don’t ef with companies with policies like this because banning rather than managing is a red flag to me. Especially at the size of 25 ppl.

    Manage your workers and stop letting them run amuck and letting them play favorites. Don’t punish everyone after them for your mistake letting them get away with this kind of crap.

    1. MicroManagered*

      don’t ef with companies with policies like this because banning rather than managing is a red flag


    2. voyager1*

      Personally for me 2 married couples in a company of 25 though does feel a little off though. Seems ripe for nepotism and favoritism.

      But I do agree the company needs to do better at keeping the attitudes in check.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        To each their own there! I’ve worked with couples and for married couples throughout my career and haven’t had any issues arise directly attributed to their relationships.

        I look for places that keep everyone accountable. I’ve made more than the owner’s children in every case as well, so that’s important too.

        I’ll fire my own mother though, I just told her that to her face the other day because there was a conversation about it. My uncle has gotten his kids jobs working for places with him too, his boss asked him “What if there’s an issue that arises and I’d need to discipline or fire one of them?” “If you need to fire one of them, do it, hell I’ll do it for you if you want!” That’s just how my family is though, our work ethic goes beyond family ties.

        1. Lupe*

          I respect this as a stance, but I think it does have the potential to get complicated, as you’ll always have extra information it’s hard not to bring in (i.e, you know one of your kids is, say, likely to be harmed significantly by being fired, or know there are external, non work related reasons their performance has dropped.

          I feel it doesn’t get complicated, until it gets really, crazy, family drama complicated

          1. Lupe*

            Still don’t mind the idea of having relatives in the same company, just think that the policies should:
            a) explicitly ban them from working as a report to each other
            b) make it a firable offence to influence anyone about their employment. No quiet words with their manager, who’s a mate, or anything similar

      2. Diamond*

        I worked in a Government department once (50 or so people?) with no less than 4 couples and one father-son duo! I’m not aware of any issues ever cropping up because of it!

        1. Quill*

          My mom taught locally so I’m always surprised when workplaces don’t have at least one family relationship between two employees when they’ve made it past a hundred or so. (Teaching tended to have more mother / daughter coworkers than anything else, but I know of a few schools where two of the teachers were married and one case where a family had three generations of teachers, but Grandma retired from a different local school before her grandkids got hired.)

    3. MassMatt*

      Yes, how many times have we all seen major issues caused by 1 or 2 people get addressed only via blanket bans or email blasts to everyone? In the first case the innocent are punished along with the guilty, in the second case the perpetrators inevitably fail to recognize themselves as the source of the problem.

      I had a manager like this long ago, all sorts of things wound up on her “Bannedwagon”, including ever-increasingly specific types of jewelry (?!) and hairstyle, all because of 1 employee, who never bothered reading the many memos. Did the manager ever actually SPEAK to her? No. Finally an upper manager noticed this bizarre situation and put a stop to it.

    4. Pilcrow*

      I’m reading this OP as either a new hire or someone freshly promoted to management rather than as someone who let things slide for 10+ years. But yeah, the company as a whole should have taken care of this years ago.

    5. NotAnotherManager!*

      Yes, yes, yes to all of this. Frankly, the behavior is problematic, whether it’s a romantic partner, BFF, or your favorite coworker. Deal with the behavior because it’s not acceptable in the workplace, from anyone.

  5. YoungTen*

    unfortunetly, you’ll need to watch the couples very closely. My coworkers told me of a couple who had worked at my job (long before I stared) that worked in the same department and was able steal a significant amount of money for a couple years. They would simply cover each others tracks. Not saying this is typical just that if coules work in the same department, it could lead to a lack of transparency.

      1. Traffic_Spiral*

        Frankly I wouldn’t trust any other coworker to help me steal anything more than office pens.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I’ve got a lot of embezzlement stories for you, personal ones that I’ve cleaned up afterwards. Zero of them had accomplices, that’s NOT normal, usually crooks work alone when it comes to that kind of operation.

      1. Pilcrow*

        It’s also going to depend on the peoples’ roles. If Jane’s in maintenance and John’s the office admin, probably not much to worry about. However, if Jane was accounts payable and John was accounts receivable, that’s going to raise the suspicion level.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          Very true!

          Or if one ran a cash box and the other was the one in charge or counting drawers!

          1. tangerineRose*

            Yep. Never let 1 person be in control of the books and the cash/valuables. And when you hire a couple like that, it’s close enough to 1 person – a couple probably knows each other well enough to know if they both lack ethics.

      2. NotAnotherManager!*

        My favorite embezzler, a solo act, got themselves caught by taking an embezzlement-financed vacation in the midst of a pay cycle where their fraudulent funds request would be processed. The vacation coverage assistant didn’t know to hide it from the appover, the approver saw it and inquired, the inquiry turned up a long-term pattern, and, boom, criminal charges!

        1. tangerineRose*

          Wow! I heard about an embezzler was caught because she embezzled the company almost out of business. They caught her because they hired someone to go over the books when they were preparing for bankrupcy.

  6. Lissa*

    I think it’s important to keep people who are related, dating etc. from situations where conflict of interest is likely to arise, because of just – the number of people who claim that in THEIR case they will TOTALLY be objective but then are absolutely not is very high. It’s the sort of thing where you absolutely cannot self assess. I’ll buy someone saying “I knew a couple at my work and there were never any issues” but anytime someone says “well actually my sister/daughter/husband and I work together and we treat each other like any employee!” I do question it. Especially since there are way more people who will tell you how everyone else isn’t objective, but they totally are!

    But this isn’t just a problem of people who are dating, by any means.

  7. Peter*

    That would be too complicated to manage efficiently. What about employees that have a short fling? Will you ever know about it?

    From my experience, employees know more about it than any manager will ever know. There’s often a unwritten rules that some of these informations should not go up to management. Unless you have a snitch. But then it would be even more detrimental to your team.

  8. Anononon*

    This is definitely an issue with the individual couples/managing of the specific situation rather than a wholesale issue of couples working together.

    It’s almost a running joke at my medium sized company (about 150 employees) as to the number of people in familial relationships with other employees. Spouses, siblings, parents/children, aunts/uncles/nieces/nephews. I would guess that at least 20% of the employees were somehow related to at least one other employee.

  9. Holy Guacamole*

    Oooh, definitely don’t ban couples in the workplace. The first (super dysfunctional, borderline cultish) job I worked at told us that if anyone in the workplace got together they would be told to break up or ‘reconsider our future in the company’; it felt like an absolute invasion into peoples’ private lives and just drove dating underground, actually encouraging dishonesty and gossip in the workplace. (It was also a rule laid out by a boss who clearly had a thing for one of his female subordinates, had a creepy mentor/mentee semi-romantic thing going on with her, and ended up with her signing a non-disclosure about his conduct within the company, so there you go!)

    Managing individual situations is so a better approach.

    1. Sabine the Very Mean*

      Totally agree. This has always been an odd policy to me. These are people I know quite intimately. I spend most of my day with them. To think that two of them won’t fall in love is silly. Just manage them.

  10. salty lady*

    I worked for the US government . If any employee dated a supervisor , one of them was transferred to another office . If two equals dated or married , it did not involve transferring . Many of the employees were relatives , as they would ask us to tell our relatives about an opening they had trouble filling . Sometimes it was funny that people did not know that people in different offices were related due to different last names and there were many awkward times when someone would be complaining about someone’s brother or father in law in another office to that person’s relative . One couple hid their dating for a while by always bad mouthing each other . The woman always needed a ride home from social events and people went out of their way to take her home . One friday there was a staff meeting to announce that Karla and Mickey were engaged and every one fell off their chairs ! She was transferred on Monday to our sister office . She quit when they married .

    1. Nanani*

      “She quit when they married”
      Given all the pressure on women to give up their careers upon marriage/kids/etc, any policy about “you have to quit if you date a colleague” is going to have compounding, sexist effects.

      Your policy can be gender neutral but the world isn’t, and it -will- have uneven impact.
      So yeah. Don’t push people out based on who they’re dating. Just don’t.

      1. Just A Zebra*

        This! You’ll end up giving your company a reputation that you discriminate against women. Even if that isn’t at the core of what’s happening, it’s how it will be perceived.

        1. Gazebo Slayer*

          Yep – and it doesn’t help that some companies *do* let the woman go if it’s a m/f couple, even if the situation is a male executive or manager taking advantage of his subordinate.

    2. Lissa*

      Hahaha, hiding your dating by badmouthing the other one seems like it could seriously backfire! “Ugh I just HATE Mickey!” “Yeah, I know, he’s a real jerk who did X, Y and Z” “Wait he’s actually not that bad!”

  11. Batgirl*

    I’m struggling to believe this company has never tried saying “You can’t favour Bert and give him easier tasks, so stop bringing your relationship into work” and I am really struggling to believe no one has said “Stop having an attitude (!) with Ernie and all the people you’re not dating (!!)”
    I mean.. if they can’t tell an employee to be basically professional and polite in the office how on earth are they going to oversee their personal lives?

  12. irene adler*

    I work in a small company (20 people at the time) where two employees got involved (ended up married). One of them became my boss. They were managers of different departments.

    There were no rules forbidding this sort of thing.

    However, they were very aware of how their relationship might ‘bother’ co-workers. So it was strictly professional at work. They were very good about that. In fact, there were times when I had meetings with just the two of them. Not a moment of discomfort for me. All business; no ‘lovey-dovey eyes’ or double entendres, pet names, etc.

    I don’t recall either one looking out for the other in terms of workload or treatment. They both had to deal with a VP who lacked sufficient EQ to comprehend that his comments came off as insulting to those he spoke to. They just shrugged him off-like the rest of us.

    I do recall one incident where he got fed up with her -she kept pestering him about some project she was working on. That was moved behind closed doors and seemed to get resolved right away. Never happened again (at work anyways).

    Now, I will say, the CEO sure made a big deal out of it. All. The. Time. Went out of his way to make snarky comments about their relationship to anyone within hearing. THAT made things uncomfortable for me and other employees.

    My boss moved on to another company. It was a step up career-wise for him. She’s still here. The CEO eventually stopped with the snarky comments.

  13. Keymaster of Gozer*

    Previous firms I’ve worked at have had a ‘couples or family can’t be in a position of power over one another’ (no being your husband’s boss) and ‘it’s strongly discouraged that spouses or family be on the same team’.

    I worked with a couple, wife was on our tech support team, her husband was on the dev team and her twin sister was part of the QA team. That worked fine.

    (Okay until the guy had an affair with the identical twin sister but that’s a story for another time..)

    1. Picard*

      Wait – the husband had an affair with his wife’s twin? All of whom worked for the company?


    2. Seeking Second Childhood*

      Oh my. You can’t leave that danuking there to torment us. Not for long at least, so how about a Friday open forum topic: The most ‘Jerry Springer’ situations we’ve seen in the workplace.

  14. Jennifer*

    If there was no policy before, it’s pretty messed up to require people to quit. If no one is dating someone in their direct chain of command, I don’t see what the issue is. There are always going to be people who like each other a bit more than everyone else either because of friendship or some other reason. I tend to favor people that are polite to everyone and don’t grouch at people who say good morning. People who get along well with others tend to do better than those that don’t. It’s just life.

    It’s management’s job to make sure that everyone is treated fairly.

  15. Stormy Weather*

    Absolutely have the policy in place that they can’t be in the same reporting structure. I agree that forbidding dating will just drive it underground

  16. tamarack and fireweed*

    The response really needs to mark clearly its limited scope internationally.

    In Germany for example, US companies have been burned up in front of labour tribunals because of no-dating policies. The ability to choose one’s romantic and life partner is just a very highly protected privacy right there (even in the constitution in some currently prevailing legal interpretations).

    Otherwise it was very good.

    1. fposte*

      The whole blog is U.S.-centric, though; it’s not any more true of this response than the rest of it.

      1. tamarack and fireweed*

        Many, many questions and answers apply to people from the working world in any Western country, or are just about good sense and thoughtful approaches. For others the cultural differences within North America are so large that those to say Australia or Western Europe aren’t much bigger.

        Everyone who writes a blog comes at it from their own perspective of course, and it is debatable where the line is that advice should be flagged as limited. I usually don’t balk at Alison’s judgement in interpersonal matters or management technique, or experience in the corporate world. I also don’t balk about questions of equity and non-discrimination which are if not identical, then at least comparably regulated in different places. I do balk when she presents legal matters as absolute black/white when there are wide differences.

        1. soon to be former fed really*

          I balk at balking at a US based blog for being US-centric. No explicit anything should be necessary, I find it so annoying when any forum is expected to be all things to all people. I would certainly never read a European-based blog expecting that all advice should apply to me in the US or be caveated. Come on already. You or anybody else is welcome to start their own work advice blog for their country if this one is lacking.

          1. tamarack and fireweed*

            The same of course should go for your engagement with my comment, no? “So annoying,” wow.

            I think it could be useful to make explicit, as I do, that on a blog that is in many areas very careful to hedge statements (‘X could be considered unprofessional”, “Y is true in many industries but can be different in academia / public service…”) there are bald statements about what the law says without a hedge. YMMV and clearly does V.

    2. Stormy Weather*

      As they should be. Nobody should be forced to choose between their mate and their livelihood. Unfortunately much of the US is more friendly to corporations that to people

    3. MassMatt*

      I am curious whether in Germany this interpretation of privacy rights would include a manager being married to or romantically involved with their own subordinate as opposed to simply someone from the same company?

      To me that’s a very sensible distinction but I’m curious what the law or custom is there.

      1. allathian*

        Yeah, me too, and I’m in the Nordics. Here, most bigger employers seem to have the rule that you can’t have a romantic partner or close relative in your reporting structure. Small family-run businesses are a different matter although that too can work if the people are professional. One of my cousins managed to keep a business running with his wife even while they were getting a divorce. They were no longer romantic partners but continued just fine as business partners, but I imagine this sort of thing is pretty exceptional. After the divorce, the business grew quite a bit and they had to hire other people, and at some point my cousin’s ex sold her share to him.

      2. tamarack and fireweed*

        [I cannot speak for all Germans of course. Also, I have lived & worked as an adult in four different countries, and my attitudes are filtered through this experience.]

        The point isn’t that just because there is such a privacy right it automatically nullifies all other concerns. More like, there are two legal goods which are potentially in conflict: On the one hand, one’s right to be treated equitably at work, ie, a workplace free of bias, favoritism, nepotism, harassment or sexualization; on the other, the right to conduct one’s private business as one pleases, which courts have explicitly interpreted to include romantic relationships with anyone one pleases, including one’s manager. (At least two – there’s also the legitimate interest of the employer to organize their business to avoid conflicts…)

        So while the bald answer to your question is “yes” (guaranteed in art. 2, paragraph 1 of the German constitution – word-by-word translation would be “the right to a free unfolding of one’s personality”), this doesn’t mean that anything goes. IME the only people in favor of the “anything goes” approach are sexists. Everyone else will know that having people who are related report to each other is a cause for concern. They will manage the situation – by for example asking for disclosure of relationships between people on different levels within the same business unit; large companies will have processes to move people around; norms of professionalism can be helpful; reporting chains can be changed and hiring/promotion input can be taken away from someone with a conflict of interest.

        It is also commonly recognized that a blanket rule against (some types of otherwise legal and wholesome) relationships will be both insufficient to prevent the kinds of negative effects we want to avoid AND will require immediate exemptions. You may be able to ban relationships, at least on paper, but you won’t be able to ban people being ex-partners, and related vindictive feelings.

        As for exemptions, they are needed even in situations where there is wide consensus – for example, we likely agree that relationships between professors and undergraduates are a big big no-no. Yet a professor’s partner should surely not be prevented to enroll… and boom you have an undergraduate and a professor, potentially even in the same department, who are romantically involved.

        Walmart, who famously lost in the German labor courts over their “ethics” rules would have forbidden all relationships between its associates as long as there might potentially be a reporting relationship. So in a large store no associate manager could be dating a cashier … yet people get promoted, moved around, need a quick job. Life happens. There’s also the strong feeling in Germany that it’s somewhat icky to consider it inappropriate for someone who happens to be at the bottom of some corporate ladder to be involved with someone in a more prestigious role. Cashiers can only date cashiers? Power relations are real, but they are only one dimension of what’s a lot more complicated in reality.

  17. LifeBeforeCorona*

    The couples covering for each other and minimzing their work must be dealt with. However, because of the couple dynamic your other workers are caught up in it. If co-worker A has a problem with partner B they may be reluctant to deal with it if they know partner C may be advocating for partner B. Partner C has a vested interest in keeping partner B happy at the expense of work/discipline. Other co-workers will be reluctant to bring up issues with one partner knowing that the other may be privy to details that they really don’t need to know. If co-workers need to have confidential discussions with either partner they should know that the discussion stay that way. Basically, the couples are using their advantage of being couples to finesse their work at the expense of others in the office and that only breeds resentment and resignations.

    1. hbc*

      But you could replace “partner” with “friend” or “cousin” or “neighbor” or “fellow Star Trek lover” or whatever.

      Don’t get me wrong: I’d prefer to manage a group with zero couples. But if Coworker A isn’t bringing up a problem with Partner B, I’m slapping the wrist of Coworker A for not dealing with an issue like they should. I want to hear if C starts behaving badly, but don’t decide up front that C will misbehave and take action based on that presumed bad behavior.

      1. LifeBeforeCorona*

        Yes, you could. It comes down to two people colloborating so that both receive preferential treatment from each other.

  18. NoName*

    I’m genuinely curious to know how 2 sets of couples all ended up working for the same small organization (especially who have been together 10+ years!). Have all 4 of them been with the organization for a really long time?

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      They probably weren’t hired at the same time. They could have been there when it was just a dozen or less people, where they relied on each other to fill gaps or roles as they were created.

      Johnny worked there, then an opening came up and his partner Jane was a great fit. So they hired Jane.

      Nancy worked there for awhile, then an opening came up that her partner Jill was a good fit for. So they hired Jill for that role. Boom, two partners, could have been in the span of years really.

      Or they could have hooked up after working together for awhile, if they weren’t partnered pre-employment.

    2. Alex*

      I work for an organization of about 80 people and in my time there no less than three couples have gotten married. One couple knew each other before working there, one couple met there, and the other I’m not 100% sure if they knew each other pre-employement. For a lot of people, work is where you meet people!

      (There’s someone I really want to date at work…I’m kinda hoping to be the fourth couple! Haha!)

      Strangely enough, I’ve NEVER heard of anyone dating each other and then breaking up. For the most part everyone is extremely professional about it.

  19. Just A Zebra*

    So I work for a relatively small company (50ish employees) and we a set of brothers, a set of cousins, two husband/ wife couples, one dating couple, and one engaged couple. But management has them split up so they don’t interact during the day (except, perhaps, a lunch together or something). IMO, it actually promotes the family-friendly culture our owner strives for. I’ve never worked for a company so willing to let parents take off for sick kids, or leave for family emergencies. We’ve also had couples split up and keep things very professional, because they’re in different departments with jobs that rarely overlap. Like Alison said, this situation is manageable.

    1. allathian*

      Yeah, this situation is manageable as you describe it. Especially as the company looks like it’s well-run. Even if we could, I wouldn’t like to work for the same employer as my husband, simply because it would be horrible if the employer hit hard times and both of us were laid off at the same time. My employment is about as stable as it’s possible to be these days and my husband’s is not far behind, but nevertheless it would be a risk I wouldn’t consider worth taking. Although the discussion’s pretty academic, because we’re in such different fields that the option doesn’t really exist for us to work for the same employer.

  20. Treebeardette*

    I’m going to blunt in this. I understand why it’s an issue, but making up a policy and the firing one of each couple is a huge red flag that you aren’t managing well. It’s also a crappy thing to do. I’ve worked with couples who work well. If there is a performance issue, you need to address that. I’ve seen friends cover for each other in work, I’ve seen both lazy and overwork employees refusing to take on extra work. Having a relationship status doesn’t mean much if there are issues with being overworked.
    Also, you really need to look closely at the work and see if you are asking them to do too much. Extra work has been used as a fancy way or saying “I don’t want to do it so they should”. It can also mean that you need more staff members.
    I’m also confused why you would want to fire a couple of people for not taking on extra work which means more work for everyone if they leave.
    This sounds like a management issue.

  21. nnn*

    In addition to addressing the actual problem behaviour, it might be worth looking critically about your hiring practices and seeing if there’s something that’s leading to this higher-than-average concentration of couples.

    For example, do you tend to ask employees to recommend candidates rather than posting an open job ad, leading them to recommend their partners (or even their friends, with whom they then end up spending a lot of time together in the workplace)? Are your employees less demographically diverse than the general population – for example, all being around the same age and therefore more likely to see each other as dating candidates? Is there something about your workplace that attracts a greater proportion of single people and fewer people who are already coupled?

    I can’t tell through the internet if there’s something like this going on, but it’s worth thinking about.

  22. Kimmybear*

    Reflecting, I’ve never worked anywhere as an adult where someone in the office wasn’t married to or in a serious relationship with someone else in the office. This includes small businesses and Fortune 500 companies. Manage the behavior, not the relationship.

  23. Isabel Archer*

    I agree that the employees in question should be informed that their attitudes are counterproductive and given the chance to improve. Then at least they’ve been warned. But I’m a little surprised that Alison didn’t address the idea of telling each couple that one person has to quit. Wouldn’t the employer have to fire them? I certainly wouldn’t quit voluntarily over this, thereby scr*wing myself out of unemployment benefits!

    1. KayEss*

      This kind of draconian proposal would probably come with a “if one of you doesn’t quit, you’re BOTH fired” clause, stated or implied.

  24. Aaron Anon*

    To an extent, I think this depends on the nature of the job/industry. One of my siblings works in a very specific regulatory role within the finance industry, and it simply would not be possible to have a married couple or immediate family members working together on his team. There are too many potential conflicts of interest to deal with.

    In my industry, it’s more common to have spouses or couples working together, but there are often specific procedures in place to prevent conflicts of interest. At my current place, spouses/couples cannot have the same boss, and if they’re on the same team or related teams, the workflow is usually set up so that the two do not depend on each other. Suppose Barb is an external communication specialist who is married to Bob, a web designer. If Barb needs help redesigning a webpage, company policy says that she should go to Fergus (the other web designer) rather than Bob. If there’s some reason to pull Bob in–say he knows particular software that Fergus doesn’t–it’s allowed, but there needs to a specific rationale other than Bob just happends to be personally convenient.
    It sounds annoying and a little confusing, but it usually works well. I haven’t seen any problems with it in my time here.

  25. Chickaletta*

    No-married-couples policies used to be the norm everywhere. My parents met at work in the 70s, and when they got married one of them had to quit; this was normal and expected and nobody thought to fight it. My mom quit of course, because this was in the day where most women still stayed at home to raise children and the concept of a “career woman” was still a novelty. Ah, how times have changed! And you know, it’s not bad that companies have changed their policies to go along with modern times.

    Let the married couples stay. If there are issues, address the issue, not the relationship.

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