Say you're working for a company and marry a co-worker. No sooner have you brushed the confetti off your clothes when your supervisor calls you in and says that, under the company's nepotism policy, one of you has to go. Is that legal?
Or say you apply for work at your spouse's company, and are turned down because the company doesn't hire the husbands or wives of current employes. Is that legal?
The answer to those questions depends on the state where you live and on the particular circumstances of your case.
Companies in general are gradually abandoning no-spouse rules, reports Catalyst, an organization that fosters the participation of women in the business world. In a survey last year of the top 1,300 corporations, Catalyst found that 82 percent of the respondents were willing to hire married couples.
Federal law prohibits employment discrimination based on gender, but permits discrimination based on marital status. As long as a no-spouse rule is exercised equally against husband and wife, it is not illegal in the eyes of Washington.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and others, have brought cases charging that no-spouse rules amount to illegal gender discrimination, because the wife is usually the one to leave. But as long as the rule is gender-neutral on its face, and the company does not intend to discriminate against women, higher courts generally let no-spouse policies stand.
In one case, the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that companies have to show a specific business need for a no-spouse policy, if it results in discharging more women than men. But that decision is an exception.
More courts are following a decision from the 7th Circuit involving Libbey-Owens-Ford, whose no-spouse rule had affected the employment of 73 women and only three men. A lower court found that result illegally discriminatory, because the company submitted no concrete evidence that hiring spouses was disruptive.
The higher court, however, upheld Libbey-Owens-Ford. The judges accepted the unproved premise that it's bad business practice to hire spouses (even though a majority of companies hire them successfully). "The marital relationship often generates intense emotions which would interfere with . . . job performance," the judge declared.
Several states, however, do prohibit employment discrimination based on marital status. Two weeks ago, a hearing examiner in Minnesota awarded $252,000 in compensatory damages to eight women who had been denied full-time employment by Kraft Inc., because their husbands already worked for the company. Kraft is appealing the decision. Kraft has a broad no-relatives policy, but only the no-spouse rule is illegal in Minnesota.
Like many other companies that don't hire spouses, Kraft will keep couples on the payroll who meet and marry on the job. "We don't want to cause a couple undue hardship by requiring one of them to be unemployed," a Kraft spokesman says.
Last year, a lower court in New York prevented the Long Island Water Corp. from enforcing its no-spouse rule against a couple who married on the job. The judge said that no-spouse rules reward people who live together without marrying, which she found to be against public policy. Also, Long Island Water was willing to hire other relatives; only spouses were prohibited. "There is no justification . . . for this restrictive anti-nepotism policy," she decided.
A 1980 New York case, on the other hand, upheld Pizza Hut's anti-nepotism policy, because it covered a variety of relatives (not just spouses) and dealt with a situation where one spouse would have had to supervise another. Pizza Hut will also transfer an employe caught by this rule, rather than requiring him or her to quit.
A 1978 California decision even applied one company's no-spouse rule to a live-in unmarried couple.
Spouses have better luck in labor arbitrations under the Taft-Hartley Act than they have in court. In nine out of 10 cases since 1965 involving on-the-job marriages, arbitrators ordered the discharged spouse reinstated. Arbitrators have also protected one spouse from being transferred after marriage, unless the company can prove a definite business need. By contrast, courts usually let such transfers stand. But arbitrators and courts agree that companies have no duty to hire the spouse of a current worker in states where it is legal to discriminate by marital status.
Even among companies without anti-spouse rules, there is general agreement that one spouse should not supervise another. The Catalyst study found that 72 percent of the companies hiring married couples won't let them work in the same department. A sensible company, in short, designs systems for dealing with married couples, rather than kicking one spouse out the door.