How to Manage Work Spouses

How to Manage Work Spouses

Work SpousesQuite a few years ago, I worked with a man whom I adored.  We had a great relationship, in which I could anticipate his every need.

I knew when he needed a cup of coffee and what he took in it, I could predict his lunch order, I reminded him when one of his 8 children was having a birthday, I told him when he was too cranky and hard on his staff, and I finished his sentences for him.  Lucky for me, my husband didn’t mind.  He liked my “work spouse” too.

Wikipedia defines a work spouse as “a co-worker, usually of the opposite sex, with whom one shares a special relationship, having bonds similar to those of a marriage; such as, confidences, loyalties, shared experiences, and a degree of honesty or openness.”

How do you know if you have a work spouse?

According to, you might have a work spouse if:

  • You can be bluntly honest with this person about their hygiene or appearance
  • They’re the first person you seek out when something big happens at work
  • They know almost as much about you as your real life spouse
  • You depend on them at work for supplies or snacks
  • The two of you share inside jokes that no one else understands.

As more and more women work full time, and all of us spend more of our waking time in the workplace, it is becoming increasingly common for people to develop work spouse relationships.

The first time the phrase “work wife” was used was in the 1930s, when the term was coined by a film with that name.  Now, decades later, work spouses have become so common and recognized that surveys and studies are being conducted on them.

Captivate Network’s survey of employees with work spouses found that:

  • 55% keep the interaction confined to the office
  • 59% discuss at-home problems with their work spouse
  • 35% discuss their sex lives
  • 67% said their work spouse influences their buying decisions–and in certain incidences, to a greater extent than their own spouse!

Famous work spouses:

Whether or not you have had a work spouse, we all can think of examples of them.  One famous example could be President George W. Bush and his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

It was reported that they could communicate through body language or just a couple words, and had a very close personal relationship, which sometimes led to water cooler speculation.  In fact, on one occasion she slipped and referred to the president as her “husband.”

In a CareerBuilder survey, respondents noted other examples such as Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa, and Meredith Vieira and Matt Lauer.

Are work spouses good or bad for your business?

So why do you, as a business owner, manager, or human resources professional, care whether your employee has a work spouse?  The real question becomes: does it benefit or harm the workplace and the workers?

The benefits of work spouses:

  • If the employees work on the same projects or in the same department, their closeness may enable them to be supportive of each other and more productive.
  • They are safe confidants for each other, and they provide one another with a place to bounce ideas around and get honest feedback.
  • Employees are more likely to stay with a company when they enjoy the people they work with, and will be more reluctant to leave a company when they leave their work spouse behind.
  • They can let off steam together, and help each other maintain positive morale and perspective on the job.

The downsides to work spouses:

  • Other employees may feel left out.
  • If one of the “spouses” is in a supervisory position, it can lead to claims of preferential treatment from others.
  • The relationship can lead to gossip and speculation, which can become a workplace distraction.
  • The work spouses can develop too much of a friendship, and their workday can be taken up by fun instead of by work.
  • For some people, the work spouse relationship can cross the platonic line, and develop into something that creates problems for their real world spouses.

The other issue that can arise is when the “work marriage” dissolves.  A workplace separation or divorce can be as traumatic as a real one.

Any relationship can be rocky, and these are no different, except that the business expects productivity and teamwork to always be present.  The relationship breakup has to be handled in a way that it doesn’t negatively impact co-workers, the team, the department or the projects.

How should employers handle workplace friendships?

How and when, then, do we as managers become involved?  We don’t want to discourage co-workers from becoming good friends.  On the contrary, we’re always preaching teamwork to the troops.

When two people have an obviously very close relationship, though, we can address it from the standpoint of productivity, propriety, and morale.

Neither party should be in a position to make decisions about the other person’s salary, promotions, or career enhancement:  There is just too great of a potential for other employees to feel that favoritism exists.

Promote healthy and family-friendly relationships:  Sometimes work spouses become too close, blurring the intimacy lines, and the relationship crosses over into something more personal.  Now you’re into a whole different set of problems.  To prevent that, encourage them to involve others in their circle, hold open door meetings, put them on different projects, hold social events that include spouses and significant others, and don’t send them on out of town trips together.

Avoid blurring the distinction between work lives and private lives:  Dr. Phil suggests work spouses not share private information about their marriages, never drink together or be alone with each other outside the job, make sure their real spouse knows their work spouse, and keep the lines of communication open between their real life spouse and other coworkers so everyone’s in the big circle together.

Open the lines of communication in your company and do some training:  When you’re discussing teamwork, incorporate discussions on work spouses (or “work siblings” as some HR folks like to refer to them to take the sizzle out of the relationship).  Assist your staff in understanding the relationship dynamics they or their coworkers are in, how to manage them for the benefit of the organization and themselves, and what to do when the situation goes awry.  It’s a lot easier to talk about it before there’s actually a problem.

If you observe that a relationship is deteriorating, become proactive:  Take care that neither party is in a position to make decisions that will affect the other’s job assignments or career opportunities.  If the relationship turns negative, you can intervene, treating it like any other coworker relationship situation, offering solutions that assist the parties in working together in a cohesive manner.

The wrap-up:

Since 65% of those surveyed said they have or have had a work spouse at some time, it’s likely that at some point, we will all be in such a relationship, or will deal with this in our workplaces.

I’m afraid that I might now be in a polygamous situation at work myself!  At least with these workplace spousal relationships, we avoid engagement rings, wedding showers, expensive ceremonies, and, unfortunately, all of the gifts.  Hopefully, what we do get from them is all of the benefits of two people who are so in tune and happy to be working side by side, that every day they’re excited to come to work and to do a great job together.

Originally published in the Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal.

Email Julie Tappero

Find Julie Tappero on LinkedIn