A candidate we had helped place in a job after months of negotiation and deliberation threatened to quit in a huff in his first week. He loved the company, was excited about the job and it had been a great career step-up. So, what went wrong?
His wife, a batchmate from business school, worked at a rival company. While this fact was tabled by the candidate at his initial interviews, the issue of conflict was never explicitly addressed by the hiring company. However, two days after he joined, a manager from his company called his wife’s boss at the rival company and, citing “conflict of interest”, went on to seek a fairly detailed reference check on the wife. Naturally, all hell broke loose. And not just at the workplaces.
The big picture : You know what is right, and if it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.
With an increasing number of couples meeting at graduate school or in the workplace, the incidence of “competing couples” is up, and here to stay. Companies for their part usually have a view on spouses working in the same organization, but have not had much experience in legislating for—or guiding senior management in managing —this particular situation.
Also read | Sonal Agrawal’ s earlier articles
So, is there a conflict? Of course there can be. Clearly, this is more of a concern in a certain kind of job—for instance, pilots flying for rival airlines probably have no significant conflicts. If one spouse is in marketing and the other in finance, perhaps the potential conflicts are minimal. But if both partners are in directly competitive situations, for example, in sales, investment banking, law or even headhunting —where they directly influence account wins for one company, which are losses for the other —there is obviously a minefield out there.
In the ensuing hubbub with our distraught candidate, his understandably furious wife and the various companies involved, a number of lessons emerged for us all. The candidate had, very appropriately, flagged a potential conflict early in the game to the hiring manager at the company. Should there have been concerns with this—and there should have—they should have been addressed and cleared well before an offer was extended. In any case, it was completely inappropriate for the manager of the hiring company to have called the employee’s wife’s employer in the manner that he did. If at all, the search consultant could have been called in to conduct checks or talk through the issues. The wife, on her part, may have considered informing her employer that her husband was joining a direct competitor—rather than her boss finding out the way he did. As the enabling search firm, this could have been on our checklist of potential issues to be addressed as part of the process.
What should companies do? To start with, most do—or should have—a definitive self-declaration policy of potential conflicting situations with respect to employee relationships with competition, vendors, regulators, etc. The ethos being not of mistrust, but disclosure and transparency—so that the company can be aware of and manage any potential issues, both regulatory and competitive. The company could also have its non-compete and non-disclosure policies clearly defined and implemented, so that employees are aware of what constitutes a breach. In process terms, the hiring managers could have discussed and addressed concerns well in time. However, the real challenge is how to set the management tone on how to approach these issues—there will be times when there is discomfort and this needs to be handled with empathy and respect for everyone involved.
Employees on their part need to recognize that while they may be operating with the utmost integrity, there are situations of conflict, and like most other issues in the marital home, these need to be discussed and addressed. Apart from disclosure to employers, it is equally important to work out the rules of engagement at home. While most spouses will discuss some work at home, there is some information that just cannot be shared, and defining what’s off-limits for pillow talk is critical. Discipline at home may include housekeeping issues such as not leaving papers or laptops lying around and being careful when on concalls (conference calls). When mistakes happen—and they will— it’s important to step away with a clear understanding of how the spouse will handle it. Of course, a cohabiting competitor needs to display understanding when the other can’t share details of what’s happening at work. Equally important is knowing when and how to step away from a discussion or project at the workplace, if one feels that the conflict is not manageable—or even taking the mutual decision for one spouse to remove oneself from a long-term job conflict situation. Eventually, it’s a bit like marriage itself. No policy will legislate for all possible conflicts and transgressions—you know what is right, and if it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.
Our candidate finally elected to stay in the new job, the various managers were counselled, the wife was placated and some explicit and implicit expectations were set. And we’ve learnt to ask one more important question and close one more loop in the recruiting process.
Later that week, I asked a well-known investment banking power couple on how they managed to make it work at home, given the number of conference calls they have to do at odd hours. “Separate bathrooms,” they shot back. Competitive couplehood aside, that sounds like a recipe for a good marriage in any case, I thought.
Sonal Agrawal is chief executive, Accord Group, an executive search firm.
Write to Sonal at firstname.lastname@example.org