As anyone in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community can attest, the decision to come out is a very personal one that can be quite stressful. Coming out is often a courageous act because of the uncertainty and risks involved with how family, friends or colleagues may react.
When it comes to coming out at work, there are big questions to consider. Will it change my relationships with my boss or my co-workers? Will it affect my career opportunities? What happens if or when I run into bigotry, intolerance and ignorance?
As a gay man, and long-time Toronto-Dominion Bank employee, I can tell you that coming out in the workplace has changed my life and my career for the better, but it hasn't always felt that way. It's a relevant topic as Oct. 11 marks the 25th anniversary of National Coming Out Day.
In the early days of my career, I worked in a branch and volunteered behind the scenes to help create a pride network at TD. It was satisfying work and helped me build a network of supportive colleagues, but I still wasn't "out of the closet," except to people in the network. Back at my desk, I was still maintaining a persona and not talking about what I did on the weekend. I was in control, but also living a lie.
Back then, there were no signals from my employer that coming out was okay. There weren't any signals against it, either, but in the workplace, it's often easier to avoid a conversation than to start it – especially about something so personal.
Ironically, my decision to come out was made by someone else who accidentally "outed" me in an e-mail that went to my boss.
The next time I spoke with my boss, we had a conversation about it. Her reaction was positive and supportive. What a relief. I could exhale. And I could finally be myself. I didn't start the conversation, but I was relieved that it had finally taken place – and it has made all the difference.
That was over a decade ago. Today, I am a senior manager of corporate diversity at TD, with a focus on LGBT inclusion. I often tell people that I used to have a "day job" and a "gay job" – and now my "gay job" has become my "day job."
What I realized in the coming out process at work is that it's not just about me. Coming out allowed me to be myself, but it also shows other colleagues, especially ones who are unsure about coming out or who may be at the beginning of their careers, that it's okay. In fact, TD encourages all its employees to bring their whole selves to work.
Being a unique and inclusive workplace is a journey rather than a destination. I would say we have made great strides and TD has a well-earned reputation for supporting the LGBT community at the employee, customer and community level.
Given how much time we spend at our jobs and forging our careers, it's important that people feel valued, respected and supported.
We need role models and people with shared experiences to encourage and inspire us, of course, but we also need allies – people who are not necessarily part of the LGBT community, but who are crucial to creating a comfortable and welcoming environment where the conversation can begin.
Ron Puccini is senior manager of diversity at Toronto-Dominion Bank and a board member of Pride at Work Canada.