When The Boss's Wife is The HR Department

Some advice on dealing with the dynamics of a family company.

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Suzanne Lucas

I worked for a small, husband and wife- owned company. The husband was my boss and also the President of the company. His wife? The entire HR Department. Isn't this, oh, I don't know, a conflict of interest? There were several instances where I had a problem with the way my boss treated my coworkers and me, but didn't really feel comfortable talking about it with his wife. Is it the type of situation where having your wife as HR is a bad idea, but there are no rules against it?

There are lots of things that are bad ideas, but businesses do them anyway. Now, is it a good idea or a bad idea to have the boss's wife in charge of HR? Well, that depends on the people involved. If she's a competent HR person, then I'm all for it. If she was hired because shes the boss's wife, well then, that's a whole different ball of wax. Remember, the point of HR is to help the business succeed, not to play referee between employees and management.

I think your concern is that if you go to HR (the wife) and say, "Your husband is treating me like dirt," she'll be defensive and she'll take his side. This is highly likely. What's even more likely is that regardless of the relationship between the president and HR, HR will take the president's side. Why? Because I have never seen a company where HR didn't have to report to the president.

You didn't like how you were treated. There are several ways to handle this and the worst way is to run to HR and complain about how unfair things are. The best way is to handle it like a grownup. HR certainly can be involved, but it doesn't have to be. Take it up with the boss directly first.

Problem: You're overworked.

Wrong way: "Hey boss, you are overworking me, you slave driver. Don't you know I have a life outside this office?"

Right way: "Hey boss, when you hired me I was responsible for project A. Now, three years later, I'm responsible for A, B, and C. Can you help me set priorities and figure out a way to accomplish this? From what I see, we may need to hire someone to take responsibility for C because ..."

Problem: The boss is a screamer

Wrong way: Run to HR and say, "Waah, boss yells at me!"

Right way: (Calmly) "I don't appreciate being yelled at." Then leave the room. (Note, this may result in you being fired, but more likely boss will eventually learn that he can't yell at you. There are risks to being a grownup.)

Problem: The boss is a flake and you never know what to expect.

Wrong way: "I never know what I should be doing! Your priorities keep changing. How on earth do you expect me to accomplish anything when you can't make up your freaking mind????"

Right way: "Can we have regular 1:1 meetings to make sure were on the same page?"

You can even bring HR (boss's wife) in on this by asking her to help you. Yes, I know, in your mind the boss is the one with the problem. But, the reality is, he's the boss. And having an underling point out his shortcomings will not make him more pleasant to work with. The questions to ask: "How can I?" and "What would be the best way for me?" and, "Would it be possible for me to take a communications training class?"

I fully realize that some bosses are never going to be nice to work for. Some HR people are not going to be helpful. Some people don't recognize that for the best results you want the best people and to get the best people you have to treat them fairly. Stinks, but that's reality. You can change yourself, but not other people. You can ask for help in changing yourself, or you can get out. But, it's unlikely that the president of any company is going to have an HR person that reams him out for treating an employee poorly.Come to think of it, a wife just might be willing to do that where a regular employee might not. So, maybe it's not such a bad idea after all.

Suzanne Lucas has nine years of h uman r esources experience, most of which has been in a Fortune 500-company setting. She holds a Professional in Human Resources Certificate from the Society for Human Resource Management. She blogs at Evil HR Lady .

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