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Working Marriage

As a growing number of employees band together in "work-spouse" relationships, employers question whether they are beneficial or detrimental to business.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007
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Like most couples who've been together a substantial period of time, Greg Dalmotte and Lois Marino bicker -- a lot.

She chides him for his high-cholesterol diet, his inability to admit when he's wrong and his habit of impersonating Elaine's wacky dance move from the television comedy Seinfeld.

He tells her she's an overly skinny workaholic who needs to turn off her BlackBerry and relax once in awhile.

No big deal, right? After all, long-married couples have their little tiffs, their little habits that annoy each other.

What's different about this scenario is that Dalmotte and Marino aren't married -- to each other, that is. In reality, they are colleagues at BankAtlantic in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., where Dalmotte is a vice president and Marino is an assistant vice president.

Since 2000, both have worked in the "Office of WOW!" -- a small department created to boost employee engagement. Dalmotte manages the office, while Marino serves as assistant manager.

Despite their non-romantic status, their closeness is noteworthy. Marino boasts that she knows exactly what Dalmotte will order anytime the two go out for lunch together -- two Big Macs, large fries, a large Coke and an ice-cream sundae at McDonald's ... or hot roast-beef sandwiches, fries and a drink if they dine at Arby's. When her home computer crashes, she's immediately on the phone with Dalmotte so he can walk her through the process of bringing it back from the dead.

For his part, Dalmotte says he can set his clock on Marino's propensity for ringing his cell phone every morning at 7:41 a.m. to discuss the pending day, as the two drive to work (separately). As for Marino's dining habits, Dalmotte claims "Lois doesn't eat." At times, his insistence that she eat has led to significant friction in the relationship. On one occasion, the two even got into a heated workplace argument when he tried to force her to go to lunch.

"He was like, 'Lois, you're going to lunch.' I said, 'I don't want to go to lunch,' so he came over to my computer and shut it completely off," Marino says. "We ended up in the parking lot with me yelling, 'I'm 40 years old, and I can't even make up my own mind whether I want to go to lunch!' " Despite her frustration over Dalmotte's tactics, Marino concedes that compassion lies at the heart of his actions: "He does look out for me, even personally."

It doesn't end there. The pair is so close that co-workers in search of one of them are likely to ask the other, "Where's your wife?" or "Where's your husband?" Dalmotte's real-life wife, Barb, has even been known to tell him, "Your other wife is on the phone," when Marino calls their house. And when Marino receives a birthday card from her husband, Jamie, she'll often find Dalmotte has signed it, too.

Sound like an unusual relationship? Not really, say some experts, who claim Marino and Dalmotte serve as just one example of a long-time workplace trend known as "work spouses."

According to the Transwiki online "Wiktionary," a multilingual, Web-based dictionary written collaboratively by volunteers, a work spouse is "a man or woman in the workplace with whom one shares a special relationship, having bonds similar to those of a marriage: special confidences, loyalties, shared jokes and experiences," along with "an unusual degree of honesty or openness."

According to a recent "socializing in the workplace" survey of nearly 2,400 U.S. adults by Atlanta-based staffing firm Randstad USA, 53 percent of women say they have had an "office spouse," while 42 percent of men report having been involved in such a relationship. The work-spouse phenomenon seems to be more common among younger workers, with 50 percent of all respondents ages 18 to 34 claiming to have had an office spouse, compared to 48 percent of 35- to 44-year-olds, 47 percent of 45- to 54-year-olds and 40 percent of those ages 55 and older.

The development of such relationships "is a natural progression," according to Rodney DeVriendt, HR-personnel specialist for the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine in Minneapolis. He says such relationships are becoming increasingly common due to a convergence of factors, including longer working hours, more women in the workplace and a growing emphasis on teamwork and collaboration.

That said, DeVriendt believes the work-spouse phenomenon dates back to the 1930s, when women were first integrating themselves into the workplace, typically in a secretarial role. Indeed, the phrase "the office wife" apparently first appeared in the book of the same name, written by Faith Baldwin and published in 1930.

Much more recently, the work-spouse trend was immortalized in an episode of the sitcom The King of Queens, in which delivery driver Doug gets jealous of wife Carrie's "work husband."

However, the most high-profile example of the phenomenon comes from the highest echelons of U.S. government: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President George W. Bush.

According to a 2004 New York Times editorial by Mike Allen, White House aides say Bush and Rice know each other so well, they often have conversations based almost solely on body language, with few words exchanged.

And Rice has been known to frequently accompany President and Mrs. Bush to Camp David or their Texas ranch on the weekends.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence of Bush and Rice's apparent "work-spouse" status emerged at a 2004 dinner party during which then-National Security Adviser Rice reportedly began to refer to Bush as "my husband," before quickly interjecting "the President."

(During a subsequent interview with Marcus Mabry, author of Twice as Good: Condoleezza Rice and Her Path to Power, Rice vehemently denied making the slip, although it was widely reported by the media at the time.)

Whether there's actually a work-spouse relationship in the White House, the fact remains there are millions of such relationships across the country and around the globe.

What's in dispute is whether work spouses are good or bad for business. Proponents claim such relationships are beneficial, boosting morale and productivity because people are happy to come to work and spend time alongside their "spouses."

Research from the Princeton, N.J.-based Gallup Organization appears to back up that assertion, as people who say they have one co-worker with whom they are particularly close were found to be seven times more likely to be engaged at work.

"These [relationships] are some of the most successful partnerships I've seen within my organization," says Tom Rath, a global practice leader with The Gallup Organization and author of Vital Friends: The People You Can't Afford to Live Without. "For those people who don't have a best friend or work-spouse-type relationship, it's a really lonely place to be. They are more likely to leave the organization, and they sure don't get as much done."

Not everyone is in agreement, of course. Marni Helfand serves as associate general counsel and senior director of HR for Hudson Highland Group Inc., a New York-based professional staffing and HR consulting firm that spun off from Monster Worldwide four years ago.

She cites many reasons to be concerned about such relationships and the potentially negative impact they can have on both workers' personal and professional lives.

"While I see the benefits of close working relationships, I cannot say that I see any benefits to the work-spouse relationship," Helfand says. "[Such a] relationship can negatively impact true spousal relationships outside the workplace and, if one person in the relationship leaves the company, there is the concern that the other person would leave as well, and if one or both were valuable members of the organization, the entire work group or company could be negatively affected."

For HR, the implications and ramifications are numerous, pro and con. Whether anything should be done at the HR level to regulate these friendships remains to be seen.

Dangerous Liaisons

By definition, work-spouse relationships are platonic. However, it's the potential for hanky panky that makes relationship experts leery of such associations. Ruth Houston, an Elmhurst, N.Y.-based infidelity expert, founder of www.infidelityadvice.com and author of Is He Cheating on You? 829 Telltale Signs, says it's all too easy for these relationships to morph into affairs.

"Sooner or later, the friendship becomes an emotional bond that can become a sexual bond if the opportunity presents itself," says Houston. "And more likely than not, it will happen because they're going to have to work late together or they're going to stop after work for drinks or travel somewhere together, and they're going to end up doing something that takes it to the next level."

Not necessarily, says Krista Hiddema, an HR specialist and partner in the Toronto-based law firm of Woolgar VanWiechen Ketcheson Ducoffe, where she heads up the firm's HR consulting arm, e2r Solutions.

Hiddema and her "daytime husband," Stuart Ducoffe, a partner and employment and labor lawyer at the firm, have known each other for 20 years. During much of that time, both were single, but the relationship never once turned to romance, despite the attempts of Hiddema's friends to play matchmaker.

"I can see where relationship experts might take the position that this kind of relationship inevitably turns into something romantic, and I know there are lots of articles on how the workplace is a breeding ground for infidelity, but it's just not that to me," she says. "What Stuart and I have is very rare. It's a very intimate relationship, but it's not romantic and it never has been."

While Gallup's Rath admits there's always the possibility a work-spouse relationship will progress to an affair, he believes the benefits outweigh the risks. What's more, he says, employees don't seem very concerned such a relationship will inadvertently turn sexual.

According to Gallup research, fewer than 10 percent of workers said they were apprehensive about having a very close workplace friendship with someone of the opposite sex.

"In most cases, these relationships have that platonic sense where the people must have realized early on that it wasn't turning romantic and they could grow old together in a work-spouse way instead," Rath says.

In many instances, however, "it's difficult to keep these things platonic forever," says Robin Ryan, a Newcastle, Wash.-based career coach, speaker and author of Soaring On Your Strengths: Discover, Use and Brand Your Best Self for Career Success. In Ryan's mind, that's because "men are not made to have long, budding, intense partnerships with women."

"Women can have a lot of relationships with men, but men get to the point where they start getting close to a woman and all they can think about is one thing," says Ryan.

To back up her assertion, Ryan quickly rattles off six or seven real-life scenarios she has personally witnessed in which the relationship turned sexual. Jobs were lost, marriages were broken, and in at least one instance, the organization was sued by an irate real-life spouse who blamed the company for putting her husband in situations -- business trips and the like -- with a woman he eventually hooked up with romantically.

"When people can work together and be compatible and friends, that's great," she says. "With these kinds of relationships, however, they're very seductive, and you've crossed way over the line before you even realize it."

Even if such relationships don't progress to sex, the mere perception of an inappropriate relationship can negatively impact workplace dynamics, according to Tory Johnson, founder and CEO of Women for Hire, a New York-based provider of career-advancement services for women.

"Many times, there's nothing unseemly that happens, but just the perception of male and female co-workers being so in sync that they're finishing each others' sentences and sharing inside jokes; that can have an impact on productivity, morale and loyalty among other people," she says. "The danger comes in when it starts to alienate others."

Experts generally agree that one of the downsides of the work-spouse phenomenon is the potential for other workers to feel excluded. Constant closed-door discussions not only damage interdepartmental communication, but also can result in allegations of favoritism, particularly if the people involved in the relationship are supervisor and subordinate

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Then there's the inevitable rumor mill, the water-cooler talk that's bound to take place when two workers -- particularly of the opposite sex -- are seen to be a bit too cozy. The result can be a huge blow to productivity because, quite simply, people are too busy contemplating the nature of the relationship to get their jobs done.

"If people are spending huge chunks of their time talking about what their co-workers are doing instead of doing their jobs, it becomes a problem," says Ryan. "And believe me, people are going to spend their time talking about this kind of gossip."

For his part, DeVriendt, of the University of Minnesota, says he can see both sides of the issue: "In terms of decreasing productivity and employees spending more time at the water cooler, that can be an issue," he says. "But on the flip side, the bonds that people are developing through the work-spouse relationship are furthering that whole collaborative effort that many organizations are placing a huge emphasis on right now."

"Marriage" Management

When it comes to what role, if any, HR should play in managing or regulating work-spouse relationships, that's a decidedly sticky issue. It's virtually impossible -- not to mention undesirable -- to attempt to regulate workplace friendships. And since work-spouse relationships are non-romantic, by definition anyway, anti-fraternization policies typically don't come into play.

"It's a new dynamic in the sense that it doesn't quite fall under the same category as a full-fledged romance; it doesn't fall under harassment -- it's its own animal," says Johnson.

Deborah Brantley, vice president of human resources for AlliedBarton Security Services in King of Prussia, Pa., says she "can't fathom having a policy on friendship, which is what office spouse is to me." As long as workers are acting professionally and doing good work, she says, "I have few concerns about it."

Likewise, at HomeBanc Mortgage Corp., in Atlanta, Chief People Officer Ike Reighard says he's typically not concerned about these relationships unless they involve a supervisor and their subordinate. In those situations, he strives to "get them out of a direct-line-of-reporting situation" so as to avoid the appearance of preferential treatment.

While he, too, agrees that a formal policy is not the answer, DeVriendt believes there is most definitely a role for HR in this sticky wicket: "As HR professionals, we need to be aware of signs that these relationships are entering into murky water."

According to Johnson, these signs may include consistently arriving at meetings early in order to make sure they sit together, frequently requesting to work on projects together or travel together, covering for each other's mistakes and discussing personal problems -- particularly marital problems -- with the work spouse. In those instances, or if rumors are circulating with regard to the relationship, it's perfectly acceptable to approach one or both members of the "couple" and ask them point-blank if they are having an affair, says Ryan.

In lieu of a formal policy, Johnson suggests organizations incorporate information about the pros and cons of work-spouse relationships into leadership-development sessions, employee-training initiatives, or informal lunches where employees can get tips on how to maintain appropriate workplace relationships.

Above all else, says Houston, an employer should strive to encourage interaction between an employee's work spouse and real-life spouse.

In addition to eliminating any suspicions on the part of the real-life spouse, it may also eliminate any notions of office hanky-panky that may be lurking in the mind of the work spouse. This can easily be accomplished by including spouses in work-related social events, from Christmas parties and summer cookouts to after-work drinks.

While DeVriendt concedes that such efforts may help decrease the likelihood of these relationships turning into affairs, he admits his organization doesn't invite spouses to such events as staff luncheons and award ceremonies.

For Dalmotte and Marino, their relationship has definitely transcended the workplace into their home lives. Not only do they know each other's spouses, but their families regularly spend time together. When the Marinos recently replaced an old tile floor, for example, Dalmotte spent six hours at their house, breaking up the old flooring.

Likewise, when Dalmotte had to work late one night, Marino's husband took Dalmotte's son to a much-anticipated football game. And when the region was suffering through one of the many hurricanes to pummel Florida in recent years, Marino and her husband braved the hour-plus drive to Dalmotte's house to deliver a badly-needed generator that wasn't being used at her house.

Both Dalmotte and Marino believe the friendship they share with each other's spouses may have helped them maintain a relationship that hasn't morphed into an affair.

"If we kept our spouses out of it, maybe that's where a relationship might go to the next level, but because there's really nothing going on other than friendship, we have nothing to hide," says Marino.

Genia Spencer, managing director of operations and human resources for Randstad USA, believes much of the concern over work-spouse affairs could be mitigated by changing the way male-female workplace relationships are viewed.

Rather than automatically equating a close male-female working relationship to a marriage, she recommends branding such co-workers "work siblings" instead. Perhaps Canada is already onboard with this concept, as Hiddema rejects the idea of dating her work spouse, Stuart Ducoffe, saying, "It would be like being with my brother."

As for Reighard, his relationship with long-time administrative assistant Donna Monroe shares many of the same characteristics as those commonly dubbed work spouses. However, Reighard stops short of branding Monroe his work wife. Instead, he equates their association to more of a father-daughter relationship.

Regardless of what term is ultimately used, Spencer says it's important for organizations to recognize that men and women can work closely together and, in fact, become very close friends, without jumping into bed the first chance they get.

"The fact that there are women working alongside men today and they make a connection and have expertise and shared discussions at work, that doesn't have to mean it's an intimate scenario," says Spencer.

"If we allow an environment to exist that implies that just because a man and woman are close at work, they are automatically 'spouses' or have an intimate relationship, then we're going backward in the discussion of men and women working together."

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