Falling in Love at Work

Falling in Love at Work ...From the pages of South Jersey Magazine...

Some people love the work that they do. Others love the ones they work with. Once considered taboo, the idea of workplace romance has lost some of the stigma thanks to a growing number of couples who have decided to ignore the warning that they should never mix business with pleasure.

Just as some workplace relationships blossom into lifelong partnerships, others end on bad terms, leaving the office dynamic completely shifted. While some employers are more relaxed in this matter than others, interoffice relationships are a tricky road to navigate. Should the couple be open with coworkers? Do they instead conceal things? How do they act when in the same setting? Coworkers may not care much about two colleagues dating, but office PDA is sure to make them a bit uncomfortable.

One local woman we spoke with had a story that was so troubling, it wasn’t fit for print in these pages and it resulted in her leaving the company she worked for to avoid making a bad situation worse. However, we found most couples are making it work—at work. Brennan and Kathleen Coughlin, two former Haddonfield Memorial High School teachers, had a good feeling about one another from the start.

“I pretty much knew right away that he was the one I was supposed to marry, so I didn’t have a ton of anxiety [thinking], ‘What if this doesn’t work out and we still have to work together?’ That wasn’t really a concern, but I’m sure it flashed across my mind at some point,” explains Kathleen, who met her now husband, Brennan, in 2008. “I was just very guarded; you just want to be careful and not go too quickly.”

The one difficulty of dating in a school is keeping it from the students, who can become curious. As Brennan recounts their love story, the two started teaching at Haddonfield at the same time in September and got to talking during their seventh period study hall duty. “We had a lot of the same students, so they would see us talking during study hall and they would grill us all the time. It was pretty comical.”

As for Kathleen, she was especially guarded of her relationship with Brennan and explains, “I always denied everything to the kids because I was so afraid. I didn’t want to get in trouble—especially because it was my first year teaching there. I didn’t want anyone to have any excuse to say I wasn’t doing my job 100 percent.”

When it came to keeping their relationship professional at work, Brennan explains the school vibe was much more lenient as opposed to a corporate setting. “I never really felt the need to exercise boundaries,” he explains. “I would write her a note and leave it in her mailbox. It was just comfortable and never really felt like it was an issue.”

Brennan finally asked Kathleen on a date in November and by February, the two were engaged—but their courtship wasn’t without any caution. “I definitely was attracted to Kathleen from the beginning and for about two months I was getting to know her because there was a high-exercised caution,” explains the Medford Lakes native, who was unaware of any policies set by the district.

“After two months, I really felt like we had so much in common and just really appreciated who she was and at that point, I was extremely optimistic and felt like it was worth the risk,” adds Brennan, who now has five children with Kathleen.

The same situation is echoed by Shawnee High School teachers, Megan, 30, and Ryan Franks, 31, who met at an inservice in 2010 and got to know each other while chaperoning a school dance. “Megan likes to constantly remind me, she didn’t like me yet at that point, it was just conversation,” jokes Ryan, who grew up in Medford. “At some point then, we had started hanging out at work functions.”

Just like the Coughlins, the Franks’ biggest obstacle was keeping it from the students, who were keen on the two teachers dating. “We tried to be as professional as much as we could,” says Ryan, who is a history teacher. “The fact that we’re married [now] and the kids know, it’s tough to draw the line between your professional and personal life, but at the same time, I think I found a good balance with it [using] humor.”

In regards to their colleagues and principal, the couple can’t say enough about how natural and easy the conversation was. “We got a lot of advice from some of the more seasoned staff members [who said], ‘Make sure you’re really serious about this if you’re doing it.’ We both already had that conversation and knew that we really did like each other and could see it going somewhere,” Ryan explains. “For the most part, it was pretty relaxed as far as paperwork and HR.”

As for the pros in being a married couple in the same school environment, the two find comfort in knowing the type of day each other is having and of course, share the similar stressors of the job. “It’s just nice to have that in common and if there was a stressful day, just being able to relate to each other, have empathy for each other and … to have someone who knows exactly what you’re going through,” explains Megan, a Wildwood Crest native and a math teacher. The two also explain their schedules are not as similar as some would assume. “We do coach,” explains Ryan, who coaches boys soccer and boys and girls bowling, while Megan teaches the dance team in the winter. “Even at home, we pass by each other more than we like to.”

Heather and Dave Dymond met when both were newly hired to work for the federal government. There wasn’t a fraternization policy, but there was one caveat. “We couldn’t work on the same team together, under each other,” explains Heather, a Deptford native.

“So he could never be my supervisor and I could never be his supervisor and even if we worked on the same team as equals, we couldn’t do that either. We couldn’t work in the same area.” That protocol isn’t so terrible, per se, as Heather jokes, “We work in two different buildings so we don’t even see each other all day, which is good. Because I think if I had to sit next to him all day, I would kill him.”

With so many people working on their base, there is, unfortunately, cases where coworkers end their relationships, which can have an awkward effect on both the couple and their work friends. As Heather recounts, when her two colleagues broke up, the dynamic of their group shifted.

“It was a group of us that we went to lunches together, we did everything together, we hung out afterwards and then when they broke up it was, ‘What do we do now?’ If we didn’t invite one, we felt bad. … If we had lunch, it was one or the other. It was hard.”

While most major companies in the area—including Campbell’s, Lockheed Martin and Holtec—remained mum about their policies when contacted by South Jersey Magazine, Adam Gersh, shareholder at Flaster/Greenberg PC law firm in Cherry Hill, revealed that while each company is different, they should implement policies that best suit their work culture and capabilities.

“For some businesses, this means a prohibition on romantic relationships with subordinates and, for others, it means a disclosure policy so that safeguards can be put in place. Some of those safeguards include acknowledgment that the relationship is consensual and protections against favoritism and unfair treatment of other employees,” explains Gersh, adding, “There is no one-size-fits-all-policy, but businesses should consider the potential risks of such a relationship before it develops and institute policies that will help protect the business.”

More importantly, those policies can combat risks that could arise if a relationship ends on a bad note. As Gersh explains, those risks include “harassment by a jilted lover and unfair treatment complaints from employees who are not part of the relationship. Moreover, the duty of loyalty may become skewed. For example, an employer has to be concerned if a manager is scheduling business travel because it’s needed or because it’s a chance for a lovers’ getaway on the company’s dime.”

Barbara Pachter, a business etiquette consultant, communications expert and author of The Essentials of Business Etiquette: How to Greet, Eat, and Tweet Your Way to Success, emphasizes the importance of manifesting personal policies—especially when a relationship involves two colleagues with different positions within the company. “You shouldn’t show favoritism to your partner,” she advises. “Don’t have your partner be the recipient of more perks than the other people and you need to hold your partner accountable, just like you hold everyone else accountable.”

While some companies choose to ban interoffice relationships completely, Gersh advises that could do more harm than good. “That type of policy may lead to efforts to conceal a relationship such that safeguards that would otherwise offer some kind of protections are not put into place,” he explains, adding, “Clear communications and disclosure can help set a strong set of ground rules.”

Recent studies show that when handled properly by both the employer and employees, a workplace relationship can actually help boost productivity and make the employees overall more engaged in their day-to-day tasks.

Mount Laurel-based certified trauma and relationship/marriage specialist, Paula Susan, echoes Gersh’s sentiments, adding an open communication with the company can help in coping with the boundaries in the workplace. “That kind of really good communication with your boss so that you know what your boss’ boundaries and expectations are gives you a little freedom of how to behave.”

“You need to think about it before you start,” advises Pachter. “The heart wants what the heart wants, [but] if it does go sour, be an adult. [If it] didn’t work out, don’t let it ruin your career. ... You need to look at it from a career standpoint. If that’s what you think is going to happen, if the love of your life is going to break up with you, then don’t start dating.

“It’s easy to [start dating] because a lot of people meet their partners, spouses, boyfriend or girlfriends at work because you spend a lot of time there,” she adds. “You have to be willing to realize that if the relationship goes sour, you will continue to see that person and that can be really difficult for some people.”

Susan, who has been in practice for 34 years, explains the anatomy behind finding love at the office and it starts with seeing that person operate under all facets of emotions in a natural environment as opposed to a date. “[You] get to see them every day and you get to see the person in action, how responsible are they, how committed to their work [and] what are their ethics.”

The downside, of course, is a couple could have the tendency to solely talk about work and not focus on their relationship outside the office. One way a couple can leave work at the office is what Susan suggests: Practice a good dialogue devoid of work—whether that be about their bosses, students or patients—and form an intimate understanding of one another.

“Getting into the heart of the other person is much deeper than just talking about your work. It’s really about getting to know your partner intimately. What makes them tick, where did they come from, what values do they have, can you trust those values or do they match yours? That kind of conversation really should take place before, but even when you’re married or you’re living in a relationship,” Susan explains. “That kind of communication just bonds you.” n

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 1 (April, 2016).

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Author: Josephine Cusumano

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