My best clients are getting a divorce. I completed their home three years ago and enjoyed working with them both. Now, they are selling that house and have each purchased their own properties—and they’ve both reached out to hire me.
Neither spouse has asked me not to work with the other—yet. But from what I’ve heard around town, this divorce is not amicable. Ethically, can I take both projects? Am I obligated to let each client know that I am also working with their former partner? And am I stepping into a minefield by taking both jobs?
Caught in the Middle
Ethics have nothing to do with it. Yes, you are stepping into a minefield if you take both jobs—but you should do it anyway.
In your current situation, you are focusing on the pitfalls when you should be focusing on the positive. Both clients completely value you, your art and your design business, so much so that they both reached out to you to create their new homes. If ever there was a time when my mantra was true—that you are paid to transform your clients’ lives for the hope of a different future—this is it. Think about the level of trust you are being given. It’s amazing.
The real question then is what do you do with the trust—how do you grow it, leverage it in new and unique ways, and push past boundaries you have previously set for each of them? In other words, how can you see each of these clients in a profoundly authentic way? It is not for you to pick sides, judging why the relationship did not work out or deciding who might be the good or bad player. It is your role to help them through to the life they are each now choosing for themselves.
All of that said, there must be extra ground rules in place. Yes, each has to know that you are working with the other and that, no, there will never ever be a discussion about the other in any form by you and/or your staff. Complete church and state. I have known many professionals in positions of deep trust (think: doctors, lawyers, therapists and accountants) who continue to work with each spouse. The common thread is an understanding that each is their own entity now and deserving of total respect as to who they are and seek to be. There can be no “like we did before” ever again, only “this is what you want and here is how we are going to get there.”
This will not be easy. You are part of their history and, of course, each will try to persuade you that they are in the right. Walking the professional line will be incredibly challenging. The only, and I do mean only, way you will be able to accomplish working with both is if you refuse to be anything other than their guide to a better version of themselves in the environment you will create. This means that your process has to be on point and you have to own your three Ws like never before: Where you were, where you are and where you are going has to be paramount in every conversation, because each client must feel taken care of, heard and capable of investing the hope in you and your design business if you are going to be successful. Own the trust you have been given as sacrosanct and the rest will take care of itself. Good luck!
Sean Low is the the go-to business coach for interior designers. His clients have included Nate Berkus, Sawyer Berson, Vicente Wolf, Barry Dixon, Kevin Isbell and McGrath II. Low earned his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and as founder-president of The Business of Being Creative, he has long consulted for design businesses. In his Business Advice column for BOH, he answers designers’ most pressing questions. Have a dilemma? Send us an email—and don’t worry, we can keep your details anonymous.
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