Coming out at work can be a mixed experience, as can dealing with colleagues and clients afterwards. In this panel, moderator Jim Love, chief information officer and chief content officer at IT World Canada, spoke with panellists about their experiences and asked them what people have done to help them in their journey.
Sachin Aggarwal, chief executive officer at Think Research, said that he started in law as an out man, so he hasn’t had any milestones in his coming out journey. Yet.
“Now, as a CEO of a public company, I’ve got milestones coming up with my partner… being engaged now, having a child on the way,” he said. “Doing that as a gay couple in the corporate community, that’s going to be exciting.”
Zöe Knox, vice-president of engineering at OpenNMS Group said she’s been lucky as well. When she came out, her work colleagues threw a party for her.
“People generally have been really accepting and open, which I think is really a Canadian strength,” she said. “Another big milestone that I like to honour is when I got my first job as an openly queer woman, and subsequently the promotion to VP.”
Jose Nacif-Drah, vice-president of global information technology at Centerra Gold, started his career in Argentina, which he said is quite open. He said he was “not not out, but not out either”. When he decided to move to North America, he also decided to be openly gay.
“I decided to just be very straightforward and talk as open as possible and be like, ‘Hey, I can’t start next week, because I’m getting married, and my husband and I …’ and be as natural and as open as possible,” he said. “I wanted to make sure that I was coming into a company that was completely accepting.”
Rachel Clark, senior information security specialist, security analytics at TD Bank Group, wasn’t as fortunate as her fellow panellists. She came out while between jobs after a 20-year career that included C-suite roles in technology and assumed people would just accept her.
“What happened was I came out and I wasn’t accepted,” she said. “And I spent an 18-month period of having no income at all, and so kind of went through this whole stage of losing everything and having to start my career over again. It’s been difficult to navigate, starting from the beginning and working through that again. But all those skills I had, I still had all of those skills. Re-building a career is difficult for some trans people.”
But, she added, ” I really want to celebrate what’s happening to Zöe.”
Love asked the panel what advice they’d give to people who plan to or are in the process of coming out.
“Know your value,” Knox said. “Remember that you are the same person who did all these great things in the past. And people will definitely be surprised when you come out to them, really uncomfortable, because they’re shifting a lot of unconscious assumptions that they’ve made about you over the years. And they are going to have to kind of reframe that stuff in their own mind. But give it time, keep being awesome. And I think most people generally get over it and will be accepting and supportive.”
Aggarwal agreed. “People have to go through their own journey,” he said. “So number one, make sure you take care of your own mental health. Do it at a time when you’re ready to do it, try to have friends or allies outside of the workplace that you can confide in, that you can speak to about the process. And number three, then try to see if you can find some allies in the workplace, some folks that you’re comfortable with, that will be accepting.”
Nacif-Drah added that being true to oneself is crucial.
“It’s important to be true to yourself and respect that and just go into places where you’re adding value as a whole, not as a half,” he said. “Leaving part of who you are at home doesn’t work ultimately. But I know that it’s easier said than done sometimes.”
Love pointed out that even people who want to be allies and friends stumble, and wondered what advice panellists would offer to people who want to be supportive.
“I think in terms of the trans community, it’s really important for people to know that they really have to do the work,” Clark said. “Part of that is doing some research into what trans experiences are like and then when you come to me with this knowledge, and having a basic understanding of the trans community, then I’m happy to sit down and tell you in other ways that you can be an ally to me. It starts with support and listening.”
Aggarwal said colleagues who come out at work have to go through that process “again and again.”
“Your now out work colleagues have to continually keep coming out every time they have to interact with a banker or supplier or at a social occasion, I’ll get asked, am I married, what’s her name and so on and so forth,” he noted. “A piece of advice is to recognize and support us through that, laughing with us every time we have to do it, by being supportive every time we have to do it, and just recognizing that it doesn’t stop for us.”
Nacif-Drah recalled going to lunch with a group from a large software company and being asked why he’d decided to move to North America. He began, “my husband and I,” and one of the salesmen said “don’t you mean your wife?”
“Of course, I’m Argentinian. I speak Spanish as my first language, but I think I can follow a pretty good conversation in English,” he laughed. “And so I called him out on it. I was like, ‘Well, I mean, husband,’ and it resonated so much with this company that ultimately they even brought it into their global sales speech to talk about what happened – not to do it again, do not correct your customer.”
Diversity should be the foundation of the workplace, Aggarwal said, part of everything beginning with the hiring strategy. Its importance must be clear to everyone in the organization.
TD was one of the first organizations to provide extended medical benefits for trans people, Clark noted. She feels incredibly supported by the company’s focus on the trans community and thinks that it’s important that organizations focus on those with the biggest need.
“I really believe that that’s what any diversity initiative should do,” she said. “The number of trans people is irrelevant to doing what’s right and doing what’s really good for the community.”
Nacif-Drah agreed. “It’s important to understand that first is doing what is right,” he said. “But at the same time, for companies, it’s really affecting the bottom line. I think diversity, and not just from an LGBTQ, it’s also about women, age, race, First Nations and everything else is really bringing diversity of thought, and so the way that you tackle issues within the organization, ultimately. It’s even good business to be diverse. “
Culture comes from the top, Knox added. She thinks it’s important to set the expectation that diversity and inclusion are foundations of the company, and cited inclusive language as one factor.
“It’s not just talking the talk when you go out and celebrate Pride Month and put up rainbow flags around the company, but really making those fundamental changes to things like forms that don’t just say M or F,” she said. “When you end meetings, you’re not just saying ‘thank you ladies and gentlemen’. Stuff like that. There are all these very small things – asking people’s pronouns before you assume. It’s really that really fundamental – small stuff, everyday stuff that I think makes an environment really inclusive.”