Come Out at Work: With a Triple-Whammy

A dear friend and colleague, “Sandy,” recently accepted the role of manager of recruiting at a preeminent cultural institution in New York City. Before starting her official first day, her colleagues-to-be took her out to lunch to welcome her into the fold.

Which is where trouble struck.

During the meal, Sandy’s coworkers noticed she wasn’t eating much at all. She sensed them taking notice, and felt compelled to speak up. “I’m gluten-free,” she announced, and related her solidarity with her daughter who lives with celiac disease, and manages the condition with the whole family’s help.

Did you see that? She came out at work as a mother just then, too. Her revelations didn’t stop there.

Since this is in New York, the discussion soon turned to Broadway theater. “I love Stephen Sondheim,” she professed.  “He’s dark,” a teammate responded about the American lyricist’s themes, getting a grasp on Sandy’s taste in entertainment.

A couple of days later, Sandy confided to us, “I revealed too much!” She felt exposed, and was unsure about the implications of what she disclosed to her lunch companions.  She acknowledged that talking about her dietary restrictions was practical, since of course she plans to eat regularly at work. And being a mom who works is nothing extraordinary. But piling on to the mix her affections for Stephen Sondheim, she concluded, was probably too much for her new compatriots to bear.

Which got us thinking about the nature of coming out at work.

There’s always gravity involved in coming out to your workmates. Sometimes the weight of coming forth at work as an alcoholic, for example, is heavier for the individual coming out than it is for his colleagues. And the weight of coming out at work as HIV+, for example, may be heavier for coworkers than it is for the individual coming out.

So we’re getting a clearer picture of Sandy here.  Her office mates most likely didn’t give a second thought to her taste in Broadway musicals. Yet her devotion to Sondheim is so profound, she experienced something akin to opening the floodgates to her soul. A significant contrast of perspectives, no?

As you think about divulging different parts of your self at work, consider the potential effects on your relationships. Is it possible they will see this as just another part of you, with no further ceremony? Yes, your feelings are paramount to generating the energy to come out. Still, sometimes it’s just not that serious.

Just as in Mr. Sondheim’s work, what a relief to see the lightness in the story.

Shout-out to Sandy on her fabulous new role!

Stencil of Stephen Sondheim via

Update 5/31/11, directly from Sandy: My supervisor has taken for at least the moment, a genuine interest in both my and my daughter’s gluten-free situations, and her knowing about it has made one or two lunches easier (when I found I had to be picky or question the waiter in her presence). I’m glad she knows, because it will be an integral part of the way I handle my work life. But no one else has asked me out to lunch…and a few discussions of yummy-looking food trucks (which hang outside our office) have been cut short when it became clear I wouldn’t be able to act on a recommendation. Not sure if this is just normal beginning-of-work jitters, or if I have changed a dynamic by discussing this part of my life too early.

In truth, no one has questioned me on Sondheim, it hasn’t come up again. I agree with Robert’s post that I shouldn’t go blasting show tunes from my cubicle, it’s not that kind of environment. No music coming from any cubicles. But I did bring in a drawing of Sondheim and hung it, somewhat obstructed from view, in my office. I think it will make its way to full view soon enough. 🙂


  1. Robert

    I think there’s something to be said for one’s role at work being a little like a courtship, especially when new. I mean, it is easy for most of us to recognize the similarities between trying to land a new position and a courtship, each side trying to impress the other and feel out where they stand, working toward a coupling, but we tend to think that the similarities stop when one is hired.

    Perhaps that’s not altogether so. In fact, landing a new role, in many ways, is when the courtship actually begins. Networking and interviews can instead be perceived as the equivalent of meeting someone for the first time, while starting the work can be viewed as the point in time when you’d asked them out on a date and they’d agreed. You are two parties now together in a newer, almost experimental relationship. This is when byplay and interests are peaked, everyone excited to see where this newness might go.

    Pre-internet, I had once been hesitantly wrangled into talking to a friend of a friend over the phone. As it happened, that party was frequently visiting my friend and thereafter I could usually bargain on one phone call having to be spread over both listeners. We hit it off somewhat and began connecting via phone on the regular. Many months later, I had the opportunity to meet this person whose voice and personality I thought I’d come to know so well. We’d set up an official date. It was very exciting, seeing her for the first time, awkwardly excusing ourselves from the gaggle of in-common friends who’d seemed to be waiting for that moment just as much. Off we went to the big city and our big date.

    I don’t know if it was the slight feeling of having known each other for a while or the nervousness that can wreck a good impression, but for the entire trip, the entire date, a several-hours-long attempt, all my new companion could talk about was how she wanted to get married, how she’d always pictured getting married, how many kids she’d like, and whether or not I thought it forward of her to presume that this one date could lead to a fantastic destiny laid out for us both as if kismet.

    Whoa! I’ve never quite acted the stereotypical American male, frightened of commitment or pretending never to have thought of such things myself, but come on. First date? How about “Did you like the show?” or “Tell me more about your work?” I would have even settled for a little metacognitive “How do YOU think this date is going?” She didn’t as much scare me away as she did “come out” all over the conversation.

    Yours is one of my favorite blogs as it so often speaks and educates on the issue of revealing one’s whole self, not just at work, but in life. This subject is important, and rarely spoken of with so much insight and candor elsewhere. So, I truly hope not to undermine this theme by positing the possibility that there might be more of a pacing or blurting issue than a content issue when one reveals otherwise personal information. Your blog empowers people with the knowledge that they fully control the whens, wheres, and hows of coming out. To suggest that slowing this might be more appropriate than “seizing the moment” might also accidentally suggest that a person refrain from fully exercising that power. It’s a tricky component to add to the empowerment balance without sounding hypocritical.

    To use my date experience as an analogy for “Sandy’s” lunch, while “Sandy’s” feelings are important, the supposed mistake that she perceives of herself might be less WHAT she said or HOW MUCH she said, and more a question of SPEED. It’s likely that if I and my date had further connected, I would have, over time, come to know those very same details about her and even cherished them. “Sandy’s” employers likely would have come to know she was a mother, and gluten-free, and a Sondheim enthusiast in due time and with positive responses all. While I completely agree with Mr. Chahinian that Sandy’s supposed gaffe is “just not that serious,” I do think we have to acknowledge that what Sandy seems to fear is a realistic possibility for others, however remote. There just might be a reader out there who is so comfortable with a large and immediate outpouring to near strangers that coming out could self-sabotage a work relationship.

    Yes I think the revelation takes precedent over the risks. The point of empowerment is to overcome the fear of those risks, proudly. It is to seek further acceptance by further accepting yourself and all the marvelous facets you have to offer those around you. However, just as never revealing your whole self takes on serious implications, so too does its extreme opposite, revealing an avalanche of the building blocks that are your life in one gush. I’d never advocate living lies or keeping secrets for fear of losing your livelihood. Doing so can be far more detrimental than a little unemployment. Yet at least considering a listener’s readiness to hear all that you have to share, as far as that can be ascertained, might not exactly infringe upon your empowerment. I think you can gain power and have a strategy. A speaker and a listener are sometimes like two cogs in a machine, and every so often they repeatedly connect at a sweet spot where performance outpaces their norm. Empowering yourself to come out at all can be a major accomplishment. Hitting that sweet spot that gets the most out of your reveal is more power still, an additional accomplishment for the taking. Why not grab both?

    “Sandy’s” mere three details, as personal as they are to her, seem like commonplace conversations nonetheless. I hope she’s able to easily roll onward from her concern, if even through the sage advice of Whole Wide Work. Congratulations on the new job “Sandy!” Still, I’d enter a very minor caution to others that the lesson we learn from her, the “everything’s truly going to be okay” lesson, is not necessarily a license to have listeners “take everything now or leave it.” Some folks are never ready to listen and they should not stop you from being you. But for all others, others who might be able to genuinely accept the fuller you and offer all different levels of comfort and support, well twelve straight big band choruses of “All of Me” in the cubicle bay might be a tad much to process.

    Be fearless. It’s my wish for every person. Challenge thinking. Quash nay-saying. Change minds. But don’t needlessly submarine new connections with the people who’d be your expanded support system in all those endeavors. Isn’t it more fun to be you if you don’t have to do it alone?

  2. Haig Chahinian

    @Robert, you collaborate with me so insightfully on this blog, and I appreciate your perspective so much. The courtship analogy feels spot-on, thanks for shedding light on it, and what I’m truly touched by is the empathy you demonstrate for Sandy. I didn’t mean to gloss over her emotional experience, and I’m grateful that you stayed with it in sharing your thoughts. You make Whole Wide Work a better place!

  3. Pingback: 18 Ways You Can Come Out at Work Today | Whole Wide Work
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