On the Job

Too Close for Comfort?

By Kenneth Bredemeier
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, December 19, 2007; 6:06 PM

Employers often impose rules on their workers, such as not allowing them to accept gifts from clients or vendors trying to influence business decisions. But what right do employers have to impose rules that affect the actions of their employees' spouses? Here's such a case:

My wife works as a child case manager. It is against the agency policies for her to have dual relationships with any family she is working with, such as socializing with them.

I am pastor of a local church. Recently I was asked to perform a wedding. We have come to find out that the lady who asked me to perform the wedding is one of my wife's clients. (My wife has her child on her case load.) For that reason, I was told by her agency, through my wife, that I could not perform the wedding.

Since I am not an employee of this agency, can they fire my wife for my actions? My convictions will not allow me to tell the parties in question that I cannot perform their wedding. But I don't want to get my wife fired either. What might happen here and what can I do?

Diane Seltzer, a Washington attorney who at various times has represented both employers and workers, says that simply put, "The employer has no right to restrict her husband in what he does. He has a right to do his job.

"I don't understand what the basis would be for firing her based on her husband's actions," Seltzer says.

That said, Seltzer advises that the woman's child case agency "probably has the right to have a policy to enforce that employees not disclose the identity of the clients to whom they have been providing services," including to spouses, if that occurred here.

"Perhaps there's some wrongdoing here on her part," if she disclosed the name, Seltzer says, although the pastor might have been asked by the bride-to-be to perform her wedding ceremony and only inadvertently learned of the bride's connection with his wife's work. "She should be careful with her client list."

In the end, assuming the minister performs the ceremony, Seltzer suggests that "perhaps [his wife] shouldn't attend the ceremony," so as to not create "the appearance of impropriety."

Kenneth Bredemeier has six years of experience writing about the workplace. On the Job, a column addressing real worker questions about office relationships, corporate policies and workplace law, is written exclusively for washingtonpost.com. To submit a question, e-mail onthejob@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.

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