Outed in Outer Banks
I work remotely for a large, multinational corporation. I have never met most of my colleagues in person, and I don’t really plan to. Last week, I was on vacation with my husband and our children, and we bumped into a guy I know from sales while we were at the beach. In my personal life, I’m a proud gay man, but I don’t broadcast that at work. My manager and HR are the only people who know what my family looks like. What should I do?
Outed in Outer Banks
I’m sorry this happened to you. It’s so hard when we can’t control what’s revealed about our personal lives, especially in a work scenario. We want to protect our families, so having them exposed in a social climate that isn’t always friendly can be scary. I totally understand your concern and choice to be selective about this information.
Now that this has happened, how do you move forward? First, take comfort in your awesome family. There’s no great way to be outed, but among the options for candid moments to have captured in life, a joyous event with the people you love most probably ranks pretty high. Next, you need to decide if you want to leave the cat out of the bag or wrangle it back in there. If it feels like a relief, then consider letting it be. Chances are, the guy is not about to send a DG-All email about your sexuality. This could be the occasion to claim one corner of work where you can be your whole self.
If that doesn’t sit well with you, do not let this chance meeting force you into disclosing information you don’t want to share to people you don’t want to share it with. How close are you to this sales guy? Do you have any sense of what his attitudes are toward the LGBQT+ community? Either way, if you want to keep things under wraps, you’re probably going to want to reach out to him quickly to let him know that you aren’t comfortable with him sharing any details about your family around the (virtual) office.
You mentioned that your HR team knows about your family makeup. Since that’s the case, you can add a layer of protection for yourself by CC’ing them in an email asking him to keep the information private. That may sound super awkward and formal, but it doesn’t have to be. For example, you can say something along the following lines:
It was fun running into you last week. I hope the rest of your vacation was great! I’m reaching out to let you know that I prefer not to share details about my personal life at work. If it comes up, can you please refrain from mentioning my family to anyone? I copied Kiera to make sure I followed proper protocol, so she can give either of us guidance on the subject if necessary. Thanks very much!
Lastly, what’s the greater environment like at your organization? If it’s not welcoming to who you are, whether you are out or not, it’s absolutely time to consider another job. I know, finding a new role is far easier said than done, but I guarantee you it isn’t harder than living every day in a situation that is harmful to your sense of self. When your workplace is aligned with your values, you can achieve so much more than you ever will fighting against a tide.
If your company is doing the work, or trying to do the work, how can you help? You don’t need to out yourself further to be a part of the solution. Standing up for those who aren’t elevated in your department is a great way to start flexing your allyship muscles. Call out bias when you see it, and be as vocal as you’re comfortable being. No one has to know where you stand individually to be moved by your demonstration of values and leadership. You can be a part of the supportive, positive culture you want to build in your workplace. Whether you’re in or out of the group in question, it’s incumbent on all of us to fight for fairness, safety, and equity.