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Spotting the red flags

Useful and useless romantic partners at work.

Many publications have written about how the pandemic closures have significantly transformed our people’s lives. Such confinement brought many challenges for families and couples. A lot of people in relationships were finally forced to get to know one other. As a result, many relationships were strengthened, achieving genuine value; others were weakened or broken. The situation is similar in business. Few publications have dealt with issues of spouses and couples who work together. Yet 2020 has brought an enormous change for them so far, and it’s just the beginning.

The power of trust

In the case of SMEs, it is common for couples to run a family business. That’s why it’s called a “family business”, after all. Then there are cases where two independent people find each other while working together, and if one of them owns the company, it creates serious new challenges. Then there are rumours that some colleagues are explicitly “targeting” the business owner, vying for a better life and a more prominent career. Although the latter topic is delicate, and people do not like to discuss it, the phenomenon still exists. If we look on the bright side, it is understandable that the owner’s partner is also their right hand in the business, as they do not develop as much trust in any of their colleagues as they do in their own partner, right? Of course, it is precisely because of this that the price can be high. But one doesn’t go into a relationship anticipating what will happen if it ends. Trust is an important consideration, especially in small businesses, and let’s face it, in a multinational, people evaluate and examine such relationships from an HR perspective before starting them, so they happen less often. That is, although they are not banned outright anywhere, they occur most frequently at SMEs. And let’s assume that this is still the case: the person’s confidant is also their right hand. The trouble starts when the owner’s partner doesn’t understand anything related to that particular business, aside from serving their partner’s trust. Even in such circumstances, the question becomes whether they continue this relationship within the company, the partner supports the owner from home, or the non-owner partner builds an independent career. It’s not an easy question, because if they support from home, they are not actually furthering their own career, thus creating vulnerability, which can ruin the relationship. It is also true that in a real relationship, reassurance can resolve these issues. A fundamental problem arises when any member of the couple has self-esteem problems. If the owner has a self-esteem problem, it’s just a problem for the relationship, but if the owner’s partner has these types of challenges, it can ruin the business. Well, very few are aware of the latter fact. However, based on the clear reports of coaches, mentors, and consultants, this is one of the principal challenges in developing small businesses, and often even large ones.

Of course, put them in HR

I hate to say it, but no one is shocked that HR is the gathering point of nepotism. This is a massive problem for real HR professionals. The fact also shows the general opinion of small business owners about HR. With all due respect to the exceptions, of course. Sorry, the rare exceptions. And right away, I want to emphasise that just because a partner works in HR doesn’t mean they do not get work done! I firmly reject this “slander” based on my own experience. I can also state as fact, however, that all of the unsuitable partners and lovers end up in the HR field, often combining it with marketing. This is a serious problem for the profession because small businesses grow and enter the corporate level with this HR attitude. By then, of course, they would claim to have sound HR knowledge, but no one in the company accepts it because they have not reshaped the way they think about HR. I’ve talked to many HR professionals in my life who have confirmed these experiences, and as of now, the profession is looking for a solution. It’s not easy, as an owner does what they want with their company. They can even ruin it, often because of the feelings they nurture for their partner and the bias that follows.

Ruthless criticism

So, what’s the solution? Self-criticism always comes in handy, and an objective judgment of our loved ones also doesn’t hurt. If we are business owners or chief executives, that is our fundamental duty. Just like the honesty of partners towards one another. It has happened too many times that, in addition to the fact that the owner’s partner does not understand their own work and does not execute it, they even interfere with other areas and professionals, mostly due to distractions. The tragedy is that everyone within the organisation is aware of it. In any case, a partner starts from a disadvantage, as they have to prove their suitability several times due to the preconceived judgments. If they are suitable, they will be the company’s engine and will often pull the owner out of difficult situations. If, on the other hand, they are not suitable, then the owner’s image and competence within the organisation are questioned, which is a barrier to development in the long run and the key to deterioration. Experience has shown that it is easy to distinguish between “useful” and “useless” partners within a given company. Let’s stick with the HR field for an example: everything is usually fine with a useful partner, as they maintain professionalism and execute their tasks. A useless partner cannot do a reliable, professionally acceptable job, and therefore someone else is always responsible for their failures, never them. Well, that should raise a few red flags for the owner.