And couples in companies?

Last week, I was celebrating my tenth article for the Usine Nouvelle blog. Ten article without mentioning my husband once, a huge achievement for me!

Therefore, today I’m going to talk about the thematic of couples in companies.

I met David on an oil rig in Nigeria. In other words, in a romantic atmosphere. Wearing my work helmet and my security boots, I’d put all the chances on my side. That being said, being the only woman on this structure in the middle of the sea, my charm didn’t need any artifice.

When our company found out that we were a couple, the reactions were rather mixed. They were already struggling with having a woman field engineer,they now had to handle a couple. Yet, we weren’t in the same service, and there was no interaction or possible conflict of interest to fear. We were way too far down the ladder to have that kind of power.

The reaction was simple. They decided to transfer me. It was the easiest and most radical way to solve the issue. Needless to say, with the lives we had– the amount time we spent on the rig and the little vacation we had, it was like asking us to break up. Long distance relationships, at a time where the means of communication were limited, was not conceivable. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, in 1990 Nigeria, I used to send urgent messages by telex!

The HR director for Africa asked to talk to me and told me to make a choice. “It took me three months to get a job, 24 years to find a husband… who do you think I’m going to pick?”

And that’s how I found myself jobless. At first, I really enjoyed the free time, especially after spending 3 years working 6.5 days/week with crazy hours. But quickly, I got bored and went on a job hunt.

It was 26 years ago. At the time, when two people started dating within a same company, one of them had to leave. In this case, it was me. The decision had nothing to do with the fact that I was a woman – it was simply because I was the one who was asked to make a choice.

And today, how have our careers evolved?

On Schlumberger’s end, once their gender diversity program began showing results, the double career issue, which I was a pioneer of, became a true challenge to address. And it was done. They ask couples to pick the one spouse that will become the lead of the career. The priority is then to find a job for the lead, and then to find a position that matches as much as possible the significant other’s ideals, if possible at the same place and at the same time.It worked for us during 15 years. It wasn’t always easy, and compromises had to be done, but we managed.

For an international company, there can be a lot of benefits to having couples. For instance, in Angola, the logistics of expatriate families were very complicated. First, the local infrastructures, after 22 years of civil war, were being rebuilt, which means that there was a huge shortage of houses,spots in school…etc. Plus, there were very little activities for the spouse,who, after a year, often asked to leave. In this case, the double career meant half the logistics, and a busy partner. A true win-win!

Knowing that 30% of relationships were formed at work, where do we stand today?

What does the law say? The French 1982 Auroux laws claim that “couple life isn’t within the scope of the company”. That means that we can’t be fired or transferred for it, but couples also can’t create trouble.

If the law states the ground rules, the reality of the company can be more complex, since a lot remain wary at the idea of having a couple in a service, for fear of disturbing the team (potential jealousy problems to handle), or unsuitable behaviors, or having two people team up against management, or having problems if one of them is under-performing. I’m not going to dwell on the list of fears, but rather on the consequences. All while complying with the law, a company can make the life of a couple difficult, until one decides to leave. For instance, sometimes voluntarily, management can transfer one to another service, or sometimes more subconsciously, it can delay a promotion. Similarly, if one is thinking about quitting, the partner can be put in an uncomfortable position.

For dual careers to happen in the best conditions possible, there a few ground rules to follow – no possibility of conflict of interest, no hierarchical connection, no common project. Never forget that we’re handling two individuals, not a couple: we don’t tell one the career options of the other…etc.

It is true that we can face unusual situations, like the time where,while I was working on the transfer of a couple, the husband told me not to look too much into finding a job for his wife because she didn’t know it yet,but he was about to leave her!

On the couple’s end, it’s important to accept a few compromises. Some people might be afraid of suffocating a little, not having much to talk about at night, not being able to handle the little flirts that can occur in a service… In our case, we were in the same company but never in the same service, so we weren’t tempted to talk about files at night, but being in the same company helped us support each other and better understand what the other one was going through on a daily basis.

Therefore, when I read that there’s a chance it might create bad vibes in the service because of potential jealousy, I think it just means that the couple has deeper issues to deal with!

In conclusion, I’ve had to manage a lot of double careers, including mine, and if I have to weigh the pros and the cons, the pros would win by far –you just need to apply commonsense rules, and there’s no reason for it to go wrong. The benefits for the company highly compensate all the potential problems.

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