Terrie's Job Tips -- Married Couples at Work - Part Two: Husband-Wife Friction

One of the basics of starting your own business is that you don't bring your spouse into it. The possibilities for dysfunction both in the office and at home far exceed those couples with successful business partnerships. And yet, the pressures of keeping costs down and having someone you can rely on serving as your backstop are often too tempting to pass up.

For Japanese venture businesses in particular, it is common to find the husband doing sales and serving as the CEO and the wife manages the accounting and back office administration – along with kids and a household. I have numerous friends who started out this way, and indeed, I have done it twice myself. So the question must be asked: "Is it safe/productive for you as an employee to work in a husband-wife business?"

All start-ups are under financial pressure, and as adults we know that money problems test all personal relationships. So as you can imagine, in a family-run business, a financial problem at work doesn't just stay there, instead, the couple will take it home with them. It only takes a few months of this kind of 7x24 friction to test even the best matched married couple, and make otherwise ordinary people become frustrated and explosive.

There is no time more tense than when payday rolls around and the company is short of cash. I have interviewed candidates from smaller firms looking for alternative positions, who decided to leave their husband-wife employers after being traumatized by the owners having a stand-up row in front of all the staff.

In one case, in the heat of the moment they started flinging accusations back and forth at each other as to who was causing the company to have problems. Some of these strong words included confidential financial information that scared the staff into dreading that the company might go belly up any time. Now, all start-ups have close calls financially, but there is a time and a place to share this information, and it certainly isn't in the heat of the moment. Needless to say, companies having this kind of environment don't last too long.

So my advice is that unless you either have a very strong personality or you really like the job, working in a husband-wife company where there is volatility can be dangerous to your mental health. Especially in the week that the payroll needs to be made!

Now, as I say, I have brought my partner into the business on several occasions, either when the company has been in a difficult period or when starting a new business. Indeed, Daijob was originally built with the help of my wife, who was in charge of marketing. In doing this, I was very aware of possible fall-out with the staff, and thus waited as long as possible before pulling the trigger.

Righ from the start, I tried to establish with my wife and the staff that the arrangement would be for a limited period, until the business got on its feet, and asked them for their forbearance during that period. Further, my wife and I had a rule that if there was any difficult discussion to do, that we would agree to go into a separate closed room and have it out there, or we let the conflict go until we got home. Every now and again, we had to remind each other of this commitment.

Needless to say, senior managers in particular don't like having a close member of the family onboard. They feel that the balance of power is shifted, and they find it difficult to deal with the junior member of the couple if he/she wants something changed or is complaining. They also become extremely sensitized to any situation and even small issues can blow out of proportion if not handled quickly and tactfully.

I have to say that I do NOT recommend spouses working together in the same office, if the company is owner-run. It is not only uncomfortable for the staff; it's also unfair to your spouse. There is little chance for her to improve or build a career when everyone knows that she is temporary and just "the bosses' wife." People were reluctant to take orders from her, and although they liked her well enough, felt that they couldn't genuinely interact with her. I think that both of us (and our staff) breathed a sigh of relief when it came time to finish the project.