Love Is in the Air: When Couples Are Colleagues

“At meetings, we try to sit as far apart from each other as possible,” Jim, who is married to one of my other colleagues, Sue, told me. “In the office, people assume when they are talking to one of us they’re talking to both of us, but we make a point to act like any other colleague.”

Jim and Sue are made-up names but they are a real-live couple who’ve worked in the same office together since 2011. They’ve become pros at managing their time together as colleagues.

“Work is work,” Sue said. “And home is home.” Sue recognizes that when they come into work they are colleagues but at lunch they are a couple. Early on when they walked into the office in the morning, they would consciously not hold hands, which was a more extreme approach to setting the divide. Now it is second nature where the line is, Sue said.

One benefit of working together is having more time to talk through complicated issues or problems. For example, in the car on the way home, they can pick each other’s brains on how to handle cases.

“But when we pull into the driveway, I’ll make a point to finish the conversation before we get out of the car,” Jim said.

And because both of them are obligated to abide by U.S. privacy laws, they know what information they can share with each other, and just with each other, which can be a big stress reducer when one of them is dealing with a particularly sad or difficult case.

Both Jim and Sue had the same career goals from the moment they met as college students, so it’s not a surprise that they would be working together at the Department of State where there are many couples – or tandems as they are called in the Foreign Service. It’s not always easy for couples or their supervisors to address issues of nepotism or appearances of nepotism. For both managers and employees, having couples in the workplace can present unique challenges. Although much of what I’m writing about here relates to the Department of State, there may be some useful takeaways for your office, too. Here are some things to think about.

What is nepotism?

Nepotism is showing favoritism toward relatives based on the relationship, rather than on an objective evaluation of their ability or suitability, for hiring, promotion, or assignment. It can also mean advocating for someone else to show favoritism toward a relative on your behalf.

The Department of State’s nepotism policy addresses both nepotism and the appearance of nepotism, because either can degrade morale, arouse public distrust, and be an obstacle to teamwork and good performance. A relative can be a spouse or domestic partner, a parent or a child, an aunt or uncle, first cousin, niece or nephew, or even father-in-law, mother-in-law, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, stepfather, stepmother, stepson, stepdaughter, stepbrother, stepsister, half-brother, or half-sister.

Safeguarding against nepotism

At the Department of State, it is up to offices to safeguard against prohibited practices of nepotism or the appearance of nepotism. What this means is that an employee may not appoint, employ, advance, promote, assign in or to a Department position any individual who is a relative of that employee. Basically no employee may exercise general supervision over a relative and an employee and a relative may not be placed into positions where they jointly control government resources, property, or money, or establish government policy.

At some point when one half of a tandem has the opportunity to become a supervisor and enters his or her spouse’s chain of command, the other must try to find a way to be reassigned. It’s just not possible for one spouse to sign off on time and attendance for the other spouse, for example, or even assign a portfolio.

For couples, or tandems, who may work at the same Embassy or Consulate but within different offices, there are still practices in place to safeguard against nepotism or the appearance of nepotism.

Family ties

In addition to tandem couples who bid on assignments together at the Department, there are a significant number of family members who also work at the Department, both overseas and in Washington. In November 2014, there were 11,620 family members accompanying U.S. Government employees from many U.S. government agencies at overseas posts. Of these, 2,736 family members were working inside the mission. The Department’s Family Liaison Office provides resources, including information on employment opportunities, to family members accompanying officers, as well as best practices and guidelines. The overall goal of the program is to help families settle into a new posting every two to three years.

Appearances matter

Just as supervisors need to ensure they are managing relatives in the office in accordance with official policy, Jim and Sue recognize each day when they walk into work that they play an important role here. Employees are responsible for scrupulously insulating themselves from acts benefiting, affecting, or giving the appearance of benefiting or affecting a relative’s career or responsibilities, or which might reasonably be anticipated to benefit, affect, or give the appearance of benefitting or affecting a relative’s career or responsibilities. Employees who fail to do this or give the appearance of failing to do this are violating U.S. law (5 U.S.C. 3110).

Whose career matters more?

One of the greatest challenges of tandem couples is getting spouses on the same employment, or bidding, cycle. A spouse may get off cycle if he or she takes a one-year special assignment, such as those offered in the Department’s Operations Center in Washington, or if a spouse is asked to extend an assignment an extra year. In either situation, the other spouse may need to curtail an assignment in order for the couple to bid together on their next posting. No one likes to curtail an assignment but it happens and officers and their families have learned to adjust.

In your office, you may have a similar situation if an employee’s spouse takes a job out of town and the employee either requests a transfer to a different city, if that’s an option, or the opportunity for full-time remote telework.

As a supervisor, I’ve had to adjust my management style to be especially nimble in these and other similar situations. Twice in the last three years, excellent officers have had to curtail after one year in order to get back in sync with their spouse’s bid cycles. Although staffing gaps are the chief focus for managers here, training is also a top priority.

Also, for couples who work in the same office, supervisors can expect that they will usually request to take their annual leave at the same time. Especially during the summer months and the winter holidays, supervisors should plan ahead for coverage in the office.

Recently one of the officers on my team has elected to remain in Washington while her spouse heads overseas nearly a year ahead of her and their young child. This is also a situation supervisors will want to pay close attention to in order to be a resource to the employee and to ensure the employee’s workload is manageable.

“Spouses and partners have varying professional backgrounds and education,” said Julie Washburn, an employment officer in the Department’s Family Liaison Office. “We encourage all of them to have a plan A, B, and C going into every new posting.” Good advice for any employee working alongside a spouse or partner pretty much anywhere.

The views expressed here are those of Ms. Walker and not those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. government.

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