Chief Counsel: Chief of Staff Sets Tone in Office/Spouse Relationship

Posted March 25, 2009 at 2:26pm

Q: My boss’s wife is driving the staff crazy. What should I do? What is the appropriate relationship between staff and the spouse?

[IMGCAP(1)]A: There are no standard operating procedures between a Congressional staff and the spouse. Each situation is different, based on the individual spouse, the staff and the Member. When managed well, the spouse can be a tremendous asset to the Member and the staff. When not, the spouse can literally run staff out of the office (especially the scheduler!).

As chief of staff, you strongly influence the tone for the relationship between the staff and the spouse. This relationship will only have a chance of success if you promote respect and appreciation of her.

Imagine transitioning from a dual-parent household to a mostly single-parent household. Imagine sharing a home with someone for decades and now, abruptly, living alone. Think about your household income declining more than 50 percent in some cases. Consider facing all these changes while simultaneously becoming a target of public scrutiny and commentary. While individual situations will vary, it is important for staff (especially of freshman Members) to appreciate the huge shift that both the Member and spouse are undergoing and the need for patience through the transition. You can encourage this understanding among staff.

The role of the Congressional spouse has changed dramatically over the past few decades. Women now make up 17 percent of both the House and the Senate, creating a fair number of Congressional husbands. More Members choose to split their time between their districts and Washington, D.C., rather than establishing a home here.

Much of my advice in this column focuses on the particular situation of the questioner. However, many of these tips are applicable to all domestic relationships. The cornerstones are, as in any human interaction, communication and respect.

We have found that the key ingredient to a constructive working relationship between spouse and staff is an explicit understanding between the Member and spouse. Specifically they must come to agreement on four critical questions:

1. How should the Member balance time between personal and professional demands? After they reach an agreement, it is essential that the Member, and not the spouse, communicates and reinforces the understanding to the staff. Members with small children at home are especially torn between their official and family duties. When the official duties occasionally interfere with family responsibilities, the chief of staff should step in and ask the boss to re-negotiate this balance with the spouse (rather than putting the onus on the staff).

2. What role should the spouse play in the office? Many spouses want to be helpful to the Member and to staff. Immediately discover what the spouse is good at, or interested in, and build a role for him or her in that arena: whether it’s making visits to senior homes, being a sounding board for Congressional scheduling decisions in the district, managing campaign details in the off-season, or participating in local community groups to be the eyes and ears for the Member. If you are coming off a campaign, ask the campaign workers how they benefited from her.

Even those spouses who only want to play a minimal role in the public life of the Member will most likely still want to have significant involvement in determining the Member’s schedule. Early in the term, explore her expectations and those of the family and take advantage of the wealth of knowledge she has about her husband so you can benefit from it before conflicts arise.

3. What is a legitimate request for spouses to make of staff? Because there is no broad consensus on this question, it is again essential that the Member and his or her spouse reach an understanding among themselves before the staff becomes resentful or even feels they must refuse a request from the spouse. Hold a meeting with the spouse, Member, scheduler, chief of staff and district or state director where the agreement is presented, staff can ask clarifying questions, and everyone can make mutual commitments.

4. What information should the spouse receive and what is the staff’s responsibility to provide it? A regular communication system should be worked out between the spouse and staff. Key staff members who regularly interact with the spouse should meet with him or her and determine what information the spouse would like to receive. Usually the scheduler is the main point of contact.

At the same time, the office should not be the sole source of information. Connect the spouse with other sources of support and information. She most likely already knows about the Congressional spouse associations, which offer regular programming and form a natural peer group. In addition, you can set up ethics training offered by the House and Senate committees and suggest she regularly check their Web sites for updates. Many offices have shared with me that ethics issues can be a source of tension, particularly as they can intersect with household financial issues. The staff can rely on the ethics panels to make these clarifications rather than having to be the enforcers.

A Few Best Practices

Offices with successful relationships between staff and spouse shared the following tips:

• Designate a main point of contact in the office for the spouse other than the chief of staff. This allows the chief of staff to focus on the Member’s needs and the other staffer to prioritize the spouse’s needs.

• Invite the spouse to all scheduling calls, even if only a small percentage of the call directly affects him or her. This keeps the spouse in the loop and feeling connected. Alternatively or additionally, set up a weekly call between the scheduler and the spouse to discuss upcoming commitments and schedule.

• Share more information than she could possibly need, and let her decide what she does and doesn’t want. Help her to feel connected to the office. The spouse should not be an afterthought.

• Don’t wait for the spouse to contact the office to make her requests. Initiate an occasional call with a simple “just checking in to see how things are and if you need anything from the office.— She shouldn’t feel as if she only calls the office to nag.

• When you need information about personal commitments, ask the spouse instead of the boss. You will often get better information and, at the same time, show office concern for protecting their personal commitments.

• As with any married couple, the spouse has strengths the Member does not. Find out what they are and use the spouse accordingly for things such as: thinking ahead on scheduling, collecting receipts, keeping up with the pulse of certain parts of the state or district, and ensuring the Member follows through on weekend commitments.

Separate Office and Family Issues

Oftentimes, chiefs of staff and other staff members are caught in the middle of disagreements between the spouse and the Member and may blame themselves. However, much of what happens between the Member and the spouse has nothing to do with the staff, and it is important to help staff separate these issues from those that they influence. When you recognize that an issue is percolating between the Member and spouse, bring it to the attention of the Member and share its impact on the staff. While the Member may be putting off addressing the issue with the spouse (i.e., not wanting to spend recess with the spouse’s family), it can negatively affect the staff. As chief of staff, you are the likely candidate for explaining the impact of this family dispute on the staff and the urgency to resolve it.

A Congressional spouse can be a tremendous asset for the office. Be sure you respect his or her position in your boss’s life and take advantage of this natural ally.

Meredith Persily Lamel is director of training and consulting for the Congressional Management Foundation. She works with chiefs of staff to implement strategic plans and improve their management and operational effectiveness. Click here to submit questions.