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Why Work Marriages Make Sense

Friday, June 27th, 2014
Posted in Advice by Joel Gross

Wow, this article got a lot of attention! I should clarify that this model legally and ethically does not work with publicly held companies. It only really makes sense in small private companies where the entire ownership backs the idea. Also – it is not legally binding but more of a personal commitment for those of you who were thinking you would have to get government approval to divorce your employer!

I have discovered that the relationships between company and employee are very very similar to relationships between husband and wife. “That’s a crazy idea!”, you say?

Consider this:

Why do people become exclusive in relationships? Why only date one person when there are so many other interesting people out there? Why do people get married? Most people would like to have the option of seeing other people when they get bored or when they see someone better / prettier / richer / smarter / nicer come along. So why would they want to be exclusive? Mostly because they want their significant other to be committed and not leave them whenever the significant other has a better option.

Basically it’s a trading of commitments: Each person says to the other, “I want to avoid the awful risk of being painfully dumped for someone else, so I will make a commitment to you to not leave as long as you do your part even if someone else that might be better comes along.”

The trauma of being dumped on a whim for someone else is described by people who’ve had this happen to them as being one of the most painful events of their lives. People will go great distances to avoid this pain, including giving up potentially better opportunities. More than 3/4s of people get married, making a long term commitment to another person to be exclusive. With 3.5 billion other people to choose from do you think that most of those people found the absolute best single person for them? Of course not… but they found someone who is great for them and that is better than the traumatic risk of being dumped and having nothing and being alone.

There are 3 basic levels of exclusivity in personal dating relationships:

  • Dating – no real commitment, each person can and generally does go on dates with other people.
  • Boyfriend / Girlfriend – exclusively committed to one another not to actively look, but if a wonderful opportunity falls in one’s lap then the relationship can be ended.
  • Husband / wife – exclusively committed for better or worse… no matter what amazing person comes along next. As long as basic rules aren’t violated (no cheating, physical abuse, etc) you should not leave.

Ok, so how is all of this similar to a work relationship between a company and an employee?

There are big benefits for a company in having an exclusive relationship with an employee. The company can be sure that that person will show up each day and do their best to do good work. The company does not have to go through the painful upheaval of turnover nor the expense of trying to hire and train someone else. The company can confidently trust the person to do their job and can focus on improving and growing in other areas.

There are also big benefits for an employee to have an exclusive relationship with a company. Job security is generally rated as the most important single benefit an employee looks for in a company. People don’t want the company to be constantly looking to replace them with someone who might be slightly better. Most people have children, rent, mortgages, car payments, ailing relatives and other big expenses that if they suddenly lost their job would cause extreme trauma in their lives.

Just as in the personal relationship side of things, there are very strong incentives for companies and top team members to commit to each other in the same sort of exclusive way that husbands and wives do. There is probably a greener pasture out there for both the company and for the employee, but the risk and pain associated of not having a commitment is too great to allow.

Most employees and companies today seem to view each other as transient and if either party sees a better option, they will bail. This is not a good thing for either group, since it leaves laid off employees in extremely bad positions and leaves companies scrambling to find replacements.

Some companies today and many companies of yesteryear had a different relationship with their team members: that of the husband / wife level of commitment. During bad years in the business, the companies would not lay their people off. Employees would work at a company for 40 years and commit their lives to building something truly great. That is how the greatest teams in history have been built and one of the big reasons the world advanced so far in the last 150 years.

What I suggest is that we look at the company – employee relationship in the same way as we look at personal relationships:

  • Dating – this is the initial period when the company assesses the employee and makes sure they do good work. The employee assesses the company and thinks about if his benefits are fair and he likes the work and goals.
  • Boyfriend / girlfriend – the company and employee have been together for six months or so and are starting to get serious. The company is not actively interviewing for replacements and the employee is not out looking for better job options. If some truly great opportunity comes along in either direction, it is generally acceptable for the company to lay off the employee or the employee to quit.
  • Husband / wife – the company and employee choose to be exclusive. This means that even if the company finds a better opportunity or the employee gets sick or something, that that person will stay on the team. If the employee gets offered a better job, he will stay committed to the company and building a long term relationship. Doing so removes the risk of trauma for both parties. It allows for focus on growth and doing what’s best for the team without worry or backstabbing or other issues.

Is the employee the single best person in the world for the job position the company has? Undoubtedly not – with 7 billion people to choose from there is certainly employees out there who are smarter, faster, cheaper, harder working, more focused… but the company would rather have a great employee marriage and not have the perfect person than face the trauma of losing that person. By the same token, there are millions of companies in the world and undoubtedly there is some company willing to pay higher, give more benefits, give more time off, provide a nicer boss … but the employee would rather have a great company marriage and miss out on the perfect job rather than face the trauma of being fired on a whim when productivity dips or when the company finds someone better.

Should all companies and all employees make a marriage commitment to one another? Of course not. It should only happen after working together for at least a year and getting to know each other very well. It should happen when the company believes the employee is a great fit, and when the employee believes the company is a great fit. This will happen with under a quarter of the employees at any given company.

Now the all important question of how to make this commitment? Should the manager of the company take the top employees to a church and get a priest to go through wedding vows? Should there be an exchanging of rings? Which finger should the ring go on? Is there a bachelor party? I am not entirely certain.

12 thoughts on “Why Work Marriages Make Sense

  1. I forgot who said this, but I love it – The trouble looms when monogamy is no longer a free expression of loyalty, but a form of enforced compliance…

    1. Hmmm… good point! Do you think a personal commitment counts as “enforced compliance”? That is what I am referring to here… not like a legal marriage where to quit your job you would need governmental permission. Thoughts?

  2. Nice idea but (obviously) not workable. A company can be compelled by a contract to keep an employee on the pay roll, or suffer a financial penalty, but a person can not be compelled to work for anyone as that would violate anti-slavery laws.

    1. Agreed… I am thinking in terms of a personal commitment. Although I guess you could have a work contract similar to what teachers sign (part of their pay is given after the work is completed during the summer if they fulfill their contract).

  3. Companies can’t be compelled to retain employees anymore than employees can be compelled to stay with a company, or two people can be compelled to stay together despite one of them wanting to leave the relationship. What they CAN be required to do is pay an enormous severance package, or ongoing support (“alimony”, if you will), as can an employee who leaves the contract. It happens pretty frequently with high-level executives—everybody’s heard of the golden parachute, but there are also contracts that some executives enter NOT to leave before a certain timeframe—the proverbial ‘golden handcuffs’. I think this analogy has other problems, but that’s not one of them.

    1. Hmmm… all the commentators so far seem to believe that I think this should be legally enforced. I was thinking more in terms of personal commitment… I guess I need to write more clearly! Thanks!

      1. This was supposed to be a reply to James’ comment. I didn’t read this post as an inclination to make it legally enforceable outside the bounds of contract law.

  4. Someone from hackernews pointed out, and I agree, that the marriage relationship you propose actually describes the “Clueless” layer proposed by “The Gervais Principle of Organizations” (see http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2009/10/07/the-gervais-principle-or-the-office-according-to-the-office/). We can all agree that belonging to the Clueless layer is highly undesirable: “The Clueless are the ones who lack the competence to circulate freely through the economy (unlike Sociopaths and Losers), and build up a perverse sense of loyalty to the firm, even when events make it abundantly clear that the firm is not loyal to them. To sustain themselves, they must be capable of fashioning elaborate delusions based on idealized notions of the firm”.

    1. I saw that comment too and it was right on point for the majority of companies, especially publicly held companies that are required by law to act that way. This was more of a personal article about how I want to act within my wholly owned company (CoalitionTechnologies.com).

  5. PS: all companies are, by definition, disloyal to the clueless, though of course the sociopathic leadership will go through great effort to hide this fact of corporate life.

    1. Interesting. What about a company that is 100% owned by an individual who is committed to this idea? I guess that person could die and leave the company to someone who disagreed…

  6. Joel, I think this article is interesting and true on many levels. I think some people didint really understand what you were trying to say. Most commentators are pointing out “legal” matters whereas you are talking more about a personal commitment thing. The truth today is that no one is “really” commited to anything anymore, whether its in a personal relationship or a professional one. Hence why the divorce rate is close to 70% and companies firing employees faster than you can blink. So in conclusion you should do whatever makes you happy and gives you more enjoyment in life. Whether its in a personal life or your career!

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