Employee Rights and Military Spouses

A reader wrote me with a question and I just feel so frustrated for her. Essentially, she inquired about her eligibility for upcoming promotions and was told (via e-mail) that she should clarify whether or not she will be moving to join her husband, who is currently in military training. The Human Resources people got this information about her husband from a co-worker.

I would re-print the maddening e-mail she received here but I am concerned that someone at her office might recognize it.

Worker Mobility versus Employee Loyalty

In this case, she expects to be in the area for at least the next two years.  I really do not think that in today’s world a company can expect more than that.  Even if your spouse is not military, they cannot expect a person will not start a family, move, find a better offer, or change careers for decades anymore.  Given the vast number of layoffs, you also cannot expect that sort of loyalty from a company anymore, either.

In answering her question, there are two things to consider: (1) Her rights; (2) Reality.

Military Spouse Employee Rights

I am not a lawyer and you should not consider this actionable legal advice.

Most states do not specifically grant military spouses protection from employment discrimination.  However, you may not discriminate against someone based on marital status.  An employer making inquiries about your marriage for any purpose is simply inappropriate.  They also cannot ask if you are planning to get pregnant and take maternity leave in the near future.

Some recent decisions have also set a precedent for considering this indirect discrimination against a servicemember.  That would be a more difficult argument to make, in my lay opinion.

Either way, most of the time, this is a “he said / she said” situation but these people actually had the chutzpah to put their idiocy in writing.

Rights versus Reality

The problem with all of this is that most employees generally want to stay at their jobs and progress in their careers.  They do not want to get fired or passed up for promotions and then engage in a lengthy legal battle.

This is where the reality comes in.

My Advice to This Reader

In this case, the cat is already out of the bag and this military spouse has to decide the best way to manage the issue.

My advice was to reassure her office that her “marital status” will not affect her job performance and to clarify that she plans to be in the area for the “foreseeable future” and hopes to build her career with that company.

Chain of Command

If the company were a large, national corporation, I might also recommend investigating corporate policies and possibly taking your concerns up the chain.  However, with a small-to-medium local company, it is likely that would just get you passed over even more and possibly let-go at a later date for either manufactured performance reasons or laid-off due to the economy.

Loose Lips Sink Ships

For those who are just starting at their job or in the military life, I would recommend keeping information about your spouse to yourself.

I know it is lonely when your husband is gone on training or deployment.  I know that you want to share the joy when your husband gets a commendation or passes a difficult exam.  The sad reality is you are probably better off not confiding in your co-workers.  Even if they mean well, they most likely do not understand that casual conversations like this can affect your career.

This may be cynical, and this is not something I would have even considered when I was younger, but seeing things like this happen so many times, I’ve learned that discretion is the better part of covering your own rear.

Even with your best efforts, however, you may find yourself in a position where you are being discriminated against due to your husband’s military status.  In this case, you have to decide whether it is worth burning bridges to pursue the issue.

There’s what is right, and there is what works.  Sometimes you have to sacrifice being right in order to make things work.

What do you think? Am I too cynical? Is a direct discussion about employee rights the way to go?  Or am I not cynical enough?  Should she just start looking for another job since she is unlikely to advance at this company? And should military spouses have more employment rights to protect them? Do you empathize with the businesses who lose employees due to military moves or is it just part of the sacrifice we should all be sharing more equally?

Photo by Miriam Pastor

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11 comments

  1. Michy says:

    Ugh, what a horrible situation. It’s awful that people can get away with doing this to their employees. I also heard recently about a wife who was denied psychiatric care because the psychiatrist was unhappy with her mental-health history (she had to switch doctors a couple times due to moving with her soldier). He wasn’t going to help her since she couldn’t guarantee how long she would be living there!

    I think you’re a bit cynical. I can’t really see Army wives being able to avoid talking about their husbands at work to the degree you’re suggesting. But at the same time, I see your reasoning, and it does make sense. I think it would be great if there were a way to get military spouses some special protection when it comes to these job situations. You’re right that a business can hardly expect someone to make a commitment for more than “the foreseeable future.” Turn around is just a part of life. I don’t have much sympathy for a company losing a military-spouse employee after a couple of years. They were lucky to HAVE a great employee for a couple of years!

  2. Candace says:

    @Michy – Yes, it is cynical–but I also think it is just the way things are since we don’t really have any protection. I agree it is not easy–and it may make it more difficult to develop workplace friendships. It is also really unfair because, while being married has been shown to help a man’s career, it can often cause a problem for a woman’s. But no one said life was fair.

    Our co-workers may not understand how their repeating our conversations can hurt our careers–so we’re better off just chatting about sports, shopping, news, movies…anything besides our husbands’ career paths.

  3. [...] article about Employee Rights and Military Spouses on ArmyWivesLives.com really bothered me, probably because it hits so close to home regarding a [...]

  4. Mike C. says:

    This is just a slight nitpick, but there are plenty of military husbands out there. They will most certainly face similar types of discrimination (and that’s what it is, it’s unjust discrimination!) given the attitudes and expectations many have about “being the man of the house” and stuff like that.

    And to answer your question, screw the employers. They enjoy the privilege of doing business in a country that is safe and stable and if that means hiring someone who might not be there in a few years then they need to deal with it. To do otherwise is to foist the cost of unstable economics onto the families that sacrifice for others.

    Besides, marriage isn’t supposed to be a factor! Clarifying this to include such things as being married to people of a specific profession isn’t an additional right.

    Frankly, if you feel up to it, start documenting things and consider making an appointment with a lawyer to better understand your situation. This sort of thing should not stand.

  5. Candace says:

    Mike C.:

    It is important to remember male spouses–yes! Since my husband is combat arms, I do sometimes need that reminder.

    In this case I mostly stuck to the gender-neutral spouse…however I do think this type of discrimination is mostly against women as they are perceived, rightly or wrongly to be more likely to have a family matter (husband moving, having kids, etc.) affect their jobs. Also, a larger proportion of married female soldiers are married to other servicemembers and so civilian jobs are often not a consideration.

    In general, I agree–marital status discrimination is covered. However, how do you prove why you are not promoted? And in this case, she wasn’t questioned sbout her husband’s occupation–she volunteered the information. As a matter of practicality, I still believe the best bet is to keep your personal life as separate as possible.

  6. Mike C. says:

    I totally agree with keeping personal and work life separate, as difficult as it is to do.

    I’m no lawyer, but I would expect that one should start documenting any changes to how one is treated at work once the boss finds out about your spouse. Are you dropped from projects for no reason? Are your review ratings going down? Degrading comments from bosses? Things like that.

    Even if she volunteered the info, I don’t think it will matter. Especially when the boss is stupid enough to put a discriminatory attitude in writing.

    So I guess she needs to do it all – keep it to herself, look for other work, document things and ensure she’s not being derailed simply because of her husband. It sucks, but at least folks are drawing attention to the issue. It’s the only way it will ever be taken care of.

  7. [...] and challenges many military spouses face in the workplace and elsewhere.The article about Employee Rights and Military Spouses on ArmyWivesLives.com really bothered me, probably because it hits so close to home regarding a [...]

  8. Emily says:

    I agree that spouses have to be very discreet when discussing anything with coworkers, especially if the military is involved. I was laid off 3 days before my husband returned from Afghanistan. I could not fully enjoy his return because I started worrying about how we were going to afford bills and daycare in two months. He is in the National Guard and would go back to his civilian employer. Also while he was deployed, I was pregnant and took maternity leave. My maternity leave and any military days I could use were combined together. So I was unable to use my full maternity leave so I could have a few days left for unforeseen circumstances. It also left me with only 5 days to visit with my husband when he returned. I had an incident at home where I had to have the garage door replaced and had to take a full day off. I received grief from the owner of the company and he knew my husband was deployed. I was just so frustrated because people say they understand and want to help, and when it comes down to it, sometimes they only care about themselves.

  9. M Zamora says:

    I have a similar, yet different situation. I was employed with a large company that has offices all over the country, except where we were being statined.

    I asked about a leave of absense, until our next PCS and was told that they couldn’t do that.

    We requested a transfer early and requested to be stationed near one of the offices of the large company. When I reapplied they said…

    “We are in receipt of your resume regarding employment with ‘NAME OF COMPANY’. Regretfully, we are unable to offer you a position at this time.

    We thank you for your interest in our firm and wish you every success in your career.”

    So I left the company for because of the military, and would not be hired back.

  10. M Zamora says:

    I have a similar, yet different situation. I was employed with a large company that has offices all over the country, except where we were being statined.

    I asked about a leave of absense, until our next PCS and was told that they couldn’t do that.

    We requested a transfer early and requested to be stationed near one of the offices of the large company. When I reapplied they said…

    “We are in receipt of your resume regarding employment with ‘NAME OF COMPANY’. Regretfully, we are unable to offer you a position at this time.

    We thank you for your interest in our firm and wish you every success in your career.”

    So I left the company for because of the military, and would not be hired back.
    . .

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