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An Employee’s Spouse Demands Another Employee Be Fired. How Should These Owners React?

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SOME CHOICES ARE just harder to make than others. For the moment, Michael Rodriguez was feeling more like a dispirited King Solomon than the owner of a young, vibrant and growing fine jewelry store! Michael looked out his office door onto his sales floor and watched Ken Bishop, his good friend and top salesman, working with a difficult client as he considered his options.

ABOUT REAL DEAL

Real Deal is a fictional scenario designed to read like real-life business events. The businesses and people mentioned in this story should not be confused with actual jewelry businesses and people.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate Peterson is president and CEO of Performance Concepts, a management consultancy for jewelers. Email her at [email protected]

Village Diamonds and Fine Jewelry was a dream come true for Michael and his wife Megan. They started dating while in college, both working part-time in the mall for a large national jewelry chain. By the time they graduated — Michael with his degree in business management and Megan with hers in marketing — they had both developed a genuine passion for the jewelry industry.

When they got engaged the following year, they promised each other that they would someday have their own store. For the next five years, they saved every dime they could, banking their wedding gift money, Megan’s part-time paychecks and Michael’s bonuses while continuing to live the simple life they’d grown to love in their Midwest town.

In 2007, with the help of a sizeable inheritance from Michael’s grandmother, their dream became a reality. While visiting a downtown coffee shop, Megan noticed a Going Out of Business sign in the window of the Village Jewelers store. She snapped a picture of the sign and texted it to Michael. That afternoon, Michael made his way to the store and talked with the owner, who agreed to sell the store. They knew that the business itself had died a slow death, but they saw the opportunity to recreate something great out of the ashes. Michael left his position with the national chain and within a year, he and Megan had closed the deal, renovated the showroom, sold off the old inventory, and found the right vendor partners to supply the contemporary product lines they wanted. With the addition of one salesperson and the contracting of a trade shop to handle repairs, they were ready to open the new Village Jewelers.

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Ken Bishop, their new sales associate, came to them with extensive retail background, but no jewelry experience. He had worked for over 12 years selling high-end sporting goods in a local store that was a client of Megan’s former marketing firm. Ken had heard about the Rodriguezes’ new venture, and when the sporting goods store was bought out by a large corporation, he gave Michael a call. Ken quickly became a highly valuable asset to the store, and as business grew, so did his skill and ability. Over ten years, through the building of just under $6 million in sales volume and the addition of eight permanent staff positions, Ken remained the stabilizing force on the sales floor and a great friend to Michael and Megan.

The Rodriguezes were supportive when Ken announced that he and his wife of 20 years were separating. Michael even loaned Ken his truck the day that Ken moved into his own apartment across town. Susan Bishop had also become a close friend of the family, making the situation more than a little tense at times, but the Bishops seemed to be keeping things amicable, and Michael and Megan did their best to stand by their employee without taking sides or allowing things to get personal.

Several months after the separation, Megan noticed that Ken seemed to be spending an inordinate amount of time with Amanda Davis, the generally competent, very attractive and much younger office manager who had been with them for nearly two years. Michael asked Ken directly what was happening, and Ken confirmed that he and Amanda had, in fact, recently begun dating. He confirmed that his interest in Amanda was part of the reason for his separation from Susan. He indicated that he and Amanda were not at all serious, and that he was still hoping to reconcile with his wife. Michael and Megan were troubled by the revelation, but had no reason to question the performance of either of their employees and felt uncomfortable questioning their judgment.

About a month later, Megan noticed a marked difference in Amanda’s demeanor in the store. In talking to Amanda, Megan learned that she was no longer seeing Ken — that Ken had decided to make a solid effort to repair his marriage. The next day, Ken asked for a meeting with Michael and Megan. He told them that he and Susan had made the decision to get back together and were doing everything possible to work on their marriage. He was hoping to move back into their home the following weekend, but before that could happen, he had to see to Susan’s one non-negotiable demand: Susan would not take him back as long as he continued to work with Amanda. Ken made it clear that if Amanda continued to work at Village Jewelers, he would have to resign. He asked the Rodriguezes for a few days off while they thought about what would be best for their business, and asked them to get back to him when they were ready to talk.

The Big Questions

  • Should the Rodriguezes give up a top salesperson who has consistently produced in excess of 30 percent of the store’s sales volume, or should they give up a competent (but not extraordinary) office manager?
  • If they decide that Ken’s contribution is too significant to lose, is there a way to dismiss Amanda without crossing a legal line?
  • Is there any way to create a compromise that would work for everyone?
John M.
Seattle, WA

The Rodríguezes should recommend that Ken move on to a new career. They made two fatal mistakes in their employment of Ken. First, they mixed business relationship with personal relationship, and second, they allowed an employee other than themselves to control the success of their business. Allowing Ken to stay on puts them and their business in a compromising position. Their current dilemma clearly demonstrates this. Ken’s sales productivity and “friendship” with the Rodríguezes is controlling the success or failure of their business and confusing their ability to make a candid business decision. Moreover, this situation with Amanda will likely not end here. Most importantly, the Rodríguezes cannot allow any person other than themselves to control the long-term success of their business. There are many great salespeople to take Ken’s place, and the Rodriguezes will be better off for setting an example to all their employees that their interest is in protecting the business they worked so hard to grow.

Creighton W.
Yuba City, CA

While in an ideal world you could keep your top salesman and let go of a solid but seemingly replaceable office manager without hard feelings, the reality is you couldn’t do so without crossing moral, ethical, and legal lines. Both individuals chose to partake in an office romance, so both are responsible for any awkward atmosphere in the workplace, along with the right to be let go because of it. However, the manager should not lose her job because of the insecurities involved in Ken’s relationship, which is outside of the workplace, and what would be needed to mend it. It would also be difficult to justify her firing and would very likely lead to a lawsuit. With a business that’s still relatively new, it could bring bad publicity. The solution? If the owners are as close with Ken and his wife as they say, I say they bring her in and explain the logistics of firing Amanda and see if any other compromises could be met. If not, Ken unfortunately will have to resign.

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Jim S.
Kapaa, HI

Goodbye Ken! Ultimatums are a deal breaker in any negotiation.

Karen M.
Oneonta, NY

An employee’s spouse does not make the hiring and firing decisions for the Rodriguezes’ business — only they do! So with all due respect to Ken as a friend and major contributor to the business, Michael and Megan need to let him resign. He has proven himself as a capable salesperson in more than one area and will land on his feet financially. And if he is sincere about saving his marriage, he needs to make a life change that shows this commitment. This will be the only long-term solution. Amanda, meanwhile, may perform better and more loyally in Ken’s absence. It is entirely possibly that working in his shadow has hindered Amanda’s performance up until now, and she will come into her own with his departure. In the meantime, this is a great illustration of why workplace romances are problematic! Mike and Megan may want to consider formalizing a policy about this to avoid headaches down the road.

Daniel S.
Cambridge, MA

Oh man, this is all on the owners. The in-store relationship should never have happened. When I had employees, we had a work manual everyone had to sign off on and it clearly stated that no sexual relationships were allowed between employees or between employees and suppliers. As soon as the owners found out about the relationship, they should have told them that one or the other had to go immediately. No option on ending the relationship because then they would just lie about it. One had to leave and then the two of them could decide which one. If it meant the top salesperson left, so be it, because it never should have gotten as far as it did.

Steve J.
Carefree, AZ

Ken created this situation by leaving Susan for a fling with a co-worker. Ken ditched the co-worker, causing a change of dynamic on the sales floor. Ken then pulls out the “I’m the most valuable employee” card. I’d call his bluff and let him go. The marriage is doomed for failure; better to cut off that wart now before it grows.

Marc F.
Houston, TX

This is where the regular reviews of performance take over and make the decision. In Texas, an employer can fire an employee for “cause”. The cause here would be “general reasons”. Of course, the office manager has to go. Salespeople make things happen, and it would be a big mistake to let your one-third producer go. However, I would not let the wife know the reason for termination.

Tina S.
Chicago, IL

They should fire both employees. What’s to keep them from doing it again, especially Mr. Bishop, who should have known better? Not good to mix your social life with work on that level; how dare him even ask them to choose.

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Tim S.
Fairbanks, AK

First of all, Ken cannot be allowed to call the shots. I would let him know that he would have to make a decision to continue or stay, but that in no way would I make a choice between them. It sucks you right into their drama. As a matter of fact, I would lean towards letting him go. He needs to take care of his family, but not at the expense of someone else’s job. Second option is to let them both go.

Stacey H.
Lincolnwood, IL

It’s not Amanda’s fault, and sales staff does not get to decide who works at the store. Amanda stays, and if Ken has to go to save his marriage, so be it. You can’t reward an ultimatum, and while Ken has been a good salesperson, he himself is the one with the decision to make, not the Rodriguezes. He should not cost the store unemployment insurance upcharges because of his marital situation, and Amanda could sue the snot out of them for firing her with literally no reason. Ken needs to do what he needs to do, fine, but that isn’t a reason to deprive Amanda of her job!

Kevin L.
Naperville, IL

He finds a new job. He used his senior position to court the office girl. So she gets fired because he wants to try and get back. It most likely won’t work. Then what? They break up and he hits on another girl? If he loves his wife, he quits.

Ira K.
Tallahassee, FL

Michael and Megan should have a meeting with both Ken and Susan (outside of the store) and remind them it is Michael and Megan’s store and not theirs. They cannot dictate who is hired or fired. If Ken decides to leave, so be it. In any event, Amanda should not be fired. I lost my best-selling employee many years ago — yes, it hurt — but not for as long as feared. I found out through the years that a store should never rely too heavily on one salesperson, unless it’s you.

Maya C.
Madison, WI

I think it’s absolutely wrong of Ken to basically ask his bosses to consider firing another employee because of the results of his lapse of judgment. If it was work-related, that would be one thing. But this is a personal issue. If Ken wasn’t prepared to face the consequences of his actions, then that’s on him and should not cause the other employee to lose her job just because of bad personal choices.

Mitsuko H.
Watsonville, CA

With my past forty years of running my jewelry company, having a good policy from day one, I expect each employee to always be a professional representing my company. No personal matters are to be brought in while on duty. Have a good store policy and make them sign it before employing them.

David C.
Traverse City, MI

Ken brought this whole situation on of his own choice. It is hard to let a valued employee go, but it was his choice to start the inappropriate relationship and his choice to end it. I commend Ken for ending the relationship and to work on his marriage, but I would personally have to allow Ken to walk. His leaving might actually inspire another salesperson to come from behind his shadow and step up into Ken’s shoes.

Andy M.
Williamsville, NY

Both employees must be let go. Neither employee used any common sense, and while doing so, put the business in danger.

David B.
Calgary, AB

For those that would say this is an ownership problem for not having a policy or protocol in place to prevent office romance, get real. Most of us probably spend as much time with our workmates as our partners. Always best to be truthful with Amanda. Tell her the demands made by Ken and that he is too integral to the company to lose. Then discuss a termination agreement. Typically, one month per year worked is generous, but in this case, offer her six months or even more with a nice recommendation and see where that heads. Most likely, Amanda is not comfortable in the current situation and would like a reasonable way out.

Nick F.
Woodstock, VT

This is business, it’s not personal! For the good of the company, and for Ken’s marriage, Amanda must go. To soften it, try to find her an opportunity with a fellow jewelry store. This decision keeps a marriage together and an indebted manager. Being young and with the owners’ help, it’s probable she will find a job in the industry and be happy.

Bruce A.
Sherwood Park, AB

There is nothing here that requires Michael and Megan to involve themselves. They dodged a potential bullet when their top salesperson started dating their office manager, something that would have left them vulnerable to internal theft. Ken made his bed (sorry for the pun), and his ultimatum means that it is his decision to leave Village Jewelers.

Drue S.
Albany, NY

I have had experience with this situation, and it did not come out great. For me personally, it was two great jewelers. One had a nervous breakdown, and the other ended up leaving anyway.

So since there is no reason to fire the office manager and no reason to fire the salesman, they should try having a conversation with the two of them. Having said that, you cannot allow an employee to dictate who does or does not get fired. I am sure there would be legal ramifications from doing so.

They were two adults deciding to start a relationship, and they should be adult enough to still work together. It’s totally out of place and unreasonable for Ken’s wife to place that demand on the business.

I say it’s up to the owners to have a conversation with the two employees involved and ask them what result they see as the best solution, asking them if there is a way for them to work in the same environment.

What’s the Brain Squad?

If you’re the owner or top manager of a U.S. jewelry store, you’re invited to join the INSTORE Brain Squad. By taking one five-minute quiz a month, you can get a free t-shirt, be featured prominently in this magazine, and make your voice heard on key issues affecting the jewelry industry. Good deal, right? Sign up here.

Kate Peterson is president and CEO of Performance Concepts, a management consultancy for jewelers. Email her at [email protected].

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