Whether directly or indirectly, the involvement of spouses in
some aspect of family enterprise is almost always inevitable.
Unfortunately however, their involvement can create difficult
issues if not considered carefully. We see that having pre-agreed
family protocols in place on the topic of the role of spouses and
partners can help minimise the potential pitfalls of their
Spouses employed in the enterprise
One of the main decisions entrepreneurial families face
regarding the involvement of spouses is whether or not they can be
employed in the family enterprise. Some families encourage spousal
employment, if they bring professional expertise. Others
veto it altogether, because there is the worry that it might make
family relationships more complex or - worst case scenario - could
create a tricky situation if a divorce occurs and they are
instrumental to the business.
Another approach taken by some families is to include spouses in
their philanthropic or charitable activities.
Whatever the path chosen, it is worth having clear protocols
regarding spousal employment, to ensure that decisions are fair,
transparent and not made on personal grounds. The key here is to
ensure the protocols are applied consistently so as to avoid the
potential for misunderstandings.
Spouses behind the scenes
Another area in which spouses can often have an impact is
'behind the scenes'. Family members working in the business
may discuss matters relating to the family enterprise
'offline' and in an informal manner with their spouse.
For many, playing this role of supporting their partner by
acting as a sounding board and helping them talk through new ideas
and changes is entirely natural. However, issues can sometimes
arise if this causes the thought process of working family members
to become opaque from the perspective of others. Overnight changes
of opinion, seemingly without cause, may confuse other family
members or reduce their belief in the extent to which decisions are
made collectively around the table.
Spouses in the family governance structure
Whilst in some cases the key role of spouses and partners is
'behind the scenes', many families also choose to involve
their spouses within the family governance structure - for
example they include them in their annual family gatherings; they
give them the opportunity to voice their opinions openly and learn
about the family enterprise at a high level, albeit perhaps without
contributing to ownership decision-making.
Other families may include spouses in decision-making more
directly and they might even be eligible to sit on their
'family council' or contribute to the process they use to
make family and ownership decisions.
Regardless of the choice made, it is usually important to
involve spouses in some aspect of the family enterprise governance
system, because as parents of the next generation of family
members, they have a significant influence on their upbringing and
future interaction with the business.
Whether 'front of house' in an operational role, or
acting as a sounding board 'behind the scenes', spouses
have a vital role to play in family enterprise and this should be
acknowledged. As parents of the next generation of family owners
and leaders, they sit at the emotional heart of the family
However, just as the role spouses play should be acknowledged,
so should the possible risks of their involvement. Strategies to
avoid these potential pitfalls centre around de-personalising the
issue by creating - and then sticking to - clear family protocols.
As long as they are not aimed at one individual in particular, such
protocols can help to remove the tension sometimes implicit in
spousal involvement and make having difficult conversations (e.g.
about non-employment) easier.
Including spouses in the family governance structure (for
example in family assemblies) may also bring the additional benefit
of making spouses feel more involved, and enable them to better
understand the complexities of doing business with family.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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