Sleeping with the Enemy

Business, like politics, makes strange bedfellows. Sometimes your rival is your spouse. What to do when a power couple means powerful competition.

You love your work. You love your spouse. Your spouse works for your archrival. Face it: you are sleeping with the enemy.

It's just another feature of the new world of work: competitive couplehood. Business rivals increasingly share the same home front, but few companies have explicit policies to cover two-career, competing-company couples.

To help couples negotiate their own terms for this new work-life relationship, Fast Company consulted with three who know what it takes to keep their jobs, their relationships, and their sanity.

Here's who they are and what they advise.

The Kiddie Pool

Lucie Soublin (lucie@sirius.com) , 24, was interviewing for a job as an online graphic designer at San Francisco-based Web information provider CNET when she mentioned that her husband, Dean Taylor (taylor@hotwired.com), 24, worked across town as a programmer for online rival HotWired. "You know we hate them," the interviewer deadpanned. "I thought he was joking," she recalls. He wasn't -- but hired her anyway.

At their relatively junior level, Lucie and Dean consider their enemy status more a logistical challenge than an emotional or professional impediment. They've even devoted a Web page to the humor of their predicament (www.sirius.com/~lucie/).

Head to Head

Donna Simonides (donna@netscape.com) , 38, became product marketing manager for Microsoft's PowerPoint. Her husband Ted, 36, was product manager for rival Software Publishing's Harvard Graphics program. Ted's colleagues protested, "How could you possibly let your wife work for them?" At Microsoft, an exec asked Donna, "Does Ted realize we're going to put his company out of business?"

After leaving Microsoft for a stint as an independent consultant, Donna took a top position at Netscape as director of developer relations in 1995. Soon after, Ted joined NetObjects. The move turned their work lives into a soap opera plot. Donna was in a position at Netscape to influence a decision about the Netscape-NetObjects relationship. But NetObjects was also working with Microsoft -- a deal that Ted had to keep secret from Donna. Ultimately, Donna took herself out of the discussion.

Collision Course

Advertising execs Jayne Evans, 43, and her husband Anthony Brescia, 46, met while at BBDO and now work at competing agencies in New York -- she at industry giant Young & Rubicam, he at four-year-old upstart Merkley, Newman, Harty. Although the firms represent rival companies, including AT&T and BellSouth, the spouses have yet to compete against each other directly.

Evans has broached the possible conflict-of-interest issue with her managers. Y&R doesn't see a problem in intermarital competition -- but Brescia does. "I don't think it's a good idea," he says. "If Y& R put her in that situation, I would ask her to decline -- and I know that she would."

The Survival Guide

These lovers have learned to balance the conflicting loyalties of working against each other. Their collective experience suggests a six-point survival guide for cohabitating with the competition.

  1. Do Kiss & Tell. Trying to keep your relationship a secret from your boss or your peers is like "trying to date several people at once without them finding out about it," says Ted Simonides. When the truth eventually comes out -- and it will -- your initial silence will only arouse more suspicion.
  2. Do Talk Shop. Confidentiality is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Talk openly to your spouse about the neutral aspects of work, like the general state of the industry, but keep the essentials -- like financial data, client information, and campaign strategy -- off-limits. "Otherwise you lose your best sounding board," says Jayne Evans. She and her husband often debate the pros and cons of TV commercials.
  3. Do Write Your Own Policies. Companies have widely divergent attitudes about competitive couples -- if they've thought about them at all. The best policy is to make your own. Map out understandings for discussing sensitive information, taking calls at home, and sharing home office space. Be prepared when your partner can't tell you what she's doing at work all those late nights. And when discussing potentially touchy subjects, follow the Simonides's example: agree in advance to respect a simple catchphrase such as "I'm not comfortable talking about that subject."
  4. Slip, but Don't Fall. You're going to make mistakes. Dean Taylor, who boasts that he's currently working on four or five of HotWired's top secret projects, admits he occasionally mentions something he shouldn't to his wife. Their rule: acknowledge the mistake and consider the issue closed.
  5. Don't Work Yourself into a Corner. Most employers will respect you if you simply ask to be removed from a knotty situation. Lucie Soublin begged off when she was assigned to illustrate a CNET story about the demise of Wired's initial public offering. Her husband Dean -- and by extension she, too -- owned now-worthless Wired stock options.
  6. Don't Overdo It. Donna Simonides says, "Long-term rivalry is unhealthy. You'd hate to think that your success depended on the failure of your spouse." Still, Anthony Brescia relishes the chance to compete against his wife when a hot account comes up for review. "I'd want to beat her brains in," he says. "But if she won I'd be proud. Nothing makes me happier than to see her succeed."

Katharine Mieszkowski (katharine@wwire.net) is an editor at "Women's Wire." She dates a business writer. He's no competition.

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