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How to foster belonging when coming out at work is not just one moment — it's several

Jeff Bharkhda Deals Partner, PwC US June 10, 2021

Growing up in small-town America

The image of small-town America can tend to stick in our minds as a homogeneous place where everyone knows one another by name. It’s in a town like that, seven miles north of Scranton, Pennsylvania, where I grew up. But my family was different, and so was I. My mother is the descendant of Italian and Irish immigrants who settled into their respective “sections” of town, and my father is one of the many Indian refugees who lived in Uganda before the expulsion of the country’s Asian population in the 70’s. Our family is multicultural and filled with love — and I am gay. I knew I might not be accepted as gay in my small town, so I kept that part of my identity close to the vest for several years. Like most kids, and especially being different in both race and sexuality (although undisclosed), I was teased a lot as a kid. Fortunately, when I experienced such behavior, my mother would tell me that I was destined for more than our small town. She was right.

Coming out at work

I accepted my first role out of college from the PwC office in Philadelphia. The city revealed a world that I didn’t know existed. The multi-level skyscrapers and glass elevators; it was all exciting. At the same time, I realized quickly that corporate America could be conservative. Having already suppressed my coming out, my decision was reinforced by my personal motto, ‘I can’t come out at work — at an accounting firm.’ Throughout that time, not living my truth created a barrier to truly being my best self, and, eventually, I came out to my mentor at work. Without missing a beat, he was supportive and helped create room for me to be myself. I was finally living out loud at the age of 25 in the city of Brotherly Love. My mentor also understood that I would share that part of myself with others on my own terms — I never had to ask him not to share that information. After seven years in Philadelphia, I moved across the pond to work at PwC London. It was there that I came out for a second time. And upon my return to the US, I was determined to be my whole self everyday at work. My return was met with some welcome changes. One was the creation of a Partner Advisory Board to elevate LGBTQ+ employees. For the first time in my career, I had multiple LGBTQ+ leaders visible to me at work. The unwavering support, representation, and belonging I experienced changed how I viewed my career path, and influenced me to be an advocate.

Building a culture of belonging

The workplace can be the hardest place to come out because you won’t always know who will be supportive. And, as in my experience, coming out at work can often be more than one moment. I am happy to have had the support of my colleagues and the firm for nearly 20 years and still have their support to bring my authentic self to work each day. Now, I am the national partner champion for Shine, PwC’s National LGBTQ+ Inclusion Network, to help do the same for many others. Inclusion networks, also known as employee resource groups, can help build a work culture that supports colleagues in celebrating their true selves, and we open our Inclusion Networks to all in the firm.

In addition to helping to foster a culture of belonging and community at PwC, Shine offers a tailored professional development program for our members.The program not only contributes to individual advancement, but also helps increase representation at each level of our organization. That representation helps reinforce that our LGBTQ+ colleagues are a valued part of our community.

Shine members also come together to advise on new employee benefits that meet the diverse needs of our people. After listening to a member share about a difficult loss after a costly surrogacy journey, we successfully encouraged PwC leadership and the benefits team to expand the firm’s surrogacy benefit. By sharing their story, this individual helped our LGBTQ+ community and many other communities at the firm in starting a family. And just this month, PwC announced the expansion of gender-affirming healthcare benefits for the transgender community. These enhanced benefits underscore that personal and family journeys and milestones in all forms are supported here.

Companies can also extend inclusion outside of their four walls. Shine holds collaborative relationships with GLAADHRC and Trevor’s Project, which has cultivated our value of care and allowed us to drive positive impact in LGBTQ+ communities across the US.

Inclusion Networks can play a critical role in listening to and amplifying the needs of employees, while helping to foster a culture of belonging. Our LGBTQ+ colleagues should feel that they have support in the manner they need — whether coming out at work is one moment or several. In reality, coming out at work, as in life, is a lifelong journey — one that is guided by those who offer advocacy and support.