I’m about to fire an employee — and 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?

Oooooh.

The best thing you can do is to assume that this might sour the husband on working for you, and be okay with that possibility.

Or it might not! Some people are able to compartmentalize about this kind of thing and carry on without much angst. And who knows, it’s possible that the wife knows this is the wrong fit for her, sees the firing coming, and will be relieved by it — and she might not have any ill will toward the company that might affect the husband’s outlook.

Or not. She might think she was treated unfairly, and the husband might see it that way too. Or he might not agree with her take but still decide it’s not good for his marital harmony to work for a company that his wife feels mistreated her … especially if it starts to feel awkward for him to ever talk about work or his coworkers or his boss because she feels they did her wrong.

All you can do is to treat the wife with as much dignity as possible (which you should do whenever you’re firing anyone, but it’s especially important here). That means make sure that you’ve given her clear warnings that her work is falling short and explain what she needs to do to improve (which it sounds like you’ve done), that you’ve warned her that she could be fired if you don’t see the changes you need within X timeline (which you might have done, but also might not have; make sure you do), and that you treat her well during the firing itself. That last part means might mean saying things like “I know you’ve really tried to make this work and I appreciate that” (if that’s true) and “you’re great at X and Y but this role really requires Z” (if X and Y are things you can credibly say) and making it clear this is about a mismatch between her strengths and the need of the role (and not because she’s lazy or incompetent, etc.). It also means making the firing as logistically and financially easy on her as you can: offering severance if you can do that, not contesting unemployment benefits if she files for them, and agreeing on messaging to use with your staff and clients (if that’s possible).

These are great things to do with any firing, not only because they’re kind and the right thing to do, but because the rest of your staff is always part of your audience with a firing, and they’ll pay attention to how you treat people you’re parting from.

There’s also the question of what, if anything, to say to the husband. One option is to talk with him the next day (after he’s had time to talk with his wife) and say something like, “I know it could be awkward that Jane isn’t working with us anymore, and I understand you’re in a strange position here. I want to let you know how happy we were to hire you, and that hasn’t changed. We really value your work, and I hope this won’t change your interest in staying.”

Then, if he seems unsure about where he stands, you could say, “I’m glad to talk with you any time about how we handle it when someone turns out not to well matched with what we need, if you have concerns about that. But I also understand this might just be a tough position for you, regardless, and I support you in doing whatever is best for you. But I hope there’s a way for you to feel comfortable staying.”

But ultimately this just might not work out, and it’s okay if that’s the outcome — because if he does feel uncomfortable or like his job will never be an easy topic in his marriage, it’s better for him to move on. It’s not great for you, but that’s the price of hiring spouses! (And I don’t mean that in a lecture-y way, just a practical one.)

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