I’m about to fire an employee … but we just hired her husband

A reader writes:

One of my staff is about to be fired for grossly inadequate performance. I’m confident that we’re on safe legal ground with the firing, and her performance issues have been documented and addressed with no improvement.

However, the complication is that we have just hired her husband to work within the same team. (I’m aware that hiring couples isn’t ideal even when nobody is getting fired. However, we’re in a small town and had a very limited pool of candidates to choose from.)

How can we best handle this to minimize fall-out within the team, and avoid causing more pain than is necessary for both members of the couple?

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.

{ 50 comments… read them below }

  1. MrsBuddyLee*

    If anyone is looking for an update to this, there is! Although it’s pretty boring… link in reply

      1. Artemesia*

        I suspect the husband knew his wife and also knew he needed the job. It is possible the wife knew she was a bad fit. Glad everyone behaved well.

        1. ferrina*

          This makes sense to me. Having one person with an income is much better than no people with an income. This was one time I was really happy to see a boring update!

      1. Hlao-roo*

        While waiting for the comment with the link to appear, you can search for “updates: my boss doesn’t believe I’m quitting, we just hired the husband of the person we’re about to fire, and more” from December 30, 2019. The update is #5 on that post.

      1. Beth*

        I feel like this being in a small town is key. A small hiring pool explains why the employer hired a current employee’s spouse onto the same team, and a small employer pool could easily explain why the husband decided to make an awkward situation work.

        1. metadata minion*

          And the level of awkwardness I think really depends on how the wife felt about the firing. I’ve known people who felt almost relieved by the time they got fired, because it was clear things weren’t working out and now they could just focus on the job search. I can easily imagine her in a headspace of “well, yeah, I don’t exactly have warm fuzzy feelings about that place, but it was really obviously the wrong job for me and at least one of us is getting paid”.

    1. Choggy*

      Judging from the update seems like the husband knew which side his bread was buttered on, and wisely did not want to cause any issues with his employment status.

  2. kiki*

    Based on the update, it sounds like it ended up being as easy as it could have been! I know we’ll never get this info, but I do wonder what the husband and wife were actually thinking and how they discussed the situation. Do they both feel like the company was wildly unfair to wife but there are only a few places in town that husband can work so they had to get over it? Has the husband always slightly suspected his wife was bad at her job so he was unsurprised and unperturbed by her firing? Did wife know when her husband applied that she might be fired soon? We’ll never know!

    1. Dinwar*

      I was half-wondering if this was about me….My wife and I were in this situation when I first got the job at the company I work for. She didn’t know she was on her way out when I got hired, but it wasn’t long after that everyone saw the writing on the wall. And when she was booted from the company (she wasn’t directly fired, but it was the equivalent) we weren’t in a financial situation where I could leave the company.

      It’s a process. There’s a lot we didn’t discuss, and still don’t. My wife knows that she can’t vent to me as much as she wanted to, because I need to work with people who were directly involved in her leaving the company. I can’t carry her hostility to them and keep my job. On the flip side, I can’t talk about work as much as most people because I work with those people. For that matter, I LIKE some of the people who were involved in my wife leaving the company, and understand why they did what they did. My wife wasn’t a good fit. You can probably imagine the tension this creates. For a long time my career was this giant, gaping hole in our relationship where neither one of us entered. That didn’t really change until she got into her new career (teaching), and even now there are things we just don’t discuss.

      The other source of continuing tension is that my wife thinks she understands my job. Her info is more than ten years out of date, and three ranks lower on the org chart than my current position, but on those occasions where I do discuss work she evaluates it based on the work she did. Combined with the fact that my wife is one of those people who have to constantly one-up you, this rather strongly discourages me from discussing any work-related issues. Not going to lie, this sometimes leaves me feeling very isolated and unsupported. My job is physically and emotionally stressful–I’ve nearly been killed on multiple occasions–and not having her as part of my support network isn’t great. I’ve seen a lot of marriages end because of the spouse that travels finding comfort and support outside their marriage.

      I’m sure others in this situation have different experiences. But that’s been mine.

      1. Aquamarine*

        That sounds tough – I hope you’re hanging in there (and the Friday open thread is there if you ever need to vent about work).

      2. Michelle Smith*

        That was a lot to read. I can’t imagine living it. I hope you find a path forward that works for you. Big hugs.

  3. Rondeaux*

    If they can use the same desk, it could make the transition slightly easier if there are family photos, mugs and such she can just leave there.

    But yeah that’s a tough one

  4. Too Stunned To Speak*

    I worked for a company who hired an employee’s daughter before realizing how disastrously problematic the employee was. We expected the daughter would either quit or stay and cause problems after her parent was fired, but she ended up being so great and continued on as if nothing had happened.

    1. Turquoisecow*

      At my old company they hired a marketing VP who then suggested his younger brother for a job in an unrelated department. The marketing VP was later fired and then criminally charged because he’d done some shady stuff like keeping gifts from vendors that were supposed to be shared with the rest of the company or raffled off with everyone having a chance to win the prize of like concert tickets or sports tickets.

      The younger brother stuck around for quite some time after that and although I’m sure it was awkward, from what I could tell he was well liked and decent at the job (we overlapped but didn’t work directly together but that was the impression I got) and I think after a time people forgot about his brother and just treated him as any other person. I think it helped they didn’t work in the same department, so people didn’t think of them as related even though everyone knew they were.

  5. tinaturner*

    LW worries about what to “tell” them — but it’s always good to think what to “ASK” them.
    Like, in an email –“This is obviously not an ideal situation. CAN YOU handle this job since we’ve had to let your wife go? We have documentation of trying to be as fair as possible but it just wasn’t a good fit for her skills. But we’ll give her a good reference for her positives & explain why it didn’t work in the kindest language. But we need to know you want to stay.”
    It has no legality, but it’s a commitment.

      1. pally*


        Providing an avenue for the husband to express any thoughts and concerns about the situation he finds himself in, is certainly of value. Granted there are more tactful ways than “can you handle the job” to obtain such expression.

        1. Dinwar*

          That’s how my boss did it with me. Directly asked me “Can you handle working with this team after what happened?” It’s harsh, sure, but it makes you put your cards on the table. There’s no tactful way to fire someone, no way to avoid hard feelings, so it’s not unreasonable to approach it somewhat brutally. “I know this is going to be bad, but let’s get it out of the way”, sort of thing. Possibly it’s career dependent. Drillers are not known for their tact, after all, and those of us who work with them tend to develop rather thick skins and the ability to appreciate cutting through the crap.

          (One of the reasons I still work here and my wife doesn’t is that I understand this sort of logic. She didn’t handle it as well.)

    1. Beth*

      This sounds like something OP might ask if the husband started acting combative or weird–not something I’d suggest as a round 1 approach when there’s no weird behavior, just a fear of awkwardness.

      1. kiki*

        Yeah. Sometimes it can be helpful to predict awkwardness and just address it pre-emptively, but I also found this phrasing to be kind of… harsh? I’m not sure of the right word, but I think it should be gentler to start. Maybe more open-ended? Jumping to, “We need to know if you want to stay,” right off the back seems odd.

    2. Aquamarine*

      LW shouldn’t discuss the firing in this much detail with another employee, even if the other employee is the husband.

      1. Dinwar*

        Do you think the spouse doesn’t know this stuff already? Between office scuttlebutt and normal discussions between spouses, I would be astonished if any information was new. Plus, the spouse may have given permission to their former manager to discuss it. “I’ve already told him, so no need to keep it from him”, or something like that.

        There may be very good reasons to maintain the fiction of ignorance. There are many social situations where blunt honesty is not the best policy, and the easiest (or even legally safest) way to handle it is for everyone to pretend certain facts are unknown. But for the people involved, it’s all play-acting, and there are certain situations and people who would benefit from dropping that act. It’s going to be very situationally dependent.

        1. Aquamarine*

          It’s not a matter of who knows about it – it’s about whether it’s appropriate to discuss it with anyone other than the employee, and I think that it isn’t.

          I also don’t think people are maintaining the fiction of ignorance if they’re not discussing it. They’re just… not discussing it.

      2. Keyboard Cowboy*

        That was my thinking too. The best way to approach familial relationships in the workplace (spouse/spouse, parent/child, sibling/sibling, etc) seems to me to be “pretend it doesn’t exist” – we see a lot of counterexamples on this blog of “my mom showed up to my boss’s office asking for xyz” or “my boss made my husband call me on vacation”. There’s a lot of nuance that can happen in personal relationships and I think it’s best to just entirely sidestep that in the workplace and deal with people as individuals.

  6. Midwest Manager*

    I’ve been part of HR for years, but in our org, the payroll/financial part of things is handled separately, so I’ve never been involved in that part of it. If you fire someone because they’re incompetent, or can’t perform the job for which you hired them, can they seriously get unemployment? That seems…crazy to me. I thought unemployment was for when your job is eliminated, the company shuts down, they lose the big account you work on, or you’re wrongfully terminated. From what Alison is saying, it sounds like you can…suck enough at your job to get fired, but then still get unemployment?!?!!?

    1. Pita Chips*

      Yes you can, I went through exactly that. It’s when you’re fired for malfeasance like stealing that you cannot collect unemployment. It probably varies state to start.

      Sometimes people take jobs and they just don’t work out.

      1. Justin D*

        Or there’s a personality conflict, or some unrealistic metrics, or you could be perfectly good at the job but they want someone much better at it.

    2. headset*

      I’m pretty biased, as someone who has sucked at many jobs (and been fired for cause from others where I actually was good at my job but couldn’t get my attendance together, before I was diagnosed with ADHD). But I don’t think sucking at your job is a moral failure or means you don’t deserve to, you know, have housing and food and be able to keep the lights on while you’re hunting for something new.

      1. Justin D*

        Society has some incentive to not let honest mistakes and falling short be disastrous. That’s why we pretty much limit the denial of UI to people who do legitimately bad things (or quit).

    3. Michelle Smith*

      Yes, of course they can and should still get unemployment in this situation.

      Let’s do a hypothetical. Say you’re an HR generalist with a few years of experience and you get recruited to join a new company as their HR director (hopefully these terms make sense, I have no idea what the roles are called in that field–just humor me). You don’t do anything unethical as HR director – you don’t disclose private info, steal, or create liability for the company. But…you just aren’t as good at it as you thought you’d be or as they thought you’d be. You struggle to manage so many teams of people and the skills that made you an incredibly good generalist just don’t translate to being a competent director. You do your best at your job, but you and the company both know it’s not going to work out and they let you go before you have a chance to find another job.

      In that situation, do you really think you should lose your housing? Your ability to afford groceries? Or do you think that because you’re doing your best and lost your job just because it was a bad fit that you should be able to keep your head above water until you find a new role? Denying UI in situations like these would be akin to someone with health insurance being denied coverage to see a cardiologist because the career field they chose turned out to be so stressful that they developed heart problems. People don’t always make choices that are the best fit, but that doesn’t mean they should be punished for trying.

    4. New Jack Karyn*

      I’ve been bad at jobs (undiagnosed ADHD, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me). One particular job–well, it felt like I was set up to fail. I was literally doing the jobs of two people; separate offices, separate supervisors, without a firm schedule of when to focus on which role. Reader, I failed.

      I don’t think it would be reasonable for me to worry about rent and groceries in that situation. What do you think?

  7. Midwest Manager*

    I’ve worked in HR for years, but in my org, payroll and financials are handled by a separate dept so I’ve never been involved in those aspects. Can someone really be fired for being incompetent—or not able to perform the job for which they were hired—-and still get unemployment??? I always thought unemployment was for non-cause type situations—RIF, business closing, job eliminated, dept moving to another geographic location, or wrongful term situations. Can I really just be unable to do the job I said I could do and still get benefits?!?!! That seems….crazy to me.

    1. Off Plumb*

      In my state, to qualify for unemployment benefits you must have lost the job “through no fault of your own.” If you are fired for misconduct, you don’t qualify. If you are capable of doing the job and you deliberately underperform, you don’t qualify. But if you really try and simply aren’t good at it, that’s not misconduct and you could still qualify. Which seems reasonable to me. Sometimes the hiring process doesn’t work well, and all parties are acting in good faith but it’s just the wrong job. (I can especially see this happening in a situation like the letter where there’s a limited hiring pool.)

    2. SansSerif*

      Pretty sure they can, at least in my state (PA). I think you’d have to get fired for some kind of misbehavior to not get unemployment (coming in drunk, threatening or attacking someone, stealing from the company, sabatoging equipment or databases, giving confidential info to a competitor, etc. If you’re simply not good at your job, you get unemployment. And why not? Sometimes people end up in the wrong job for their skills. They’re still going to need financial help while they’re looking for a new job.

    3. metadata minion*

      Why is that weird? I’m also mildly surprised just because US law tends to be so hostile to workers, but if you’re just terrible at the job — doing your best, showing up at work, being a generally decent human being — why shouldn’t you get unemployment? There are plenty of situations where a job changes over time or the hiring manager and employee’s idea of “expertise at X” turn out to be too different. Most people don’t accept jobs that they know they’re going to be bad at.

    4. RVA Cat*

      Key phrase “I said I could do.” Lying about their qualifications would be willful misconduct that would disqualify them from UI.
      But as we’ve often seen, many employers refuse to train new hires or otherwise set them up to fail. There’s also the bait-and-switch situations where they’re hired to do X when the real job requires Y. It’s ultimately the employer who made a bad hire.

    5. Beth*

      Unemployment is a state-by-state thing, but my state at least lets people who are fired collect unless they were fired for misconduct (which is a different thing than just being bad at your job).

    6. Lucy P*

      I think it’s going to depend on the company. Although we’ve fire a few people over the years for inability to perform, we often put the reason for termination as lay-off and not fired for cause. It’s done as a courtesy since these were not “bad” people.
      Fired for cause has generally been reserved for people who did something wrong like spending too much time on personal calls or putting more time on the their time cards than actually worked.

  8. soontoberetired*

    There’s been a lot of spouses and parent / child combos at my workplace over the years. And we’ve laid off and fired half of the pairing a lot of times. Things just continue on without a ripple. It is weird. I don’t know if they hire spouses as much as they used to though. I have never heard the surviving half mention the other once it happens. I think they know, if it was for cause, why it happened.

  9. Broadway Duchess*

    I’m glad that husband was able to take the job after his wife was fired and there were no issues. A similar situation happened with one of my parents when their sibling wanted my parent to apply for a temp role. Parent was lukewarm about it but loved their sibling and took the job. That temp position became permanent and led to a very quick rise in the company, while the sibling was let go in round one of three layoffs. The laid-off group had been there for a long but didn’t adapt to the burgeoning digital policies and eound up being redundant. The sibling has never forgiven my parent and their relationship is irrevocably severed.

  10. the temp*

    I’ve been in a similar situation with temporary positions. My partner was terminated and I moved into his (more senior) position. They were right to terminate him; he knew it, I knew it, the boss never brought it up. Work was fine and they treated me as a separate individual, I was useful and productive. Home was harder, his mental health took a hit. But we needed an income so he made it work. In some ways it was the beginning of the end for our relationship though. I hope the couple in this story worked out okay; maybe the wife felt some sort of relief.

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