When the directors sat down to dinner with the two candidates for the San Jose savings and loan's top job, they knew whom they preferred. But when the evening ended, the other man got the nod.
It wasn't his social graces that won him the job. It was his wife's.
"The No. 2 man had the more charming wife," recalled Edmund Hergenrather, a Los Angeles executive recruiter who led the search for the new S&L president. "The other wife drank too much. She talked too much. She cost her husband the job."
Welcome to couple recruiting. A common ritual, before women's rights led many employers to look askance at such practices, screening the candidate's mate is making a resurgence as a corporate hiring test.
As has always been the case, companies in the market for a chief executive or other high-level officer are most apt to check out the spouse's suitability before making a final decision. At such levels, "the distinctions between work and play, office and home, are so blurred that the husband and wife have to be a team," said Gerard R. Roche, chairman of the nationwide executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles.
But some executive recruiters say they also are noticing a rise in the number of spouses brought into the interview process by companies recruiting marketing officials, public relations consultants, investment bankers and others who are expected to entertain clients.
Service firms are more likely to involve spouses than are manufacturing companies, they say, as are companies in smaller cities where community involvement is an important aspect of doing business.
And with rare exception, the spouse being asked to pass muster is the wife. "We almost never see the reverse," Hergenrather said.
Why the return of a practice that one college-placement officer calls "a throwback to the white gloves days"--before affirmative action and equal rights made strong inroads in hiring practices? Executive recruiters most often cite the increasing reluctance of executives and their families to move around the country for new jobs.
"Candidates now are much more reluctant to make a move at all because they want more control of their lives," said Ronald E. Gerevas, a partner at the Los Angeles office of Heidrick & Struggles. "Companies want to make sure both people feel easy about the move."
Some also cite the rise of two-career couples. "The greater concern for having the right wife comes with many of these gals being business people themselves," Hergenrather said. "In these cases, the company wants to be especially sure that she is in agreement with this move because she may have to give up something."
Rarely, said recruiter Roche, are companies so gauche as to "check out her pedigree" in a formal office interview. "No husband would put up with that. And no wife, either," Roche said.
What's more typical, wives of candidates who have made the final cut are invited with their husbands to dinner or asked to join senior executives and their wives for a weekend of boating or golfing.
"What usually happens is that the chairman of a company has pretty much made up his mind on Joe Blow but he said to me, 'Why don't you bring Joe and his wife out for cocktails and dinner?' It's as much so the wife has a chance to feel, not inspected, but comfortable with the top executives as they are with her," said A. S. Blodget Jr., president of the Assn. of Executive Search Consultants.
When the situation is handled tactfully, said Gerevas, "it's a rare exception when the wife does not feel good about it. I have not encountered a situation where the wife resented it."
Jean Clark did. Now a spokeswoman for the National Organization for Women, Clark said her husband was considering a job with a financial planning firm, which put candidates through several weeks of pre-acceptance training. He later decided that the job didn't suit him.
But early on he advised his wife that the firm expected her to attend the last session. Her response: "Are you crazy?"
Many are similarly astonished to hear that executive wives are becoming fair game for recruiters again.
"Twenty years ago, I wouldn't have been a bit surprised to hear this," said Caroline W. Nahas, a partner at the large Korn Ferry executive search firm in Los Angeles. "And it is true that there are certain jobs that require a great deal of entertaining, and it is very helpful if the spouse is interested in this kind of activity.
"But all of our surveys show that such things as social contacts and even a good marriage are traits that receive scant attention when senior executives are asked which traits most contribute to their success."
The trend is in keeping, though, with the increasing role of the wife in all aspects of career-related moves. Recent Heidrick & Struggles surveys show that fully 44% of executives accepting transfers now request job assistance for a spouse, up 20% from a year ago.
Sometimes the wife's role is so key that her behavior during a single evening can either clinch or kill a job for her husband.