Spouse alert! Why I work for my husband and how I blend into the office

May 23, 2012
An inside look at how a dentist's wife gets along in the dental office.

By Sherrie Martin

The groan was heard around town — no, around the state. OK, really, it was heard around the world. It was as if the worst thing that could happen, happened. The boss hired his spouse to work in the front office. Is she there to check on everyone’s every move? Is she there to make everyone work harder so she can have more things? Is she there to fire people? Why is she going to work in “his” business?

My guess is she is there because her husband wants help and she wants to help him. At least, that was my experience when I accepted my husband’s offer to work in the front office at his general dentistry practice. I had a lot of mixed emotions about going back to work and working for my husband. Would he and I get along? Would the staff accept me? Would I fit in, and where was my place in the business? These questions and other doubts entered my mind as I said the words, “I accept.”

More than likely, my path is similar to other spouses who decide to work for their husbands. My children were self-sufficient and driving themselves to school, and after several years of being a homemaker, I was rather lonely and I was excited about going back to work. But I had no idea how to blend in and was very worried about being accepted. My husband wanted me there to support him, and he wanted a “right-hand man” he could trust in the office (not that he could not trust his staff; he was referring to confidential information).

So, I threw caution to the wind and took the position. I learned the office operations quickly and put a lot of effort into improving the front office. It did not occur to me that I had to work really hard to earn the staff’s respect because as the spouse, I was instantly disliked and mistrusted. This came as a shock. I thought I could easily earn respect; I did not know I would not automatically receive that coveted gift. I had to work harder and be more careful to be a part of the team.

Early on, I worked hard on training myself and told the staff to please let me know when I did something wrong. I could accept the critique and would rather do a good job than let mistakes go unchecked. Luckily, the front office personnel were easy-going professionals who helped me learn the procedures. I noticed we were having difficulty with phone calls because the computers were so slow. So, we purchased three new computers to make us more efficient, and we worked hard together to make the paperless office a reality. The new computers earned me an “attaboy” from the front desk staff. This early “win” helped me a lot.

I also helped put into place a stricter supply ordering process. This helped the business profitability, but the new procedures made the staff jealous and resentful of me. Regardless of the fact that I was helping them get more bonus money and that I was helping them be more efficient, I was not accepted. This hurt deeply, so I forged ahead and tried to get along and assist the best I could. I learned that the typical gossiping and sabotage that occurs in small offices occurs in our office too. I was sad to find out that when anything went wrong, I was blamed, and it was difficult to confront staff members because the staff did not respect me. Much of the sabotage occurred behind the scenes, so there was no way my husband could confront the issue or I could take up for myself. It was very subtle and easy for the staff to deny.

After several months, I decided to take a different role. Even though my husband was happy with the sudden surge of production and drop in expenses, I had to find a way to be part of the team. I was proud my ideas were helping, but the staff was still working against me, and in reality, working against my husband. The business has to be successful for the staff to get paid and get bonuses. So how was I going to accomplish this and still make the staff happy with me? My husband was not going to fire me; we were both too happy.

In the big picture, I felt good that I was supporting him and us. I thought the business was doing great and I felt a part of that success. Yet the staff still disliked me and that bothered me. I knew I needed to make changes, so I plotted a course on how to get along with the team and still be successful.

I decided that as the spouse, I needed to be softer in my suggestions because I knew if I continued to offer ideas, I would surely fail due to lack of support. The staff would resent me and not embrace the new ideas if I implemented operations without consulting them. I had to do a lot of internal selling to get buy-in. This took longer, but I found that once the staff was included, they embraced a new idea better and seemed happier. I started all new ideas with “What if we did this idea?” before taking any steps. Many times, the staff would get excited and add to the idea, making it far better than my original idea. That was very exciting for me because I could see that we were becoming a team. I now include others in operational and procedure decisions.

When asked by other spouses about working for my husband, I answer truthfully. I love it. Yes, he is the boss and at the office I have to take a back seat and be the employee. It was hard for me to adjust to calling him “Dr. Martin” instead of “Rick,” but it seems natural now. I tell other spouses that it is imperative to take the employee role. I do not question his judgment (if I do have a question, I wait until we get home to gain a better understanding), and I show great appreciation for his ability to run a business while actually doing the work. (In most businesses, the owner can delegate most of the work, but in dentistry, the dentist has to run a business and be there, by law, to do the work.)

I admire his ability to multi-task, and I tell him often about how much I admire him. I love to support my husband, but there are times when I disagree with his decisions. But I keep this to myself until we get home or in private at the office. My policy is to never, ever question him publicly. The staff does not want to see arguing in the office. I tell myself to be professional and treat him like I would treat any boss. Conversely, I tell him that if he sees me do something wrong, to please correct me in private, and he does.

Dealing with the staff is a paradox. I am not their boss or their leader in any way. However, many times they listen to my opinion because they perceive that it is also my husband’s opinion. Rendering an opinion should always be prefaced with, “It is my opinion only, you will need to ask Dr. Martin.” This is only fair to the staff member.

As I learned, making changes to the office procedures typically goes over like a lead balloon. I recommend that if you have a good idea that changes operations, either ask the dentist to present it or meet with the staff in small groups to get their feedback. That feedback will help with buy-in.

As the spouse, supporting the staff is imperative. You must be quick to give compliments if you see someone do something fantastic. Do not compliment if it is not warranted. If I see staff members doing something wrong, I do not “tell on them.” I just overlook it and if it is important, I softly say something in private. I hope they return the favor because that is the way a team operates.

Do I regret being part of the staff? No. I love working with my husband and the position gives me great flexibility for my children should they need me. I also really like working with the patients. I’ve learned a lot. I continue to try to be accepted and work closely with the staff on helping them achieve their goals. I’m happy to report there are a couple of staff members to whom I feel close. My loneliness has faded and I like being part of a team. I hope the staff knows I’m not here to “watch them,” “earn money for my own benefit,” or “discipline them.” I’m here to help the business be successful and support my husband. Actions speak louder than words, as they say. I hope my actions show my intent — to be part of a great team that supports a successful dental practice.