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AZRIELA JAFFE

6.9.99  
Firing the Wife — and Staying Married
What to do, carefully, if she just doesn't cut it in your company

This man is smart enough to know the difference between hiring an employee and employing his wife: "My wife is a full-time housewife and mother, and she wants to help me out part-time in my business. She means well, but I'm not satisfied with her work. She says she'll do something, but I can't count on it being done. The other day, she said she would handle something for me, and when I asked about it, she hadn't done it. The timing on this was critical. If she were a regular employee, I would have fired her a long time ago, but she's my wife. What should I do?"

To answer that, we have to understand why she's not doing well in your business. Here are some questions to help you diagnosis the source of the trouble:

  • Do you ask your wife to do things that are beyond her ability? A task might be simple for you, but may not come naturally to her. How do you decide what responsibilities to give her: Based on what she likes to do, what you don't like to do, or what you assume is simple enough for her to handle?
  • Have you taught your wife how to do everything you ask of her, even the simple tasks, so she knows how you prefer to have them done?
  • When you give her an assignment, are you absolutely clear about the deadlines and the consequences to your business if it's not done on time and properly? Do you give her instructions as you or she rush out the door or while she's dealing with the kids?
  • Do you feel that to do something right, you have to do it yourself? Is your wife the problem, or would you have trouble delegating to anyone? Are your standards so high that your wife can't possibly meet them?
  • Are you and your wife struggling for power for other reasons? Is it possible that your wife is angry with you and expresses it indirectly by doing a poor job? Does she do things her way when it's not appropriate to assert herself?
  • Does she have unconscious reasons to sabotage your business? Is there anything about your business success that threatens her?
  • Do you respect her? You may love her as a wife and mom, but do you respect her as a business person? If not, you'll always be uneasy delegating to her, and you'll be waiting to pounce on mistakes.
  • You said, "My wife wants to help me in my business," not, "I decided to hire my wife," or "I need to hire someone in my business, and I'm trying out my wife." Is your wife an unwelcome intruder on your turf? Some business owners welcome family assistance, and some prefer to keep business and marriage quite separate.
  • Is it possible that your wife doesn't want to work in the business, but does so for other reasons? Maybe she feels that's the only way she'll know what goes on in the business or maybe she misses you. You can address these emotional needs by talking with her more.
Once you know why she's doing the work poorly, you can better decide whether you want to fix the problem or "fire" her. Firing anyone is painful. Dismissing your wife is harder, even if it's the right thing for both of you. This is no time to "punish" her for letting you down. Keep her self-esteem intact. Here are some positive ways to tell her: "I don't like the strain this is putting on our marriage, and I don't want to do anything to jeopardize us." Or, "I like things done a certain way, and it's hard for anyone to please me. Please don't take it personally, but I'd prefer to take care of it myself." Or, "You do a great job taking care of the kids and the house, and I don't want to distract you from that."

Even if you release her as a part-time employee, it's not the same as letting go of someone you'll never see again. Look for opportunities to help your wife feel connected to your business. Keep her informed, as you would a silent partner. The more included she feels in your business and your life, the less she'll feel compelled to "help" you in ways you find unhelpful.

Have a question on how to handle the pressures of running a business and the impact on your personal life, marriage, and family? Contact Azriela Jaffe at AZ@azriela.com. Please put "BW Online question" in the subject field. Your real name will be kept confidential if you request, but please give an E-mail address, phone number, and your hometown so she can contact you for more information. Because of heavy volume, Azriela cannot guarantee that she will answer every query.

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