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 involvement.
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 enterprise system.
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.