A Sideways View

New stirrings in business psychology

The Work Prenup

Should we have a sort of pre-nuptial agreement when we start a new job?

A prenup: Cynical agreement between people who probably don’t love each other, or highly sensible arrangement between two adults embarking on unknown adventure?

The prenuptial, antenuptial, or premarital agreement is a legal contract, willingly (we hope) entered into by two people about to marry. The contract can cover many kinds of issues, but mainly “divvying up the spoils” should the whole thing go (badly) wrong. It’s mainly about equitable distribution of assets after "disengagement."

More and more often it is about custody of the children. Prenups may be preceded by premarital mediation, where the couple is “facilitated” in an open, fair, and frank discussion about those thorny issues that sort of don’t come up when dating: saving and spending, even tidying and sharing chores, but more usefully who will work after the children are born.

Old hands know how important these issues are and yet the topics don't seem to be discussed much in the love-struck, honeymoon phase of a relationship. Money seems particularly important when a compulsive saver marries a profligate spender. The puzzle, as divorce lawyers point out, is that they never discussed money or discovered their differences beforehand.

Clearly, the shorter the courtship and the more the couple come from diverse class, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, the more they need to openly discuss these issues. However, this is not part of the Mills and Boon story of romance, though perhaps it should be.

Curiously it seems prenups are not valid in England, though they are in most of Continental Europe and America. Some judges in America take the view that prenups may in fact exacerbate breakdown rather than prevent it. They argue it corrupts what marriage is supposed to stand for. But now the litigious Americans encourage “his ‘n her lawyers” and even encourage the whole thing being videotaped. So before you watch the wedding video, you watch the prenup ceremony.

To have force, the prenup has to be agreed between two volunteers, in writing, where they have given a full, fair, and honest disclosure of their assets. Also, in legal jargon, it cannot be unconscionable, meaning harsh or shocking, to the conscience of either party. And it must be agreed in front of a suitable person.

Some have a rather nice “sunset clause” which means after a certain amount of time, the agreement expires. Sort of. If it all works out we don’t really need the agreement in place.

The religions are rather different in their views of the prenup. Catholicism does not rule them out but does rather frown upon them. Judaism has apparently embraced the idea in the Ketubah, which is an integral part of the marriage ceremony: Indeed it is read aloud and signed at the ceremony. It’s mainly about what the two agree to provide for each other.

But what has this all to do with the business of work? The answer lies in the contract. It has long been argued that there are two contracts in the workplace: legal and psychological. The former mainly written, explicit, signed; the latter emotional, implicit, wished. The trouble with the psychological contract is that it is one-sided, not explicit, and rather fluid.

The problem with legal contracts is that most ignore crucial issues. What are the criteria for promotion, what to do if managers refuse to do appraisals, etc.

Imagine that soon after arriving in an organization, a new recruit assigned to a manager or supervisor entered into a sort of prenup. The question is what would it involve? What issues need to be talked about, including the idea that the whole thing (the relationship, the job) might fail?

The organizational prenup might best involve some really good mediation before a trained HR person. Imagine the following. On day one a new recruit and his/her manager report to the mediation suite. There, the manager explains clearly what he/she wants and expects from the new employee: how they dress, issues around time-keeping and security, as well as progress-reviews and appraisals.

And the newbies might be encouraged to express their hopes and expectations. What do they have to do (or not do) to “pass” the probationary period? What can they expect in terms of tools, technical support and training?

Most of all, in the spirit of the prenup, they could discuss how to behave if things start going wrong. Who commits, what, where and how? And how soon do they know if the whole thing quite simply is not going to work? How do you resign? What is a sackable offense? Will the boss write a reference if they mutually choose to part?

The idea of the "starter marriage" is when a couple divorces quickly, cleanly, and amicably after a relatively short time, where there are no children, no big investment in property, and no painful animosity. She keeps the kettle, he the toaster; she can have the microwave and he the TV. About right and fair. Didn’t work out; no hard feelings; no Judge Judy.

Prenups are about shared understandings of the future. Management is about shared expectations of behavior at work. Surely the clearer and more explicit they are made, the better.

 

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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