At Seraphic Group, the phrase "love and gratitude" is printed in 16 languages on walls and stair risers all over its Charlottesville, Virginia, headquarters.

Love and gratitude is a company core value. But the "love" part goes beyond that--romance is part of the culture too. About 20 percent of Seraphic's 52 employees are married or in committed relationships with other Seraphic employees. That number rises to 25 percent if you count marriages among the network of 60 consultants who work closely with the company.

"I never set out to say I want a company with a bunch of couples in it," says CEO Zach Bush, who spent 17 years in academic medicine before launching Seraphic in 2010. He attributes the spousal profusion to Seraphic's mission focus: The company identifies and develops products that improve the health of people, animals, or the environment. Employees care, and they communicate that caring to the people in their lives, Bush says.

The trend starts with the leadership team. The chief strategy officer is married to the vice president of information. The chief operations officer is married to the creative director. Bush himself is married to one of the company's consultants. Another consultant proposed to his girlfriend at Bush's wedding reception. When that pair married, at an event packed with Seraphic staff, Bush's wife performed the ceremony and the company's resident PhD in atomic physics played the bridal march on the piano.

Whether employed at Seraphic or not, spouses spend an unusual amount of time there. The company hosts five or six events a year that whole families attend, such as pool parties, bowling tournaments, and Thanksgiving dinner at an executive's home. Spouses are also invited to participate in monthly social-service events, like building homes for Habitat for Humanity. "It is company culture to spend time with the families," says COO Grant Gamble. "You meet these people at various events and you get to know and like them."

Abundant couple-dom provides several advantages. For employees, there's the pleasure of seeing one's partner often during the day. Stress is reduced by the ability to quickly coordinate when, for example, a child gets sick at school. Bush says it creates greater camaraderie: Since everyone has the same friends, they all hang out together. "It always surprises me when we're in a period when we are working our butts off and someone says we're having a social hour during the weekend," Bush says. "And the entire company shows up."

Seraphic, meanwhile, benefits from work conversations that extend outside its walls. Even at home, Gamble and his wife, Jana, bounce ideas off each other. That cross-functional perspective companies so desire gets an assist when people in different departments tell each other everything. And employees are more alert to developments outside their own functions when those things may affect a spouse.

Couples also tend to be more loyal to the business, Gamble says. "They have more at stake. All their eggs are in one basket."

Potential disadvantages--notably the perception of nepotism--are avoidable with good policies and communication, Gamble says. The most basic: Line-of-authority relationships are prohibited. Spouses or partners don't even work in the same departments. Seraphic has 11 units based around different products, so that dispersal is easily achieved.

In addition, every candidate is evaluated on the same extensive metrics, which include skills, job fit, references, and a Myers-Briggs-like assessment. We-know-and-like-the-guy is just one criterion, so spouses don't always win the job. Seraphic recently rejected the wife of a team member who applied for a customer-service position because, Gamble says, "While we had a great feeling for her, the position wasn't the best fit." When that occurs, the hiring manager sits down with the employee to explain why their spouse wasn't chosen. "We need to talk to them proactively and not be afraid of those conversations," Gamble says.

The company applies that approach to any situation that carries even the whiff of favoritism. Typically, someone from the leadership team will address the matter in a team meeting. For example, both Gambles took substantial leave this year because of deaths in the family. "I'm sure people were like, 'Oh, my goodness. They got so much time off,'" Gamble says. "Well, it is the same time we would give any of our team members under the circumstances. These things being left unsaid fester."

Of course, if a relationship goes sour, that could make office life uncomfortable. There have been no divorces among Seraphic's co-working employees. But in the event of one, the separating couple would decide who stays or goes, Gamble says.

Gamble also points out one final potential benefit for the business: The presence of so many spouses may reduce the potential for a #MeToo moment. "There is a lot more scrutiny when you have got your partner there," he says. "You are conscious of it. And I think that is a healthy thing."

Published on: Dec 7, 2018